Murray-Sturzo, when the state serves society

Religious freedom is at the center of a major European and global debate, and one finds it natural to look back to that great systematization which culminated in Vatican II’s Dignatatis Humanae. Perhaps not everyone knows that this declaration is largely attributable to the American Jesuit J.C. Murray. One aspect that distinguishes Murray’s contribution to the Council and to the definition of the concepts of "freedom of conscience" and "religious freedom" concerns the use of the concept of "common good" in the plural, and the consequent reduction of the state to the administrator of public order.

Murray tells us that the pursuit of the common good is an activity inherent in society as a whole and all its institutions, according to the principles of subsidiarity and justice. In short, the concept of "common good" should be distinguished from that of "public order", as a result of the distinction between "state" and "society." As held by American philosopher Russell Hittinger, Murray, who was influenced by Italian political sociologist Luigi Sturzo and, in particular, by the work Church and State (already translated in English in 1939), has shown why the "Church-State" dispute was irreducible to the monistic field. That is, it cannot be reduced to the subordination of society to a single, undifferentiated citizenship, experienced by the state’s authority and presence in every sphere.

A reading of Murray’s and Sturzo’s work brings out a subsidiary and polyarchycal socio-political paradigm, a paradigm irreconcilable with the statist or corporatist solution and that, by contrast, postulates the non-hierarchical plurality of institutions and social powers, irreducible to the notion of government and open to that of governance – institutions created by men for other men, and thus, contingent, historically determined and independent. To quote the words of the Italian sociologist Luca Diotallevi: "this thus undermines any form of a clerical, integrist or fundamentalist project." As written by the Italian theologian Giuseppe Colombo : "we start from evangelization to ‘understand’ - but not to deduce - political action", since that evangelization goes beyond the boundaries of politics, just asthe common good does.

Again, we cannot but call to witness Murray, who, in an exceptional convergence with Sturzo’s position, comes to define the state "an order within society: the order of public law and policy administration". Rather than viewing the State as a hierarchically higher entity, he insists that the task of civil authorities would be to perform some limited functions for the benefit of society. Ultimately, says Murray, “‘society’ means an area of freedom [...], while ‘State’ means the area in which the civil authorities can legally exercise their coercive powers. To deny this distinction means accepting the concept of totalitarian government.”

The lesson from intellectuals like Sturzo and Murray allows us to awaken, or to further arouse, interest in the relationship between religion and economic and political institutions, in the light of the Council’s paradigm, as well as to understand in an even deeper way Pope Francis’ words, when, in his recent encyclical Lumen fidei, he shows how the light of faith does not found the city of God on earth, but, rather, it offers a Christian perspective on the institutions that men will be able to build for themselves and for other people, in a ceaseless work of reform.

 Flavio Felice is Adjunct Fellow American Enterprise Institute and President of Tocqueville-Acton Centre Studies

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