TH 892-01

Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray

Boston College
Spring, 2009, Tuesday, 2-4:25 p.m., McGuinn 437
Instructor: David Hollenbach, S.J.
Office hours: Mon. 4:00-5:00 p.m. and Tues. 4:15-5:15 p.m. or by appointment
Phone: 617-552-8855; E-mail:

Goals of the Course

Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray are arguably the two most influential Christian thinkers of the 20th century in the United States. Both were primarily concerned with the social implications of Christian faith. Both were deeply rooted in their respective Reformed and Catholic traditions and also committed to greater ecumenical understanding and cooperation. Both were very much men of their times and world, combining a search for truth with a concern for the relevance of this truth. Both have been criticized and then newly appreciated by their theological and ministerial successors.

The primary goal of this course is to understand the thought of these two theologians. It also has several correlative goals: to approach what they can contribute to current theological-social debates; to advance the ecumenical understanding of the social ministry of the churches today; and to re-examine the relation between the human social condition and Christian hope from two quite different perspectives. Even partial realization of these goals will contribute to clarifying a fundamental question facing all theology and ministry today: What is the PUBLIC meaning and value of Christian faith?

Method of the Course

The course is based on intensive reading of some of the major writings of Niebuhr and Murray, critical discussion of these readings, and personal appropriation and evaluation through written analysis and reflections.


1. Completion of assigned readings in advance of class.

2. Participation in all class discussions.

3. 1 page responses to readings assigned for each class. For each class students should
prepare an overview and response to the assigned readings for that day (one
page maximum, in 12 point type), handed in that day. This overview should contain:

(a) the three or four major theses of the readings for the day, stated in complete sentences. A thesis is a direct, simple statement of one of the affirmations being made by the author.

(b) One or two central questions for the author about the significance and truth of the theses advanced by the readings.

One student will be asked to initiate the discussion for that day by giving an oral statement of the theses and questions in the 1 page document prepared.

4. A final term paper, approximately 20 pages double-spaced, on an aspect of the through of Niebuhr and/or Murray. Ordinarily the paper should deal with some aspect of the material considered in the course, focusing on a problem treated by one or both of the authors or on a question to which the authors studied can make direct contributions. Only by way of exception will approval be given for a paper dealing with author(s) or question(s) not directly dealt with in the course materials.

Schedule for development of the paper:

Students should meet with the instructor to discuss the topic of the paper.

By March 10 students should submit a written proposal of one or two pages for the paper, including

(a) a proposed title of the paper, statement of the problem or question to be
(b) the proposed approach to the problem or question,
(c) the bibliography that will be studied.

The problem/question and approach to it should be clearly stated in whole sentences. A
preliminary outline (again in whole sentences) should be included. At the time the
proposal is submitted, the student will make an appointment to discuss the proposal with
the instructor.

It is the student's responsibility to make an appointment for the meeting mentioned above.

The paper is due May 12.

Note: The Episcopal Divinity School Library holds a valuable collection of audio-tape recordings of sermons, talks, and speeches by Reinhold Niebuhr (catalogued under "Reinhold Niebuhr audio tape collection ") under Niebuhr’s name in the main EDS catalogue. The following tapes are recommended as good background. They are especially useful stimuli for reflection on how to preach and teach about the relevant topics.

Cassette #3008, “Advent Sermon in an Atomic Age,” 36 min., (played in class).

Cassette #3001, “Talk to Students on Theological Education,” 38 min.

Cassette #3020, “Farewell Talk to Students,” 40 min. R.N.’s “swan song” on retiring
from the faculty of Union. An overview of what he thought his life was about: dialogue between Christian faith and both the university and politics.

Cassette #3019, “Sermon on the Wheat and the Tares,” 19 min. Against arrogance in the name of the gospel.

Cassette #3030, “Chapel Talk on Rom. 10:1-3,” on preaching the word to the modern world, 20 min.

Cassette #3028, “Chapel Talk on Mk. 2:17,” on the righteous, the unrighteous, and hypocrisy, 12 min.

Cassette #3031, “Chapel Talk on Is. 44:6,” on the reality of idolatry today, 16 min.

Cassette #3003, “Sermon on the Double Love-Command,” 31 min. The relation of love and justice.

Cassette #3009, Speech on “U.S. Foreign Policy,” 35 min. Scathing critique of Karl Barth’s Against the Stream, which Niebuhr sees as an escape from real choices in politics. The Niebuhr Hauerwas doesn't like. Also a sweeping overview of R.N.’s whole stance.

Cassette #3026, “Chapel Talk on Rom. 13:8.” The relation of love and justice.

Cassette #3024, “Talk on Vietnam,” 40 min. On the history of American empire. A speech neo-conservative Niebuhrians would like to forget.


Note: Readings marked with (*) are available at the B.C. bookstore. Most materials are also available on reserve in O'Neill Library. Some other readings are available in online reserve with the BC Library. To obtain these readings go to the BC Libraries homepage ( Then, under “Find Library Materials”, click on “Course Reserves,” and enter Name of Course ("Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray") or Name of Instructor ("Hollenbach"), Title of Reading, or Author. You will need a BC user name and password to access these readings. Cross registrants can arrange this through the Office of Student Services in Lyons Hall.


1/20 Introduction to the Course.

In class: Reinhold Niebuhr, “Advent Sermon in the Atomic Age,” sermon
preached at Union Theological Seminary, audio tape.

Background readings

Reinhold Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography of Reinhold Niebuhr,” in Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall, eds., Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social and Political Thought, pp. 3-23. Online reserve.

Reinhold Niebuhr, “A View of Life from the Sidelines,” in Robert McAfee Brown, ed., The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, pp. 250-257. Online reserve.

Richard Wightman Fox, “Who Can But Prophesy? – The Life of Reinhold Niebuhr,” in Kegley and Bretall, pp. 27-42. Online reserve.


For a very comprehensive bibliography of Reinhold Niebuhr's works, see

D. B. Robertson, Reinhold Niebuhr's Works. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

For further autobiography and biography see:

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic

Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, with a new introduction and afterword. Cornell University Press, 1996.

Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr: Letters of Reinhold and Ursula M. Niebuhr, edited by Ursula M. Niebuhr. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991.

For theological and ethical assessment of Niebuhr's thought, see:

Robin Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology, esp. chaps. 4 and 5. Brazos Press, 2001.

Langdon Gilkey, On Niebuhr: A Theological Study. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

John C. Bennett, “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Social Ethics,” in Kegley, pp. 99-

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Role in American Political Thought and Life,” in Kegley, pp. 189-222.

1/27 Moral Man and Immoral Society, I

*Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Introduction and chaps. I-IV.

2/3 Moral Man and Immoral Society, II

*Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, chaps. V-X.

2/10 Niebuhr’s Theological Ethics I

*Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. I, chaps. I, VI-IX.

2/17 Niebuhr’s Theological Ethics II

*Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. II, chaps. II, III, VIII, IX.

2/24 Ethics and Irony in Politics

*Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Please read entire volume, including
introduction by Andrew J. Bacevich)

3/3 No class—spring break


3/10 The Man and His Life-Work

In class: John Courtney Murray, "Religious Freedom," lecture at Georgetown
University, 1965, audio tape.


Walter J. Burghardt, “He Lived with Wisdom,” America 117 (1967), pp. 248-249. Online reserve.

Donald E. Pelotte, John Courtney Murray: Theologian in Conflict, pp. 1-114. Chap. 2 online reserve.


For a very comprehensive view of Murray's works, see the bibliography in Murray, Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, J. Leon Hooper, ed., pp. 245-261.

For further biographical remembrances, see:

Emmet John Hughes, “A Man for Our Season,” The Priest (1969), pp. 389-402.

For overall assessments of Murray's work, see:

J. Leon Hooper, The Ethics of Discourse: The Social Philosophy of John
Courtney Murray.

Robert W. McElroy, The Search for an American Public Theology: The
Contribution of John Courtney Murray.

3/17 The Church/State Debate: The Argument with "Integrism"

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIa IIae, q. 10, arts. 8, 10, 11; q. 11, art. 3.

Joseph Fenton, “The Theology of Church and State,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America II (1947), pp. 15-46 (PCTSA). Online reserve.

John Courtney Murray, “Governmental Repression of Heresy,” (1948) Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America III, pp. 26-98. Online reserve.

Murray, “The Problem of the Religion of the State,” American Ecclesiastical Review 124 (1951), pp. 327-352 (AER). Online reserve.


Murray, “St. Robert Bellarmine on the Indirect Power,” Theological Studies 9 (1948) pp. 491-535.

Murray, “Contemporary Orientations of Catholic Thought on Church and State in the Light of History,” TS 10 (1949), pp. 177-234.

3/24 Murray’s Developing Argument

Murray, “Leo XIII: Two Concepts of Government,” TS 14 (1953), pp. 551-567.
Online reserve.

Murray, “Leo XIII: Two Concepts of Government II: Government and the Order of Culture,” TS 15 (1954), pp. 1-33. Online reserve.

*Leo XIII and Pius XII: Government and the Order of Religion," in Murray, Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, J. Leon Hooper, ed., pp. 49-125.


Murray, “Leo XIII on Church and State: The General Structure of the Controversy,” TS 14 (1953), pp. 1-30.

Murray, “Leo XIII: Separation of Church and State,” TS 14 (1953), pp. 145-214.

3/31 Murray's assessment of the American proposition

*Murray, We Hold These Truths, Foreword, Introduction, and chaps. 1-4.


John T. Noonan, Jr., The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of
Religious Freedom, esp. chap. 13.

4/7 Vatican II

*Murray, “The Problem of Religious Freedom,” in Murray, Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, J. Leon Hooper, ed., pp. 127-199.
(Also published as a book, The Problem of Religious Freedom, and in Theological Studies 25 (1964), pp. 503-575 )

Vatican Council II, Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), in Walter Abbott and Eugene Gallagher, The Documents of Vatican II, pp. 672-696. This edition should be used, for it contains an introduction and notes by Murray. Online reserve.

*Murray, "The Issue of Church and State at Vatican II," in Murray, Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, J. Leon Hooper, ed., pp. 199-227.

*Murray, "The Arguments for the Right to Religious Freedom," in Murray, Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, J. Leon Hooper, ed., pp. 229-244.

Murray, “The Declaration on Religious Freedom: Its Deeper Significance,” America, April 23, 1966, pp. 592-593. Online reserve.

Murray, “Freedom, Authority, Community,” America, December 3, 1966, pp. 734-741. Online reserve.


Vincent Yzermans, American Participation in the Second Vatican Council, pp. 617-642.

Murray, “The Declaration on Religious Freedom: A Moment in Its Legislative History,” in Murray, ed., Religious Liberty: An End and a Beginning, pp. 15-42.

Pietro Pavan, “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” in Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 4, pp. 63-86.

Murray, “The Declaration on Religious Freedom,” in John Miller, ed., Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal, pp. 565-576.

Murray, “The Declaration on Religious Freedom,” in War, Poverty, Freedom, Concilium XV, pp. 3-16.

Murray, “The Declaration on Religious Freedom: Its Deeper Significance,” America, April 23, 1966, pp. 592-593.

Murray, “Freedom, Authority, Community,” America, December 3, 1966, pp. 734-741.

4/14 Belief and Unbelief

*Murray, The Problem of God.


4/21 Niebuhr and Murray on Love, Law, and Morality

Niebuhr, “Christian Faith and Natural Law” in Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, pp. 46-54. Online reserve.

Niebuhr, “Love and Law in Protestantism and Catholicism,” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Robert McAfee Brown, 142-159. Online reserve.

*Murray, We Hold These Truths, chaps. 7, 13.

4/28 Niebuhr and Murray on War and Peace

Reinhold Niebuhr, "Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist," in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert McAfee Brown, ed., pp. 102-119. Online reserve.

*Murray, We Hold These Truths. Chaps. 11 and 12.

Murray, “Selective Conscientious Objection,” in J. Leon Hooper, ed., Bridging the Sacred and the Secular: Selected Writings of John Courtney Murray, S.J., pp. 87-98. Online reserve.


Niebuhr, Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold
Niebuhr, pp. 161-166, 196-213, 218-229, 232-237, 241-259, 272-285, 296-301.