The Catholic Writings of Orestes Brownson is an anthology of essays by one of the preeminent American Catholic public intellectuals of the 19th century. Brownson (1803-1876), however, came late to the Roman Catholic faith, wandering from Congregationalism and Presbyterianism to Unitarian Universalism and Transcendentalism, and then to skepticism before finally converting to Catholicism in 1844 at the age of 41. While he is almost completely unknown to modern readers, Brownson’s ideas contributed greatly to American intellectual conservatism.
Brownson wrote on an array of issues and ideas, ranging widely on American constitutionalism, education, immigration, slavery, and even feminism. He was also a forceful critic of Immanuel Kant, John Henry Newman, and Georg Hegel, among others. His incredible command of subjects and languages—which included Greek, Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, and French—enabled him to criticize the latest trends in politics, philosophy, and theology with an authority few contemporaries could match. He was, in short, a “seeker after truth,” as Brownson himself put it (154).
Michael P. Federici’s detailed introduction and selections reveal Brownson’s most important Catholic writings, including long excerpts from Brownson’s own conversion narrative (90-245). In this collection we see Brownson searching for a principle to guide the Republic amid what he perceived as a fragmented society. He turned to classical sources in his attempt to recover the harmony between the natural and the supernatural, reason and faith, and science and religion. While he once fully embraced liberal Protestant thought, Brownson ultimately came to reject much of its political, philosophical, and religious ideas. He came to the conclusion that Christian revelation, to be true, required history, tradition, and external forms of practice by believers.
For Brownson, transcendentalism was the logical culmination of the Protestant Reformation. Both promoted a purely spiritual and individualistic religion that ultimately places man over God. As Federici puts it, Brownson came to the “conclusion that Protestant Christianity, the dominant religious tradition in America, was destructive to American constitutionalism, and Catholic Christianity was the only intellectually, spiritually, and practically viable foundation for the American republic” (2).
Brownson’s disdain for Protestantism is perhaps the most prominent feature in this collection. For him, Protestantism fostered the idea that human beings were capable of self-government, that they could govern without constitutional checks and without a spiritual authority to guide them. This elevated the individual—and individualism—above community, church, and law. Even though some Protestants contend the human depravity, Protestantism ultimately deifies man and faith, according to Brownson. Thus, Protestant Christianity is too individualistic and too self-centered to foster justice in American society. Such a society can easily be manipulated by demagogues, the press, and special interests.
Therefore, Brownson offered a new spiritual foundation for the American political order by articulating an ideal Christian society based on Roman Catholic doctrines. To do so, he showed how Catholics were indeed loyal servants of the Republic. He argued that life was lived in communion. Moreover, Brownson rejected the liberal faith in progress; one should never place hope in unaided humanity. Without a higher authority, all governments invariably succumb to anarchic individualism and its destructive tendencies, Brownson argued. He believed only the Catholic church could supply the need. Protestantism could not repair what it had created. In this sense Brownson argued in a tone similar to but stronger than Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), that democracy without religion becomes a humanitarian ideology that will consume the liberty it is meant to protect. A religion that has been democratized no longer inspires and challenges its adherents. Therefore, it poses no barrier to the immense attractions of worldly powers and interests dominating democratic government and society.
Brownson also defended the American Constitution, written and unwritten. He spoke of an “unwritten constitution,” meaning the attitudes, customs, and character of the American people. Written constitutions, then, must be “written in the sentiments, convictions, consciences, manners, customs, habits, and organization of the people” (398). According to Brownson, then, religion is an essential feature of the “unwritten constitution.” Without religion, politics degenerates into an unprincipled competition for power. As a converted Catholic, Brownson believed that not only are republican government and Catholic Christianity compatible, but the former cannot function properly without the latter (372). Justice and happiness are determined by the universal moral order, of which God is the author and into which man is born. For states to govern in accordance with justice and foster happiness, they must be attuned to the transcendent order.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Brownson turned more to theological issues. For example, he addressed the ever-popular notion of American progress, arguing that liberals and humanitarians make the mistake of conflating material and moral progress (335). He was particularly critical of the liberal Protestantism of Congregationalist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), whose ideas Brownson regarded as detrimental to American culture (351). “Beecherism,” as Brownson put it in 1872, represents all that is wrong with Protestantism. It is unintellectual, illogical, and irrational, and places religion almost entirely in emotions, sentiments, and personal preference. It also has all the characteristics of secular humanism, including the substitution of humanity for God. Beecherism teaches that “Christianity is a life to be lived, not a doctrine or creed to be believed” (353).
Brownson believed that the American people had increasingly become influenced by liberal and humanitarian ideologies that were destructive to moral sense and political order. Protestant Christianity was powerless to stop this spiritual degeneration because it based its morality on the individual conscience that is itself apt to succumb to popular pressure (14). The government itself is thus “impotent” to reform the people. But as Federici correctly observes, American Catholics were just as liable to spiritual, ideological, and cultural decay (16)
In the final analysis, while many of his claims and conclusions are questionable, Brownson’s contributions to American political thought are significant because he raised essential questions regarding political order and provided insights into the United States’ spiritual foundations (21). In that regard he may be considered a “conservative radical” (23). Thus, Brownson’s legacy is found in his own intellectual and spiritual journey, which itself was a response to the fractured nature of modern discourse.
James C. Ungureanu is Historian in Residence in the George L. Mosse Program in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
James C. Ungureanu
Date Of Review:
June 29, 2020
Michael P. Federici is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author, editor, and co-editor of a number of books, including The Culture of Immodesty in American Life and Politics: The Modest Republic and The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton.
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