April 26, 2009


Orestes Brownson on Catholicism and Republicanism (Jude P. Dougherty, 03/12/09, First Principles)

Brownson’s works have been unduly neglected, Kirk rightly laments. In the late nineteenth century his collected essays were published in twenty volumes by his son, Henry F. Brownson, but Kirk notes that as of the mid-1950s “nothing of Brownson’s had been in print for many years.” That omission was corrected in part by Kirk’s own collection of essays, noted above, and in the same year, by the publication of The Brownson Reader by Alvan S. Ryan of Notre Dame. A mini-revival of interest in Brownson followed, and there have been occasional longer biographical treatments since, but still, precious few have been the sustained analyses of his thought and its contribution to American politics and Catholic American intellectual development. The recent publication by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute of Brownson’s 1865 magnum opus, The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny, part of a larger series of his works, will, one hopes, help to remedy this situation for a new generation of readers.

Kirk’s treatment of Brownson in The Conservative Mind is found in a chapter titled “Transitional Conservatism: New England Sketches,” where he also discusses John Quincy Adams, Emerson, and Hawthorne. Brownson clearly fits here, given his intimate knowledge of the Transcendentalists and the New England mindset. As Kirk observes, contrary to the common nativist denunciation of Brownson and his followers as foreigners, or agents of alien interests, Brownson in fact appears in many ways as a quintessential New Englander.

One Yankee trait evident in Brownson is his wariness of the excesses of democracy: “Our great danger lies in the radical tendency which has become so wide, deep, and active in the American people.” This tendency, which Brownson routinely connects with the rise of Jacksonianism, rejects the order and stability of organically developed societies in favor of human constructions, and is animated by hostility to the notion of authority, especially the authority of God—a principle that can be apprehended only by acknowledging the fundamental social significance of the Church.

One Brownsonian characteristic that could not have sprung so easily from his New England roots, though, was his wholesale embrace of Catholicism as the only religious body that could sustain the religious spirit while at the same time also serving as the means for sustaining republican government. As Kirk describes Brownson’s view, the Protestant principle descends through three states:

first, the subjection of religion to the charge of civil government; second, the rejection of the authority of temporal government, and submission of religion to the control of the faithful; third, individualism, which “leaves religion entirely to the control of the individual, who selects his own creed, or makes a creed to suit himself, devises his own worship and discipline, and submits to no restraints but such as are self-imposed.”

The result of the Protestant temper, in Brownson’s view, is a distrust of authority and a neglect of the necessity of God’s assistance in human affairs, thus undermining the “moral solidarity” that must serve as the basis of any democratic order.

The ultimate necessity of Catholicism for democracy is a constant for Brownson, and a principle he shared with that other profound nineteenth-century commentator on American politics, Alexis de Tocqueville. Both thinkers certainly considered the danger that individualism would undermine the bonds of community, and both also feared an apparently opposite danger, the growth of “tyrannical democracy,” or what Tocqueville called the “soft despotism” of concentrated bureaucratic power. As Tocqueville puts it, “I think that in the democratic centuries that are going to open up, individual independence and local liberties will always be the product of art. Centralization will be the natural government.” This sentiment is one Brownson would seem to endorse whole-heartily, but he differs slightly from Tocqueville in his insistence on connecting his fear of an unfettered civil authority with his religious principles. As he notes in his reflections on the publication of the Syllabus of Pius IX: “The civil power is bound to obey the law of God, and forfeits its authority in going contrary to it. We shall not suffer those who refuse to believe the infallibility of the Pope, [only] to assert the infallibility of Caesar or the state.”16

Kirk’s assessment of Brownson as primarily a religious thinker leads us to consider further Brownson’s positions on the Church and on America. With Brownson, one can hardly treat one topic without the other, but we will focus here on his understanding of the religious character of America.

Brownson seems to have taken his bearings with reference to two fixed principles, the first being that America was not constitutionally hostile to Catholicism, that its original republicanism may even have been open to the vigorous claims of the natural law tradition. Whether or not that is the case, it is clear that for Brownson democracy will only be rescued by the presence of a vibrant Catholicism. This fact is what gives him such confidence that the efforts of the Nativists and Know-Nothings would in the end prove self-defeating.

The second critical element of Brownson’s thought on this question seems to be his comprehension of Catholic Christianity’s robust self-assurance, its willingness to defend itself in the face of a vast array of adversaries. The following analysis will focus on these two principles in Brownson’s thought, and then assess our contemporary circumstances in light of Brownson’s presumptions and concerns.

Peter Augustine Lawler, naturally, has written an excellent essay on Brownson and while your shelp should certainly contain a hard copy of The American Republic, it's also available on-line.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2009 6:44 AM
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