One man’s journey to the Faith

At the very least, Orestes Brownson would have regarded it as odd. At the worst, he might have gotten hopping mad.

By the end of his life, Brownson, who was the most distinguished American Catholic public intellectual of the 19th century, had become a ferocious critic of the Americanist path that most of his fellow Catholics had chosen. Yet by one of history’s quirks, Brownson today is buried in the crypt of the campus church at Notre Dame — flagship university of the Americanist impulse in American Catholicism.

How he would have viewed that is suggested by his acid comment that there’s “scarcely a trait in the American character ... that is not more or less hostile to Catholicity.”

It goes without saying that Brownson was a difficult man — “one of the most rugged and forceful of personalities,” historian Theodore Maynard calls him. But together with his fighting spirit he combined a powerful intellect that made him a thinker to be reckoned with. His book “The American Republic,” published in 1865 immediately after the Civil War, continues to be read and discussed even today.

A diverse past

Brownson was born Sept. 16, 1803, in Stockbridge, Vt. His father died when he was 2, and he was raised by a non-practicing Congregationalist couple. Although he spent little time in school, he read furiously and he grew up self-educating himself on the latest ideas and intellectual trends of the day, especially those that had some bearing on religion.

First he became a Presbyterian, then a Unitarian minister, later a minister of the Congregationalist church, and then for a short time he was the minister of his own Boston-based “Church of the Future.” It was there he came into contact with Transcendentalism, the post-Christian semi-religious movement that attracted members of the New England intellectual elite like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller.

In 1837, he launched a journal named “Brownson’s Quarterly Review” as a platform for his many social, political, economic, literary and religious views. Combined with frequent lecturing, the Review made him a national figure in a few years.

In the early 1840s, Brownson had a profound religious experience that opened his eyes to the reality of God as a benign father. Continuing his religious search, he drew ever closer to Catholicism. On Oct. 20, 1844, he was received into the Church.

A few years later, satirizing his well-known changeability in a verse that also spoke of Emerson and Alcott, poet James Russell Lowell said of him: “He shifts quite about, then proceeds to expound/That ’tis merely the earth, not himself, that turns round,/ And wishes it clearly impressed on your mind/ That the weathercock rules and not follows the wind.”

Although that assessment had a measure of truth, Brownson nonetheless was a man of stature in the intellectual world of his time, so much so that when John Henry Newman, the eminent British convert and scholar, was preparing to launch a Catholic university in Dublin, the American “weathercock” was the first person he invited to join the faculty.

Brownson was attracted and flattered. But the Irish bishops vetoed the appointment of someone with a transatlantic reputation for holding sometimes controversial views, and Newman was obliged to suggest that he not visit Ireland just then. Seeing how things stood, Brownson said no to the offer.

Controversial figure

With the passing of time, he grew increasingly conservative in his religious views and more aligned with Ultramontanism — the school of thought that placed heavy emphasis on the authority of the pope. During and after the First Vatican Council (1869-70), he strongly supported the dogmas of papal infallibility and papal primacy. Not only that, with Rome and the Italian unification movement locked in a struggle that was to end with the pope’s loss of the Papal States, Brownson wrote in favor of the temporal authority of the papacy, including even the power to depose secular rulers.

Not surprisingly, outspoken conservatism like that made the distinguished convert an embarrassment to bishops who preferred a less in-your-face approach. Nor did it help that he made no secret of his distaste for the Irish-Americans who had become a dominant presence in American Catholicism. In a book called “The Convert” describing his own religious experiences, Brownson provocatively described many of these as “nominally Catholic.”

His most famous tussle with a member of the hierarchy involved Archbishop John Hughes, the feisty Irish-American who headed the Archdiocese of New York from 1842-64.

Brownson moved to New York in 1845 at Archbishop Hughes’ invitation, and there revived his journal, now called “Brownson’s Review.” But the combative editor and the no less combative churchman soon fell out over issues of style and substance. As a consequence, the editor took the prudent step of moving himself and the “Review” to the less stressful atmosphere of Elizabeth, N.J.

Brownson’s long and sometimes contentious friendship with Father Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, has been called one of the great stories of American Catholic history. With good reason. For this is a story that sheds important light on the central issue in the Catholic experience in the United States — the Americanization of Catholics and their Church.

The two men had been close since the early 1840s, and Brownson was instrumental in Hecker’s conversion to Catholicism even though the younger man actually preceded him into the Church by a few months. For a long time Brownson and Hecker shared the conviction that America was ripe for conversion, a theme expounded by Father Hecker in several books and his magazine Catholic World, to which his friend was a frequent contributor.

But as time passed, Brownson’s thinking shifted. Like some other observers of the American scene — for example, Henry Adams, historian, author of a justly famous autobiography, and grandson and great-grandson of presidents — he came to believe that American democracy had suffered a sad decline since the glory days of the Revolution and the immediate post-Revolutionary period.

Brownson’s critique also had a distinctively Catholic edge, expressed in his review of a book by Father Hecker, in which he repudiated the notion that evangelizing America would be an easy task. On the contrary, he wrote, the American people as a whole were “imbued with a spirit of independence, an aversion to authority, a pride, an overwhelming conceit, as well as with a prejudice that makes them revolt at the bare mention of the Church.”

By 1870, the split between the two had become irreparable. In a letter written from Rome during Vatican Council I, Father Hecker spoke of the appreciation he’d found among Europeans for the friendly relations between Catholicism and “our free institutions” in the U.S. Brownson’s reply was scathing.

Earlier, in “The American Republic,” he’d said America was “chosen by God for the realization of a great idea.” Now, while still supporting the American system as “the legal and only practicable form,” he told Hecker: “I no longer hope anything of it.” As for converting America, he added, “so far are we from converting the country, we cannot hold our own.”

Citing an American spirit of “independence, freedom from all restraint, unbounded license” that he believed was infecting Catholics, Brownson wrote: “The Church has never encountered a social and political order so hostile to her ... the conversion of our republic will be a far greater victory than the conversion of the Roman Empire.”

Their friendship survived the shock, but Brownson soon stopped writing for Hecker’s magazine.

He moved to Detroit and lived on until 1876, becoming testier as the years passed. After a rousing theological argument on Good Friday with his son Henry, he took to his bed, received the last sacraments and died on Easter Monday, April 17. He was buried in Detroit, but later his remains were transferred to Notre Dame.

Orestes Brownson left neither disciples nor an integrated body of work. He was an intellectual bomb-thrower, changeable and volatile, a volcano of provocative insights who repeatedly and without apology contradicted himself. But he holds a lasting place in America’s intellectual history and in the history of the Church, where he at last found the truth. “I owe much … to your father,” Isaac Hecker told his son. Others could say the same.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. This is the third in a 12-part series. For more Great American Catholics, visit us at OSV.com.