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Orestes Brownson: The Prized Convert

Part II of a Five-Part Series

Premonitions of Conversion

“Take care how you examine the Catholic Church, unless you are willing to become a Catholic, for Catholic doctrines are logical.” Daniel Webster

Although Brownson hadn’t given any serious thought about Catholicism until the 1840s, it would be wrong to suppose that he hadn’t made any progress toward the Church earlier. Throughout his life, little things had nudged him toward Rome.

When he was twelve, for instance, he found himself confused about religion, so he consulted a devout and respected Congregationalist neighbor. Brownson told the elderly woman that he was inclining toward Methodism. She told him not to join the Methodists because they were too new. Rather, he must join a church “that began with Christ and his Apostles and has continued to subsist the same without change of doctrine or worship down to our own times.” Brownson said these words, by a sincere Congregationalist, prevented him in later years from “ever being a genuine, hearty Protestant.”[i]

Because Brownson was too clearheaded to adopt the anti-Catholic bigotry of his days, he was able to see virtue in the Church throughout his adult life. As a young man, he saw that the scorn heaped upon the Church for the abuses of the Middle Ages was wrong; such hostility is not properly directed against Catholicism, he determined, but rather at the abuses that go under its name. As a reader of Saint-Simon and his theory of a pyramid of classes, he had also come to accept the idea that society needs a hierarchy, which would later translate well into his acceptance of the Catholic hierarchy that starts with the Holy Father. To objections that Catholicism is ridiculous superstition, Brownson could recall the words of Daniel Webster who, upon seeing Brownson flipping through Catholic materials in a book store, said “Take care how you examine the Catholic Church, unless you are willing to become a Catholic, for Catholic doctrines are logical.”[ii]

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.[iii] 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 newfound 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.

He Develops His Own Metaphysics

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 wither 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.[iv] 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.”[v]

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.”[vi]

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.”[vii]

The Conversion

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.”[viii]

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.”[ix]

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.”[x]

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.

The New Apologetic Warrior

Brownson’s conversion was mostly a lonely affair. He brought a few friends with him, and his wife and seven children. Virtually none of his past literary acquaintances supported his decision, making him something of an outcast in his former circles, so much so that Brownson figured his literary career was finished and considered becoming an attorney so he could support his large family.

But the bishops demurred. They prized their new convert. They sensed his conversion trumpeted a new era for Catholicism, and they wanted everyone to hear the blast. All the bigoted objections to Catholicism crumbled in the rumble of Brownson’s conversion: If Catholicism is a foreign religion, then why does the Vermonter Brownson embrace it? If Catholicism is for simpletons, then why does one of America’s leading minds bow before it? If Catholicism is subversive and unpatriotic, then why does a staunch and unquestionably-patriotic American like Brownson hold it? If Catholicism is retroactive and backward, then why does a lifelong proponent of progress like Brownson advance it? After an era of contempt — of Catholic Americans cringing in embarrassment before their Protestant brethren, hiding or downplaying their faith, always being on the defensive — the Catholic Church in America was prepared to stand up for itself, and Brownson was the man to start the offensive.

He wasted no time. Just months after his conversion, he published his famous essay, “The Church Against No Church,” a 25,000-word piece, in Brownson’s Quarterly Review.[xi] He explained that religion (which deals with the supernatural) requires a supernatural agent (like the Church), and demonstrated why the Protestant substitutes for this agency — rationalism of Unitarians, sola scriptura of Lutherans, private illumination of Reform theologians like Jonathan Edwards — cannot work. He also asserted the fundamental argument that would, for the rest of his life, be the center point of his apologetics, the factor that, in his opinion, was all-deciding and most important: If Jesus Christ founded a church, then it must be the Catholic Church; no other church can trace its roots back that far.[xii] If it is the Catholic Church, then it is God’s authority on earth and all arguments against it are futile. The article would serve as an excellent resource for Catholic apologists today. It was just one of many polemics he published during the years immediately following his conversion. He also engaged many Protestant controversialists in one-on-one debates.

His efforts on behalf of the Church were primarily printed in Brownson’s Quarterly Review. Unsurprisingly, his Review lost many subscribers (most of his subscribers were Protestants), but it gained new Catholic subscribers and continued to be his family’s financial mainstay for many years. His financial situation was furthered in 1849 when the U.S. bishops officially endorsed the Review.

Brownson spent nearly four years studying his new faith and arguing for it, forsaking nearly all other topics so he could concentrate on religion. But then the aura of radical politics attracted him again, like it had in his youth when he became a follower of Fanny Wright. But this time, unlike his earlier attraction to radicalism, Brownson was disturbed by it. The radical and democratic upheavals in Europe in 1848 and the threat of those upheavals crossing the Atlantic worried him, so he turned his attention back to political issues. He remained a fervent Catholic who wrote with a crucifix in front of him and a statue of the Virgin Mary at his side, and his Catholicism would play a large role in his political analyses. But from that point forward his mind primarily focused on the practical problems confronting America. He first tilted toward the Church as a result of his concern with earthly matters; it is fair that he would turn back to them eventually. But with fuel added by his new faith.

[i] The Convert, p. 12.

[ii] Thomas R. Ryan, Orestes A. Brownson, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1976, p. 326.

[iii] Ryan, p. 193.

[iv] Ryan, p. 250.

[v] Ryan, p. 284.

[vi] The Convert, p. 360.

[vii] The Convert, p. 372.

[viii] Ryan, p. 297.

[ix] Ryan, p. 328–329.

[x] Ryan, p. 297.

[xi] Brownson’s Quarterly Review, April 1845 (See Brownson, Essays and Reviews Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialism, New York: Arno Press, 1972, pp. 1–68).

[xii] The Greek Orthodox Church can make a good argument, but the Orthodox Church wasn’t a factor in nineteenth-century religious polemics, and, besides, it is considered a part of the Catholic Church (the “other lung” of the Church, in the words of Pope John Paul II).