3.3.6 John Courtney Murray: government’s role as ‘public order’

Back to 3.3.5

Unit 3 Contents



The theme of this unit has been justice.  This is because, as Benedict XVI put it, justice is “both the aim and the intrinsic criterion” of all that holders of political power should do (Deus Caritas Est, #28, quoted on 3.1.2).

At the same time, justice is a virtue of persons, a quality of character – and, as we noted previously, there will never be a just society simply through what government does (1.3.1).  A just society depends on its members being just.

But in this unit the focus is on the justice that governments must do.  Our study of CST on the role of political authority has revealed that this is threefold – as summarized on 3.3.4 and also at the start of the last screen.

Yet government’s role has an end beyond itself, namely, the common good.  What those in political power should do can contribute hugely to the common good, but the common good goes beyond it.  Our study of the meaning of the common good in Unit 1 showed this (1.3.2).

On this screen we look at how justice and the common good are related.  This is important, as we near the end of Unit 3, in order to see the big picture produced by what we have been studying.

One of the greatest contributors to the development of Catholic social thought during the twentieth century was John Courtney Murray SJ.  He can help us here.

Murray lived from 1904 to 1967 and is probably the most influential Catholic theologian from the United States there has been to date.  In 1960 he became famous in the USA, at the time of John F. Kennedy’s election to the Presidency.  Murray was portrayed in the media, favourably in general, as the Catholic thinker, the eminence grise, behind Kennedy.  In December 1960, Murray made the cover of the prominent weekly magazine Time (which you can see here).

Murray is especially well known in the Catholic Church for his immense contribution to the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’.  His work was influential especially on the issue of religious freedom.  He had as large a role as anyone in shaping Dignitatis Humanae (1965), the Vatican II document which affirmed that there is a human right to religious freedom (see 3.3.2).

But Murray’s focus on this was only a part of wider work on how the state’s role relates both to the institutional Church and to the common good.

The crucial point for what we’re looking at here is this:  Murray used the term ‘public order’ to label the limited role that government has in relation to the common good.

While Murray didn’t describe the justice that governments must do in exactly the way summarized above, it is likely he would recognize what is in that summary.  (We may say this on the basis that everything there was part of CST by the mid-1960s.)

In Murray’s language, if government actually does that, it brings about the ‘public order’ that is necessary for common good.

You are now asked to do a reading from Thompson’s book which says more about Murray.  He is someone students of CST should know about.  The reading refers to his use of the term ‘public order’ on p. 43.


Reading (6pp)

Thompson, Introducing Catholic Social Thought, pp 41-46


There is a huge secondary literature about Murray and, as Thompson says (p. 46), his thought has been subject to critique.  This is not least in relation to the sharp distinction Thompson refers to between ‘public philosophy’ on one hand and theology on the other.  The way Murray made this distinction amounted to an argument that Catholic teaching about society can be presented in a way that is sufficient to inform public debate even if it doesn’t draw on what is distinctive in the Christian religion.  Many do not now find Murray’s position on this convincing.1. (We shall consider this argument later in the module.)

But, leaving that aside here, the point Murray makes by referring to ‘public order’ is enduringly important.  Its significance comes from the fact that, before his work and despite the principle of subsidiarity, Catholic political thought had not articulated clearly a distinction between the specific role of government and the common good.

Rather, going right back to Aquinas, the primary point made when these terms were used was that government is responsible for the common good. This was generally interpreted to mean that, whatever the common good requires, it is the state’s job to bring it about.  This tended, in turn, to generate an assumption that, so long as the objective is the common good, authoritarian government can be acceptable.  Indeed some might see this as preferable, because it means that society can be directed more effectively towards the common good.

Murray’s contribution was hugely significant in recasting Catholic teaching on this.  His point was: the common good is immensely more than government can bring about; all government can do is to establish a ‘public order’ that is the prerequisite of the common good.  This public order is one in which people’s freedom, not least religious freedom, has to be respected – so it is inherently anti-authoritarian.

Putting this in another way, Murray’s concept of public order can help us to see that the relationship between government and the common good is indirect.  The state cannot directly bring about the common good, simply because this is immeasurably more than what state action alone can produce.  In Thompson’s words, “it includes all the social goods – spiritual, moral, material – pursued by humanity” (p. 43).

Rather, the state’s role is to establish and maintain the ‘public order’ that has to be in place if people in all parts of society are going to have the possibility of doing the myriad things needed to generate the common good.  Hence the state’s role is directly about ‘public order’, and only indirectly about the common good.

When studying ‘the common good’ in Unit 1, we saw that this term has been used in two different senses in modern CST.



In Unit 2, I introduced these two senses by calling them a ‘complication’ in what CST says about the common good.

Spend a few minutes, making notes as necessary, trying to recall what these two senses are.

The ‘response’ below simply opens screen 1.3.3, the first part of which explains them.



To return to this page, simply close the window which this link opens.


As that screen in Unit 1 makes clear, the first sense of the common good was expressed in a widely quoted definition in Gaudium et Spes (1965).  This describes the common good as,

the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily (#26).

This refers to a set of ‘social conditions’ that has to be in place if something else is to be possible, something beyond it, namely, the fulfilment of social groups and individual persons.  In other words, this definition presents the common good as a means that makes a greater end possible.

But in the second sense of the common good, it is not such a means, but is the end itself.  This is as expressed in a quotation you have read in 1.3.3: “The goal of society is… the historically attainable common good” (Compendium, #168).

Or, as the International Theological Commission put it, “the end of society is to promote, consolidate and develop its common good”.  This includes the “good of all and of each one in particular”, and in this sense “it expresses the communal dimension of the human good”.2



The last few paragraphs are really revision of what was in the discussion of the common good in Unit 1.

But how do you think they relate to John Courtney Murray’s distinction between ‘public order’ and the common good?


We can sum up the contrast between the two meanings in this way: the common good in the first sense is a set of ‘social conditions’ that are necessary for attaining the common good in the second sense.

This contrast corresponds closely to Murray’s distinction between ‘public order’ and the common good.

Murray’s concept of ‘public order’ can help us, therefore, to avoid the confusion into which the two different senses of ‘the common good’ in CST documents can lead.

To conclude, it will be helpful to sum up again.

According to CST, interpreted with the assistance of John Courtney Murray’s work, this is the role of government:

(i)         recognition and safeguarding of civil society bodies, plus

(ii)        upholding of human rights, plus

(iii)       civic direction.

Together these equal ‘public order’ and “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment… more easily” (Gaudium et Spes, 26).3

The state’s job, then, is to establish the public order that is the prerequisite for the possibility of the common good, in the full sense of this.

But the common good goes far beyond the public order.  It is the good of the whole society, in which the fulfilment of each member is found.  It therefore “includes all the social goods – spiritual, moral, material – pursued by humanity” (as Thompson puts it).

A few years after the Second Vatican Council, during which such an understanding of government’s role crystallized, Pope Paul VI expressed that contrast in a clear way:

Political power . . . must have as its aim the achievement of the common good. While respecting the legitimate liberties of individuals, families and subsidiary groups, it acts in such a way as to create, effectively and for the well-being of all, the conditions required for attaining humanity’s true and complete good.  (Octogesima Adveniens [1971], #46).

In much of the rest of Module B, we shall be exploring what this means in practice.




Module B outline

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  1. Angela C. Carmella makes this point in her authoritative introduction, ‘John Courtney Murray SJ (1904-1967): Commentary’, in John Witte Jr and Frank S. Alexander (eds), The Teachings of Modern Roman Catholicism on Law, Politics and Human Nature (Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 181-211, at p. 206. 

  2. International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law (Vatican, 2009), #85 

  3. Whether ‘public order’ is in fact the best label for what Murray was referring to can be debated.  Elsewhere I suggest that this understanding of the role of government envisages a ‘social infrastructure’ that is necessary for the possibility of the common good.  ‘Infrastructure’ communicates the idea that X needs to be in place if Y is to be possible.  See N. Townsend, ‘Government and Social Infrastructure’, in God and Government, eds J. Chaplin and N. Spencer (SPCK, 2009), pp. 108-133.