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Orestes Brownson's Conversion

When Brownson started taking concrete steps toward Rome, it was philosophy that paved the road. His was a philosophical conversion, Rome via Athens, though he would later emphasize that no mental process can ever produce a convert unless grace is also at work (philosophy can remove the intellectual barriers, he would explain, but conversion itself requires grace). The two branches of philosophy that brought him to Rome were political philosophy and metaphysics.

The political reasons for joining the Church started to form in 1840. Brownson was startled by the huge outcry against his essay on the laboring classes. He was also startled by William Harrison's victory in 1840 (which was obtained with vulgar propaganda). The election shook his confidence in the people's ability to govern themselves by voting for able leaders, and accordingly shook his confidence in democracy itself.

In response, he undertook a systematic study of government, beginning with Aristotle's Politics and proceeding through the best political treatises in history. Prior to this time, his intellectual emphasis was on the importance of liberty, but now he was beginning to see that order is necessary to preserve liberty. He also developed a keen eye for good and bad forms of democracy, particularly despising what he called “absolute” or “Jacobin” democracy, a form of democracy that assumes the democratic vote is a talisman that magically guarantees good government. In opposition to such ideas, Brownson was beginning to realize that, in order for democracy to work, the people must vote under God, in accordance with His laws and commands, not in accordance with their naked will.

He also strongly opposed the liberalizing political trends of his day that adopted a nihilistic disposition toward divine law in the public sphere (“political atheism,” he called it; 140 years later, Richard John Neuhaus would call it “The Naked Public Square”). In 1843, the year before his conversion, he asserted that the church-state relations of the Middle Ages offered a good example of how divine law could interact with human law: though people must obey their earthly sovereign, the Church had the right to urge the people to resist a sovereign if he became tyrannical or violative of divine laws. In the medieval system, Brownson said, the liberty of the people was secured by giving divine law, a law that respects the dignity of mankind, a place in politics.

This new-found political slant pushed him toward the Catholic Church. The people in a democracy, he realized, were by themselves incapable of interpreting God's laws and relaying them into the human and political sphere. He was beginning to see that only the Catholic Church and its uncompromising teaching authority could give the guidance necessary to assure that the people exercise their vote wisely.

He articulated many of these views in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, a popular monthly magazine into which Brownson had merged his quarterly review in 1842. As part of the arrangement, Brownson became a regular contributor, along with some of America's greatest writers: Hawthorne, Lowell, and Longfellow, and was paid well (exceeding even the rates received by Hawthorne). The editor of the Democratic Review, however, was a strong believer that the naked popular voice of the people is the voice of God (vox populi est vox Dei) and took exception to Brownson's views. The arrangement was terminated after only one year.

If the leg of political philosophy would allow Brownson to limp toward Rome, metaphysical philosophy was the other leg that let him run there. It started with the philosophy of a Frenchman named Pierre Leroux. Leroux taught a doctrine of life and communion, which says man lives in communion with things that are not himself. Human life consists of an “intershock” (correspondence) between subject (the individual person) and object (the thing outside the subject that the person sees, wants, loves). Each person needs objective realities outside himself to live a meaningful life. The outside objective realities inspire him, motivate him, lift him up. Without these realities, man would whither into nothing.

This doctrine of life and communion fit perfectly with Brownson's great passion: Progress. He had always been, and always would be, obsessed with the idea of earthly progress. Leroux's philosophy showed him that objective outside reality is necessary for society to progress because a person needs something else to pull himself up. A person can't lift himself from his own belt. This “something,” Brownson realized, must be supernatural. If it were merely natural, man would be pulled laterally, not upward.

But how does this supernatural influence come about? Again drawing from Leroux, Brownson embraced the idea that people commune with God through the intercession of “providential men.” These are individuals God raises up and who, in turn, lift men and women who commune with them. Brownson believed Moses, Zoroaster, Socrates, and Paul were such providential men. Christ, Brownson said, is the ultimate providential man: Not just lifted up by God, but God Himself. Christ is the supreme object that raises mankind through the life of communion.

But there is a problem with this: Christ is no longer here, so how can he remain an object for communion? Through the Church, Brownson concluded. Christ implemented the Church to be the divine institution that would pass Christ from generation to generation (a method the Church calls the Apostolic Succession). This, in turn, makes the Church the organ of progress because, without the object of Christ who instituted the Church to continue his supernatural presence, man is not lifted up. Man needs the authority of the Church in order to progress, and it must be the Catholic Church because only it can make a literal, tangible, and historically-sound claim to be of divine origin.

This, in turn, played back into his belief that the Church must help interpret God's will in the political arena and that, for a democracy to work, the people must look to the Church for guidance and thereby allow the upward pull of a supernatural object to elevate government and society. The Church, as the institution of true progress, is the organ that works with the political sphere to help man progress. The Church shouldn't take over the political sphere, but it should work with it, molding it and shaping it into a form that best allows society to progress properly.

In 1843, a few of his articles on these political and metaphysical ideas were copied into a Catholic journal. Although Brownson's thought was very Catholic at this time, he apparently had not even entertained the idea of becoming a Catholic until he saw these articles re-produced. At that point, he suddenly realized that he must either join the Church or renounce his reason.

And then something happened that Brownson had never experienced: His nerve failed him. He couldn't make the leap. His foremost biographer says: “And for the first time in his life . . . he refused to follow out his own principles to their logical conclusions. It was to be fully a year before he made up his mind to seek admission into the Catholic Church.”

Although Protestants have a tendency to change their churches like cars, they don't jump in and drive Catholicism. Brownson said switching Protestant sects was like changing apartments in a house. You don't leave the world you know. Friends, family, and business associates all remain the same and don't look at you any differently whether you're Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist. “But to pass from Protestantism to Catholicity is a very different thing. We break with the whole world in which we have hitherto lived; we enter into what is to us a new and untried region, and we fear the discoveries we may make there, when it is too late to draw back. To the Protestant mind the old Catholic Church is veiled in mystery, and leaves ample room to the imagination to people it with all manner of monsters, chimeras, and hydras dire. We enter it, and leave no bridge over which we may return. It is a committal for life, for eternity. To enter it seemed to me, at first, like taking a leap in the dark; and it is not strange that I recoiled, and set my wits to work to find out, if possible, some compromise, some middle ground on which I could be faithful to my Catholic tendencies without uniting myself with the present Catholic Church.”

Brownson later reproached himself for delaying, but he stalled only a year. The prospect of death made him take the leap, for he feared for the salvation of his soul. Another convert, Malcolm Muggeridge, once said the prospect of death wonderfully focuses the mind. It did in Brownson's case, who said that, though it would be unpleasant to leave the trappings of Protestantism, “to be eternally damned would, after all, be a great deal unpleasanter.”

In May 1844, Brownson made an appointment with the bishop of Boston, Benedict J. Fenwick, who received his celebrated guest with the observation that based on Brownson's recent articles he thought Brownson was flirting with the Church but was struggling with the authority of the Pope. When Brownson said he didn't question the Pope's authority, Fenwick replied, “Why then are you not a Catholic?” Brownson said, “I could be were it not for these Protestants. I do not like to say that they are all wrong, and out of the way of salvation; and if I could discover some ground on which I could be a Catholic without saying so, I should have no difficulty.”

Other converts like G.K. Chesterton and Muggeridge suffered from similar concerns for the people they were “leaving behind.” Conversion in such circumstances is an act of obedience to a greater good, God and His Church, and a concomitant rejection, at a certain level, of lesser goods, like friends and family. Though the convert would give almost anything to bring his friends and family with him, converting others is never easy, often impossible, and always rare (the convert's heart pounds with unusual excitement when a friend says he might join the Church). Brownson for the rest of his life would adopt an adamant stance toward his friends that refused to convert: Those outside the Church are damned. Any other approach, he said, gave false hope in the area of most-important truth, and therefore would be the gravest sin possible against another human being (though he did concede that the definition of who is “inside” the Church might be broader than actual membership). When his long-time friend and publisher, the Protestant Benjamin Greene, later said God would surely give him respite for all his Catholic publishing efforts, Brownson replied, “Yes, I believe you will have your reward and once in a million years will be permitted to rest your foot for a millionth of a second on the coolest spot in Satan's dominions.”

Bishop Fenwick counseled Brownson to leave the Protestants in God's care, for He is a just God and would never allow anyone to suffer eternally unless it is just. He also told Brownson to mull over the Protestant dilemma further, saying: “It is best not to be hasty. The question is a serious one, and you will do well to inquire further and longer. Perhaps you will find some excuse for the Protestant movement. If you do, you will not fail to let me know."

The Bishop's response was kind, measured, and wise. He knew Brownson wouldn't come up with an excuse for the Protestant Reformation, but he also knew it would do no good to badger Brownson. But more importantly, he didn't back down or compromise the Faith in his effort to be inoffensive. Brownson was impressed and soon started instruction under Bishop Fenwick's coadjutor, Bishop John Fitzpatrick. A few months later, on October 20, 1844, at age 41, Brownson was received into the Church.

Excerpted from my Spring 2004 article, "Orestes Brownson: His Life, His Catholicism," in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, pages 137-164.