We have long wrestled with how to cover the more recent and timely revelations about Fr. Bryan Hehir while also giving you important context from his early history. As we work on putting the remaining pieces in-place to take our “Catholicism of Resistance” up a notch, we hope you will be able to follow a little jumping back and forth between early history and recent goings on. The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous Houston speech (given Sept. 12, 1960) on faith and politics is an appropriate time for this reflection. (Don’t worry, the heat will still be increasing very shortly)
Joseph Bryan Hehir was born in Lowell, MA on August 22, 1940 to Mr. and Mrs. John Hehir. He grew up in Chelmsford and even as a boy was well focused: as a Little League pitcher, his nickname was “Hawkeye.
In the chapter of the book, “Religious Leaders and Faith-Based Politics” on Fr. Hehir for which he was interviewed, Fr. Hehir said, “I wanted to go into politics before I went into the ministry. I was sure I wanted to study diplomacy before I knew I wanted to study theology.” Eventually Hehir decided to become a priest.
Fr. Hehir entered St. John’s Seminary and was ordained in Boston on May 26, 1966. Here is a picture with members of his ordination class from a May 1966 issue of The Pilot (bottom right picture). Note the caption tells us that Fr. Richard P. McBrien preached at Fr. Hehir’s first Mass on Sunday, May 29. McBrien has gone on to become well-known as a dissident priest and professor of theology at Notre Dame, whose writings have been criticized by the U.S. bishops.
Fr. Hehir often cites Fr. John Courtney Murray in his talks, and he acknowledged the influence of Murray in the book cited above. We learn that Hehir came under the influence of many Catholic thinkers while in the seminary, but the “dominant figure” was the Jesuit, John Courtney Murray. Of course, Murray was silenced by the Vatican for a few years before then reappearing at Vatican II. Murray is widely regarded as a principal architect of Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” and with having demonstrated the compatibility of Catholicism and U.S. democracy. He is also widely considered to have driven the whole concept of it being OK to maintain private morality while not publicly legislating those morals. Hang on—we’ll come back to that shortly.
We are told that Murray influenced Hehir in two important ways. The first was in his choice of graduate study. Murray told him “go someplace where you get the international relations first because your theology will be too rigid if you form it all ahead of time…Go to a place that has a broad-based conception of international relations and social science.” Hehir went to the Harvard Divinity School.
Murray was also cited as the “principal methological influence on Hehir’s thinking”:
Murray’s method has always made the most sense to me: to take the world on its own ground, with all its complexity…the content of his theology and the meaning of his life remain an abiding reality for me. He once said that to be a theologian in the Catholic tradition is to stand on the growing edge of tradition.”
I am no scholar of John Courtney Murray, but intentional or not, Murray’s standing on the “growing edge of tradition” sure feels like it set the stage for a generation of pro-abortion Catholic politicians and decades of dissent from Church teachings by “you know who.”
In the Wall Street Journal’s, How Support for Abortion Became Kennedy Dogma, we see Fr. Murray’s name mentioned as a key influence, along with the likes of the late Fr. Drinan:
In some cases, church leaders actually started providing “cover” for Catholic pro-choice politicians who wanted to vote in favor of abortion rights. At a meeting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass., on a hot summer day in 1964, the Kennedy family and its advisers and allies were coached by leading theologians and Catholic college professors on how to accept and promote abortion with a “clear conscience.”
The former Jesuit priest Albert Jonsen, emeritus professor of ethics at the University of Washington, recalls the meeting in his book “The Birth of Bioethics” (Oxford, 2003). He writes about how he joined with the Rev. Joseph Fuchs, a Catholic moral theologian; the Rev. Robert Drinan, then dean of Boston College Law School; and three academic theologians, the Revs. Giles Milhaven, Richard McCormick and Charles Curran, to enable the Kennedy family to redefine support for abortion.
Mr. Jonsen writes that the Hyannisport colloquium was influenced by the position of another Jesuit, the Rev. John Courtney Murray, a position that “distinguished between the moral aspects of an issue and the feasibility of enacting legislation about that issue.” It was the consensus at the Hyannisport conclave that Catholic politicians “might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order.”
Father Milhaven later recalled the Hyannisport meeting during a 1984 breakfast briefing of Catholics for a Free Choice: “The theologians worked for a day and a half among ourselves at a nearby hotel. In the evening we answered questions from the Kennedys and the Shrivers. Though the theologians disagreed on many a point, they all concurred on certain basics . . . and that was that a Catholic politician could in good conscience vote in favor of abortion.”
This article at Ratzinger Fan Club entitled “John Courtney Murray, Contraception, and the “Liberal Catholic” Justification for Abortion” sheds additional color and asks the question, “But what is the source for the liberal Catholic employment of Murray?”
In “Catholics and Civic Engagement in the United States”, John T. McGreevy of the University of Notre Dame chronicles how Catholic debate over contraception in the 1960’s inevitably led to the push for relaxation of restrictions against abortion, and ultimately its decriminalization. He specifically mentions how John Courtney Murray’s discussion of religious liberty and the relationship between moral/civil law influenced this process (whether intended by Murray or not). Here, then, is his brief history of the process:
When Paul VI announced the formation of a papal commission to study the matter in that year, dissent became far more widespread and public. A parallel development, even among those favoring the traditional teaching on birth control, was a new set of distinctions between what was permissible in the public realm and what was permissible within the confessional. Jesuit John Courtney Murray famously persuaded the bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council to stand for religious freedom. At precisely the same time Murray was advising Boston’s Cardinal Cushing to permit a relaxation of the Massachusetts birth control laws. Murray explained that “It is not the function of a civil law to prescribe everything that is morally right and to forbid everything that is morally wrong,” Specifically on the matter of birth control, Murray emphasized that “It is difficult to see how the state can forbid, as contrary to public morality, a practice that numerous religious leaders approve as morally right…By reason of its nature and purpose, as the instrument of order in society, the scope of law is limited to the maintenance and protection of public morality. Matters of private morality lie beyond the scope of law; they are left to the personal conscience.” [bloggers emphasis]
One can hardly imagine a less propitious beginning for Catholic opposition to the relaxation of restrictions against abortion. Catholic recalcitrance on the matter of birth control in the Connecticut state legislature had prompted Estelle Griswold to appeal to the courts in the 1950s, eventually leading to the landmark 1965 decision, Griswold v. Connecticut that first enunciated “privacy” as a basic right, and set the stage for Roe v. Wade (1973). The most divisive moment in American Catholic history occurred in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI, 1968), and the teaching on contraception, and its all-male source, instantly made Catholic discussion of sexuality less credible for many believers and in the public mind. Finally, the long intra-Catholic discussion of birth control had also culminated in a widespread belief that no single religious group should impose its own moral vision in a diverse society. Advocates of abortion on demand immediately seized upon this point, and peppered the early state and congressional hearings on the subject with attacks on Catholic lobbying. Harvard’s Lawrence Tribe saw Catholic opposition to abortion as potentially unconstitutional, since no “universal agreement in terms of values [existed] that do not divide the society religiously.” 3
Murray was also invited to provide edits to John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 Houston speech. Archbishop Chaput recently reflected on that speech and called it, ‘sincere’ but ‘wrong’. Even Murray himself was apparently not thrilled with Kennedy’s attempt to sever any connections between one’s religious and political creeds. “To make religion merely a private matter,” Murray argued, “was idiocy.” Despite his view on public vs private morality, Murray himself was upset that handlers ignored his advice to stress in the Houston speech Church hierarchy should always be free to instruct Catholics from the pulpit as to the Church’s teachings on moral issues debated in the public square.
Anyway, whether Murray intended the consequences of his writings or not, let’s look at what happened later.
In 1974, Fr. Hehir, as associate secretary for the International Justice and Peace office and a key policy advisor for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged the Vatican and Catholic bishops that the Church can “regard contraceptive practice as an issue of private morality that the church continues to teach for its members, but not an issue of public morality on which it seeks to affect public policy” (Theological Studies, March 1974). The Holy See, at this time, was rallying Third World countries against population control mandates urged by the Henry Kissinger’s National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200).Hehir’s position became the basis for the Holy See’s position at the UN Population Conference in Budapest.
On April 19, 1999, pro-abortion group, Catholics for a Free Choice, cited Fr. Hehir’s earlier statements on contraception to support their position that Catholic hospitals should not be exempt from having to offer contraceptive coverage. “Father Bryan Hehir, a high-ranking official of the United States Catholic Conference at the time, noted in 1974 that the church could ‘regard contraceptive practice as an issue of private morality that the church continues to teach for its members but not an issue of public morality on which it seeks to affect public policy’
In the 2004 election, we saw bishops like Archbishop Burke and the minority of bishops vocally condemn the scandal presented by pro-abortion politicians receiving communion. Though John Kerry never quoted Murray directly, the author of the Ratzinger Fan Club article said, “judging by the following examples one might find where he is obtaining his “talking points” on this issue:
- Fr. Richard McBrien, responding to St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke’s denial of communion to Senator Kerry, castigated the Archbishop for his ignorance of Murray and Thomistic political philosophy: “What these prelates do not seem ever to have learned is the distinction that the late Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, and others had made between the moral law and the civil law. To have made the moral argument against abortion, for example, is not necessarily to have made the legal argument as well.”
- In a letter to Cardinal McCarrick on May 10, 2004, 48 Democratic congressman reminded the American Catholic hierarchy that “Church leaders must recognize, as did the great Catholic theologian and scholar John Courtney Murray, that in public life distinctions must be made between public and private morality. Because we represent all of our constituents we must, at times, separate our public actions from our personal beliefs.”
- Defending his continued adoption of a pro-choice stance against the explicit directives of Bishop Burke (at that time bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin), Congressman David Obey described their dispute: “the basic problem is that I remain a John Courtney Murray kind of Catholic, while Archbishop Burke is not.” 2
So there you have it folks. Apologies for the length, but we thought you might enjoy this trip down memory lane and getting some sense in his own words for what helped influence Fr. Bryan Hehir’s views and helped shape him into the person he is today. Maybe the title of the blog post should not really be “Early influences set foundation for 40 years of dissent.” We are working on some explosive additional revelations from the 1970s and 80s as we speak. Stay tuned for a return to current events Wednesday or Thursday.