November 6, 2016


Seeking the Truth with Orestes Brownson : a review of Seeking the Truth by Richard Reinsch (GERALD J. RUSSELLO, October 2016, Crisis)

Upon becoming a Catholic, Brownson argued on two fronts. The first was simple American nativism. Brownson became a Catholic when the Church of Rome was under deep suspicion of dual loyalty, superstition, and the general charge that Catholics could not be good Americans. Brownson turned that argument on its head and demonstrates that Catholicism reflects a better grounding than secular Deism or Protestantism for the American Founding. He makes this argument in an essay called "Catholicity Necessary to Sustain Popular Liberty." As Brownson understood, and argued in his classic 1865 work, The American Republic, generous portions of which are included here, philosophy cannot demonstrate the truths, for example, of the Declaration of independence that all men are created equal. And because of that, society must degenerate unless sustained by religious foundations, specifically Christianity's notion of a relational, personal God. Democracy, he writes, "is a beautiful theory, and would work admirably, if it were not for one little difficulty, namely, --the people are fallible, both individually and collectively, and governed by their passions and interest, which not infrequently lead them far astray, and produce much mischief." Something outside its own will must sustain the people.

We know of but one solution to the difficulty, and that is in RELIGION. There is no foundation for virtue but in religion, and it is only religion that can command the degree of popular virtue and intelligence requisite to insure to popular government the right direction and a wise and just administration. A people without religion, however successful they may be in throwing off old institutions, or in introducing new ones, have no power to secure the free, orderly, and wholesome working of any institutions. For the people can bring to the support of institutions only the degree of virtue and intelligence they have; .... We say, then, if democracy commits the government of the people to be taken care of, religion is to take care that they take proper care of the government, rightly direct and wisely administer it.

Brownson thought the best religious support to democracy was Catholicism, precisely because it was supposedly immune from the democratic or individualistic temptations of both secularism and certain forms of Protestantism. But Brownson did not think this meant a confessional state. Because of this, Brownson also had adversaries among his fellow Catholics. Some European Catholics argued that religious liberty was acceptable only until Catholics could support a confessional state. Brownson responded that the constitutional protection of all faiths allowed Catholicism to grow; moreover, the First Amendment reflected a better understanding of the human person. In this, Reinsch argues, he anticipates some of the arguments made decades later by John Courtney Murray, S.J. and reflected in Vatican II's declaration of religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

Posted by at November 6, 2016 5:28 PM