John Courtney Murray and Reinhold Niebuhr: Natural Law and Christian Realism

Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Vol. 3, 2006

U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05-20

21 Pages Posted: 15 Nov 2005

See all articles by Thomas C. Berg

Thomas C. Berg

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law


During the two decades after World War II, two Christian theologians of public life appeared on the cover of Time magazine: Reinhold Niebuhr in 1948 and John Courtney Murray in 1960. As their appearances suggest, during this time Murray the Catholic and Niebuhr the Protestant were America's most prominent Christian theologians concerning the relationship between religion, morality, and politics. Niebuhr inspired not only two generations of Christian clergy and activists, but also numerous secular statesmen and thinkers who admired his hard-nosed policy and cultural analyses, and some of whom dubbed themselves "Atheists for Niebuhr." Murray, of course, set forth the most prominent account of how faithful Catholics could affirm the American political system and laid the intellectual groundwork for the Church to embrace equal religious freedom as a moral ideal at Vatican II.

Murray and Niebuhr each engaged in polemics directed at the other's writings or school of thought. Niebuhr criticized the Catholic natural-law tradition for rigidity and for elevating contingent features of pre-modern societies into the supposedly universal standards of human reason. Murray, in defending the universal propositions of natural law, blasted Niebuhr's Christian realism as a theory that sees things as so complicated that moral judgment becomes practically impossible.

The thesis of this paper, though, is that Murray and Niebuhr, natural law and Christian realism, are not as far apart as they seemed, for the reasons following. (Indeed, the philosophically deepest aspects of the American founding reflect elements both of natural-law reasoning (as Murray emphasized) and realist concerns to structure institutions so as to counter the inevitable tendencies to self-aggrandizement (as Niebuhr emphasized).)

First, Niebuhr was more of a natural-law theorist than he admitted. Although Christian realism emphasizes how moral-political assertions are typically tainted by partiality and self-aggrandizement, Niebuhr himself set forth a universal theory about the perennial dynamics of human nature, and he affirmed the universal validity of certain moral-political concepts sich as equality. Second, although Niebuhr criticized natural-law theory for elevating historically contingent propositions to universal status, recent natural-law approaches have given much greater attention to historical contingencies and differences in the application of general principles. I show how Murray exhibited this historical consciousness and often relied on arguments of prudence and pragmatics that a Christian realist should appreciate. Third, although Niebuhr's appreciation for ambiguity and tension made him reluctant to rely on absolute rules in political matters, later Christian realists affirmed the need for rules precisely to limit the human propensities for self-aggrandizement.

Natural law and Christian realism both assert that moral-political principles and institutions should rest on assessments of human nature and what will promote human flourishing in the light of that nature. Both recognize real, objectively valid moral-political principles - grounded ultimately in God the creator - but both can recognize also that these universal principles tend to be general in nature and that applying them to concrete contexts will produce varying specific rules. There remain many differences between natural-law and Christian-realist approaches, but often the differences complement each other, so that a full vision of Christian political ethics can benefit from both approaches. A combination of natural law and Christian realism suggests that a moral-political principle or institution is most solid when its justification rests on both the possibilities of human nature and on its negative tendencies. For example, the most powerful case for democracy, in Niebuhr's words, is that man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, and man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

I close the paper with a brief discussion of why the common project that Murray and Niebuhr shared remains of value in America today. Among other things, both Murray and Niebuhr articulated their arguments in terms that others could access and evaluate without having already adopted the premises of the Christian faith. Although I do not believe there is any general legal or moral obligation to present political arguments in such terms, nevertheless in a society characterized by religious disagreement, such arguments are more likely to be effective in political debate and lead to productive deliberation about political choices.

Keywords: John Courtney Murray, Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian social ethics, natural law, realism, Catholicism, Protestantism

Suggested Citation

Berg, Thomas Charles, John Courtney Murray and Reinhold Niebuhr: Natural Law and Christian Realism. Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Vol. 3, 2006, U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05-20, Available at SSRN:

Thomas Charles Berg (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law ( email )

1000 La Salle Avenue
Mail # MSL400
Minneapolis, MN 55403-2015
United States

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