Brownson's Quest for Social Justice

Author: Edward Day, C.SS.R.



When Orestes Brownson entered the Catholic Church, he said he felt like a man who had finally reached shore after a jumping-journey across crumbling ice-floes. The ice-floes of his simile were the radical schools of social thought that he had gingerly tested as possible ways of changing the social injustices of his world. For Brownson found Catholicism not only as a pilgrim seeking religious truth, but even more as a crusader in quest of social justice. In that quest Brownson blazed a trail any modern liberal might follow. Brownson found that there were only two forces that could change the social order: atheistic socialism, that would destroy it, or Roman Catholicism, that would transform it. The world, with its injustices, still torments the consciences of upright men. The liberal's battle to change the social order is basically Brownson's fight. The choice of weapons has not really changed: the destructive force of socialism (brought up-to-date in atheistic communism) or the transforming power of the Catholic Church.

Brownson had a religious bent from his earliest years. At eight he had read through the Bible and by fourteen had memorized a great part of it.[1] Like Newman, the things of the spirit were more real to him than the pine and granite of his Vermont home. One day, shortly before the War of 1812, Brownson and a friend walked to town to watch a militia muster. Later, all he could tell about the exciting scene was that he had overheard "two old men talking on religion."[2] This from a lad of nine. Yet Brownson lived without Baptism to the age of nineteen.

As he became a man his own religious speculations gave him little comfort. To save himself from universal doubt, young Orestes joined the Presbyterians in October, 1822 But the Presbyterians failed to satisfy him. Spurning reason, Presbyterianism did not even claim her teaching was based upon divine authority. Yet she enforced it with the tyranny of a police state: ". . . while the church refused to take the responsibility of telling me what doctrines I must believe, while she sent me to the Bible and private judgment, she yet claimed authority to condemn and excommunicate me as a heretic, if I departed from the standard of doctrine contained in her Confession."[3] The hardheaded Vermonter could not tolerate such a state of affairs. He threw over Presbyterianism and continued his search for truth.

In 1825 Brownson became a Universalist preacher. He found it not without its difficulties. To Brownson's reason eternal punishment for sin seemed to destroy God's infinite mercy. The Universalists claimed the Bible taught salvation for Now, Brownson could plainly see that the letter of revelation spelled eternal death for sinners. Since neither Universalism, nor its adversary, Presbyterianism, spoke with divine authority, the Bible's words ought logically to face the court of reason. Devoid of any infallible interpreter, they did not seem reasonable to Brownson Yet, to claim, as his sect claimed, that really there was no difference between virtue and vice, saint and sinner, was equally unthinkable. Religion, without authority, placed Brownson in a quandary. "I had made nothing of my religious speculations, nothing of my inquiries as to the invisible and the heavenly, and reason counselled me, obliged me to leave them, to drop from the clouds, take my stand on the solid earth, and devote myself to the material order, to the virtue and happiness of mankind in this earthly life."[4]

Orestes Brownson drew up his new creed in 1829.

My creed shall consist of five points and shall embrace all the essentials of true religion

Art. I. I believe that every individual of the human family should be

Art. II. I believe that every one should be benevolent and kind to all.

Art. III. I believe that every one should use his best endeavors to procure food, clothing, and shelter for himself, and labor to enable all others to procure the same for themselves to the full extent of his ability.

Art. IV. I believe every one should cultivate his mental powers, that he may open to himself new sources of enjoyment, and also be enabled to aid his brethren in their attempts to improve the condition of the human race, and to increase the sum of human happiness.

Art. V. I believe that, if all mankind act on these principles, they serve God all they can serve him; that he who has this faith and conforms the nearest unto what it enjoins, is the most acceptable unto God.[5]

Flatly denying Christ's "Only one thing is necessary . . ." Brownson shouted from the housetops that food and clothing were all that mattered. The best way to secure heaven was to create heaven on earth. The only God that mattered was the God of humanity. To win this earthly paradise society and government must be organized. Brownson clung to this view from 1828 until 1842.[6]

The end was clear. How best to attain it? Brownson toyed with two ideas. There was the homespun communism of Robert Owen and the bizarre individualism of William Godwin.

Robert Owen, the manager of Dale's Cotton Mills, of New Lanark, Scotland, married the owner's daughter and inherited the plant. A spinner himself, Owen was anxious to ease the lives of his workers. He improved working conditions in the plant, encouraged thrift and good housekeeping. Production increased with the contentment of his men. Owen felt he had hit upon a plan that would change the face of the earth.

According to Owen, a man is passive, not active, in his education. Only the proper arrangement of circumstances is needed to give him the courage of Hector and the wisdom of Socrates. But property, marriage, and religion have betrayed him into bondage. Free him from these chains, put him on a plane of perfect equality with his fellows, and poverty, inequality, envy and crime will be no more.[7]

Putting his theory to the test, Owen came to the New World. He bought a tract of land in Indiana and called it New Harmony. It took only a few months of unbridled communism to disenchant poor Owen and turn New Harmony into bedlam.

Though Owen's teaching never fully convinced Brownson, it did awaken him to the crying need of social reform.[8]

William Godwin's teaching was another story. Godwin, the author of , was a successful English novelist. His daughter Mary, the creator of and the mistress of Shelley, was probably the fruit of his philosophy. For Godwin, life was a matter of justice. His intrinsic goodness determines each man's due. The better a man is, the more he has a claim on my love. "If his father, mother, or sister are more worthy than mine, then am I to love them more than mine."[9] On this basis of right, such institutions as marriage, property, and government are impossible. How pledge unwavering allegiance to one nation when the land across the border may be better? No undying fidelity to this woman, when the next may surpass her in virtue! Godwin did not abolish private property. Social justice, however, decreed that property belongs to him who needs it most. "If my neighbor needs what is in my possession, or some portion of it, more than I do, he has the right to take it without asking my leave. This doctrine rather pleased me, for I had less than my share, and therefore more to gain than to lose by it."[10]

Anarchy was Godwin's aim. He taught that the tyranny of civil government is the cause of evil in man. It must go and a reign of justice will arise. Man is eminently reasonable, with no horizon curtaining the vista of his mind's perfection. When this noble creature finds his rights respected and his freedom untrammelled, he will wholeheartedly observe the dictates of justice and Godwin's paradise on earth will begin.

For all his absurdity, Godwin profoundly influenced Brownson. He admits that, until he became a Catholic, he never tried to coerce his children's intellectual freedom by raising them in any religion. Why were his ideas better than theirs or another's?[11] Despite his enthusiasm, Brownson found the chink in Godwin's armor of justice.

Man is social by nature, and he has wants which can be met only by the provisions of society. Grant that the depravities of individual character originate in government, kingcraft and priestcraft; but in what have these originated? If they are unjust, as you maintain, there must be a source of injustice prior to them, and independent of them.[12]

Governments were no better than the men who made them. The problem then was to reform the individuals. But merely appealing to reason is so much beating of air when addressed to a man who knows good and yet wills evil. The individual intelligence, no matter how enlightened, is not enough. Only an efficient organization, teaching authoritatively, could sweep away the cobwebs of prejudice and superstition that stranded men's minds and bound their wills.

The inspiration of such an organization entered his life with the charming Fanny Wright.

In 1824 Frances Wright, a young Scotswoman, visited America in the suite of General Lafayette. The land was to her liking; but slavery, not at all. With the help of Thomas Jefferson she founded a utopia for slaves in Nashoba, Tennessee. Within two years her dream went the way of Owen's New Harmony. But the land was brave and Fanny was young And there were other than black men to free from their shackles. "The three great enemies to worldly happiness were held to be religion, marriage or family, and private property.... For religion we were to substitute science, that is, science of the world of the five senses only; for private property, a community of goods; and for private families, a community of wives."[13]

Religious superstition lived on the bogey of hell. Love was nothing but passion. The institution of marriage turned an instant of weakness into a lifetime of bondage. As Henry Brownson delicately phrased it: Fanny hoped the day would dawn "when, if a woman were a mother, the question would not be asked whether she were a wife."[14]

Only education could smash the manacles of convention. Fanny's state would take the child from his parents at the age of two. This would serve two purposes. First of all, it would render the permanence of marriage totally unnecessary. Without a family to support, the acquisition of private property could not be justified. A new era of freedom would begin. Secondly, the children, groomed to live in a communist state from their earliest years, would be the ideal citizens of tomorrow.[15]

The plan was radical, but it proposed to establish a system of free education that Brownson felt was essential to human progress.

After listening to her lecture in Auburn, New York, "Mr. O. A. Brownson held out the hand of fellowship," as Miss Wright trimly put it. He agreed to become corresponding editor of her

The success of their venture depended upon control of the schools. To capture the schools in the state of New York, Fanny Wright, and her associates, formed an underground movement very much like the Carbonari of Europe.

The members of this secret society were to avail themselves of all the means in their power, each in his own locality, to form public opinion in favor of education by the state at the public expense, and to get such men elected to the legislature as would be likely to favor our purposes. How far the secret organization extended, I do not know; but I do know that a considerable portion of the State of New York was organized, for I was myself one of the agents for organizing it.[16]

In 1828 Fanny's fellow conspirator, Robert Dale Owen, New Harmony Owen's son, helped to found in Philadelphia. The age of Jackson was dawning, and democracy was riding the crest of the political wave.

We hoped, by linking our cause with the ultra-democratic sentiment of the country, which had had, from the time of Jefferson and Tom Paine, something of an anti-Christian character, by professing ourselves . . . champions of equality, by expressing a great love . . . a deep sympathy for the laborer . . . by denouncing all proprietors as aristocrats, and by keeping the more unpopular features of our plan as far in the background as possible, to enlist the majority of the American people under the banner of the Working-Men's Party.[17]

For a year Brownson gave the Party loyal support. The movement very nearly grew to the proportions of a dominant political organization. Several leading journals of the National Republican Party sustained it.[18]

But a year of conspiracy convinced Brownson that the Workingman's Party was not what he was looking for. The Party could only stir up futile class warfare without hope of righting labor's wrongs. For the working-men were neither numerous enough nor strong enough to wield the power of the state.

Capital and credit, in its various forms and ramifications, is too strong for them. The movement we commenced could only excite a war of man against money; and all history and all reasoning in the case prove that in such a war money carries it over man. Money commands the supplies, and can hold out longer than they who have nothing but their manhood. It can starve them into submission.[19]

Moreover, Brownson had never fully approved of Fanny's "free-love" theories-at least "not in the present state of society."[20] Nor, as the father of a family, was he now so convinced that the state was necessarily the best teacher of his children. Education devoid of spiritual principles suddenly seemed gross. Even the religion of humanity grows cold if its God is nothing but a cultured animal. Would this "sort of learned pig," Frances Wright's citizen of tomorrow, be worth the sweat of a social savior?

In 1830 Brownson abandoned the Workingman's Party by supporting the Jackson candidate in New York's gubernatorial race.[21]

Though the young reformer had hit upon socialism's fundamental weakness, its crass materialism, he never underestimated the socialist's devotion to his cause. In words that have the modern ring of Whittaker Chambers about them, Brownson says:

I am convinced by my own experience that our philanthropists and world-reformers may become so engrossed in their plans that they do not experience that aching void within, that emptiness of all created things, which we sometimes imagine.... Even failures do not at once discourage them, for they find their relief in their doctrine of progress. ... We have failed today, but we shall succeed tomorrow.... Individuals die, but the race survives, is immortal.

We cannot reach the socialist, who has made a religion of his socialism, by appeals to his love of happiness, or to the failures of his undertakings.... He has certain aspects even of Christian truth.... In those aspects of truth which he has, and to which he is devoted, we must take our point of departure in leading him to renounce his errors.[22]

His time in the Workingman's Party convinced Brownson that not class warfare, but only co-operation among all levels of men could bring about a paradise on earth.[23] That co-operation could only take its stand upon heroic self-sacrifice. If socialist devotion must be denied, then only the heroism of religious conviction could fashion the strong fiber of such a co-operative effort. "I had fixed it in my mind that the creation of an earthly paradise . . . was the end for which I should labor; and I saw that I could not gain that end without the agency of religion. Therefore I . . . resumed my old profession of a preacher, though of what particular Gospel it would be difficult to say."[24]

The religion Orestes Brownson preached was nothing more than naturalism. In Jesus Christ burned the spark of divinity that glowed in the hearts of all men. "I took him as my model man, and regarded him as a moral and social reformer, who sought, by teaching the truth under a religious envelope, and practicing the highest and purest morality, to meliorate the earthly condition of mankind."[25]

Using the Bible as any good Protestant might, Brownson followed the example of the carnal Jews and gave an earth-bound sense to all the prophecies of the Messias. The words of the great Unitarian, William E. Channing, did not fall upon rocky ground when Brownson read his eulogy to the In his revolt against grim Calvinism, Dr. Channing had turned to Pelagius. As one of his fellow ministers impishly put it: "Dr. Channing makes man a great God and God a little man." Pelagian or not, Unitarianism gave Brownson new hope. In 1832 he became the pastor of a Unitarian flock in the rustic village of Walpole, New Hampshire.[26] Here Brownson sat down to a methodical study of philosophy and theology.[27]

Benjamin Constant's was just the kind of thought Brownson needed to formulate his own religious ideas as a springboard to social progress. Constant, a Liberal politician and philosopher out of tune with the reactionary France of Charles X, believed, nonetheless, that religion was an instinct deeply ingrained in human nature. The of this instinct, however, must develop with the race's intellectual progress. Each generation will necessarily embody this instinct in fixed forms and institutions.

But as men move forward these institutions must become antiquated, and have to be replaced.

The point of the theory which struck my attention, and influenced my studies and action, was the fact alleged, that man naturally seeks to embody his religious ideas and sentiments in institutions, and that these institutions serve as instruments of progress. What we now want, I said, is a new religious institution or church, one that will . . . respond to all the new wants which time and events have developed.[28]

In its day, Brownson believed, Catholicism had done its work. Protestantism, no religion at all, was the revolt of modern man against an antiquated institution. A new church must now rise upon the ruins of Rome to meet the needs of a new race of men and carry them on to progress. This new church was the Church of the Future, and Brownson became its prophet.[29]

Of Boston's seventy thousand souls, between twenty and thirty thousand did not regularly attend any religious meeting.[30] Most of them belonged to that working class that a socially conscious Protestantism successfully kept consigned to "its place." On the fringe were intellectuals, too closely hemmed in by Protestant orthodoxy. Lastly there were those who felt that the evangelical churches had failed to make men holy.[31] When Brownson vainly tried to unify the teaching of his Unitarian brother ministers, they suggested that the irksome preacher take his method to Boston's "infidels."[32] On the last Sunday of May, 1836, in Boston's Lyceum Hall, Brownson addressed his new congregation on the [33] With this sermon the was born. And every week, for seven years thereafter, Brownson preached Christ, the social reformer and democrat, to about five hundred devoted followers.[34]

Henry Brownson wryly points out:

The citizens of Boston generally were much pleased with the idea of having these disorganizers, agrarians, infidels, as they called them, gathered into a religious society and brought under religious influence. . . . They were far from being willing to allow him [Brownson] to animadvert freely on what was faulty in existing institutions, whether of church or state, and to entertain his hearers with any projects of reform beyond those of individual reform.[35]

The rested upon Benjamin Constant's premise that the expression of man's religious instinct is progressive. Doctrinally, Brownson Christianized the pantheistic basis of the St. Simonians' corporative state.[36] As a result of the social action of the Society, he hoped that the Church of the Future would arise, and with it, a paradise on earth.

The mission of Jesus Christ, Brownson taught, was one of atonement. Not atonement for sin, but rather at-one-ment between two forces fighting for power in His age: the spiritualism of Asia and the materialism of Greece and Rome. From spirit came God, the soul, the priesthood, faith, heaven, eternity. Out of matter came man, the state, reason, earth, and time Their striving for power pitted God against man, state against priesthood, faith against reason, earth against time.

Now, if we conceive Jesus as standing between spirit and matter, the representative of both-God Man-the point where both meet and lose their antithesis, laying a hand on each and saying, "Be one, as I and my Father are one," thus sanctifying both and marrying them in a mystic and holy union, we shall have his secret thought and the true idea of Christianity.[37]

The old Catholic Church, according to Brownson, had never fully understood Jesus' message. The apostles preached a spiritual kingdom and condemned matter as intrinsically evil. Protestantism was the revolt of matter against spirit, the claims of this earth against the dreams of mystics. Obviously neither church had grasped Jesus' full teaching. The Church of the Future would be the true church of Christ, calling a truce to this war of matter and spirit.

. . . the new doctrine of the atonement reconciles these two warring systems . . . spirit is real and holy, matter is real and holy . . . God is holy and man is holy.... One is not required to be sacrificed to the other; both may and should coexist as separate elements of the same grand and harmonious whole.[38]

Brownson's concept of the atonement of Jesus would divinize humanity by uniting it with God. As a consequence, inhumanity would become as rare as sacrilege.

Man will shudder at the bare idea of enslaving so noble a being as man.... Wars will fail.... Man will not dare to mar and mangle the shrine of the Divinity.... Education will destroy the empire of ignorance.... Civil freedom will become universal.... All will be seen to be brothers and equals in the sight of their common Father. The church will be on the side of progress.... Industry will be holy. The cultivation of the earth will be the worship of God. Workingmen will be priests.... He that ministers at the altar must be pure, will be said of the mechanic, the agriculturist, the common laborer....[39]

"The Christian thought, as it existed in the mind of Jesus of Nazareth, I maintained, was coincident with democracy."[40] His kingdom was not merely interested in a man's soul. It was a kingdom of peace and justice for the poor. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach glad tidings to the poor to heal them that are bruised, to bind up the broken hearted, to set the captives free." The poor were the heirs of his kingdom and the wealthy were dispossessed. Publicans and harlots would be honored sons and daughters when the scribes and the Pharisees were begging at the gates. Pomp and human pride would be stripped away. Simple naked humanity became divine in Christ the Atoner. The kingdom of Christ would be the kingdom of the common man.

Here was that Christian democracy, as I called it, which constituted the substance of my preaching for ten or eleven years. It was substantially the doctrine of Dr. Channing.... It had a powerful champion in the unhappy Abbe de La Mennais.... Even the pious and philosophical Rosmini seemed, in his work on the , to look towards it.... It can be detected, in some of its phases, in Padre Ventura's famous Funeral Oration on Daniel O'Connell. It is, as the Cardinal Archbishop of Rheims has well remarked, "the great heresy of the nineteenth century."[41]

It is Christ, the great democrat, who brings the truth that makes men free. His government would rule for the common good of all men, irrespective of the accidents of birth, rank or condition. But before Christian democracy could become a practical reality, Brownson saw it had to have the patronage of some influential organization. Its very ideal of justice and equality pointed out the path to be followed.

I saw or thought I saw in the American political constitution the germ of the very organization I was in pursuit of.... It was thought that, by uniting with the Democratic party, at once the conservative and the movement party of the country, and indoctrinating it with our philosophical, theological, and humanitarian views, we could make it the instrument of realizing our ideas of men and society.[42]

In 1838 Brownson founded the , and every issue, after the first, was devoted to this plan of indoctrinating the Democratic Party with the ideals of Christian democracy.[43] Among its contributors could be found some of New England's flowering : the historian, George Bancroft; the philosopher, Theodore Parker; the social thinker of Brook Farm, George Ripley; and the blue-stocking defender of female rights, Sarah Margaret Fuller.[44]

Bancroft, especially, seemed anxious to enlist Brownson's fine mind in the cause of Democracy and candidate Martin Van Buren. In a letter to Brownson he said:

With your newspaper which I often see, I am much charmed. On the principle of the advance of humanity Mr. Van Buren is sincerely with us. That and that only is the cause of the intense bitterness of the Whigs.... The country is Democratic; the people need a higher conviction, a clearer consciousness of its democracy. It is during Mr. V. B.'s administration, that the work will go on. The government cannot be improved except by the advance and improvement of the people.[45]

Shortly after Van Buren was inaugurated, Bancroft, now collector of the port of Boston, offered Brownson the stewardship of the Marine Hospital in Chelsea. To the victor belongs the spoils! After some hesitation Brownson accepted, on condition that his position would in no way hinder his freedom to think and write as he pleased.[46]

Eighteen thirty-six was not a happy year for radicals. For the past half-decade the country had been living on a dangerously expanded economy. Public lands offered a field-day for speculators buying on easy credit and gambling on the future. The bottom shifted and rumbled when the Jackson Administration demanded specie payments for public lands. It sagged and crumbled when grain failed in America and Europe; English creditors called in American loans, and the out-of-work shuffled aimlessly amid the shambles of 1837.[47]

Unemployment and depression were enough to cool Brownson's enthusiasm for the Democratic Party, but there was something else that made him strike out at Van Buren's administration in the crucial election of 1840. He saw what the Party was doing to himself:

I found myself acquiring a prominent position in the Democratic Party, and in a fair way of becoming one of its trusted leaders; but in proportions as I acquired the confidence of the party, I found myself less disposed to insist on my doctrines of social reform.... I might aspire to the highest posts in the state and nation, and even gain them . . . but in gaining them, I must give up my personal freedom and independence, and follow as well as lead my party.... Let me go on as I am going . . . and I shall forget all my early purposes, abandon the work to which I have consecrated my life....[48]

Disgusted with what he considered to be the political hypocrisy of the Democrats, the only straight-forward thing to do was to make use of Bancroft's guarantee and publish his views on democracy, cost what it might. In July, 1840, four months before Van Buren had to battle "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" at the polls, Brownson's essay on appeared in St. Simonian in content, and not differing from anything he had said or previously published, this of his social thought raised a furor by the very impact of its systematic thoroughness.

The Democrats, he chided, proudly called themselves the "party of equality against privilege." And yet, they did nothing to strike at the roots of inequality. Under the wage system those who produce the wealth of the land with their hands grow poorer while "the highest salaries are attached to the offices which demand of their incumbents the least amount of actual labor, either mental or manual...."[49] Comparing the two systems of labor for wages and slave labor, the latter seems less oppressive. The wage-slave bears all the burdens of freedom and none of its blessings. Why does the average worker take so little interest in the negro slave? Simply because he feels that if anyone is to be free, he has first call.

Political freedom is mockery to a man chained with poverty. The very administration of justice is usually too expensive really to defend his rights. Nor are all men truly equal before the law. In the state of New York, workers are imprisoned because they dared to strike for a just wage. "Yet manufacturers, flour dealers, physicians, and lawyers may band together on the same principle, for a similar end, form their trade unions, and no law is violated."[50] By letter of the law, the penalties for crimes are visited upon rich and poor alike with blind impartiality, but little equity. The sentence may mean a fine, or, failing that, imprisonment. Twenty dollars means nothing to a rich man, but a poor man may have to put half a year's labor upon the block to keep himself out of jail.

If the Democrats would sincerely restore equality, said Brownson, they must first of all destroy the priesthood. "The priest is universally a tyrant, universally the enslaver of his brethren and, therefore, it is Christianity that condemns him."[51] The priesthood is a class set apart. Every social messias has set upon it as an enemy of progress. It was so with the prophets, it was so with Jesus Christ.[52] The priesthood, Catholic and Protestant alike, is based upon authority-yet it denies the authority of reason and wages war against freedom of thought. Commissioned to battle sin, it condemns only sins no one commits. Its pulpits are silent when, before them, wealthy parishioners grind their workers into dust. What are these hireling priests doing to set up the kingdom of God on earth?

Once the priesthood is finished, pure Christianity will establish Christ's kingdom of peace. Justice will reign and the laws of the land will defend the workers. "The first legislation wanted was such as would free the state and federal governments from the control of the banks and secure the destruction of the latter. Then all privilege and monopoly should be abolished, hereditary descent of property with the rest."[53]

Secondly, the danger that Hilaire Belloc was to call "The Servile State" was real. Large corporations were rising from the death of competition.

The multiplication of large corporations is bringing the laborers under the control of corporate bodies, which check individual enterprise, lessen competition between individual capitalists, bind the capitalists together in close affinity of interest, and enable them to exert sovereign control over the prices of labor. In a few years more they will be able to reduce wages to the minimum . . . and there will grow up around them a population enfeebled in mind and body, without either the mental or physical energy to shift its employment or make a firm stand for the amelioration of its condition.[54]

Brownson did not demand a strong central government. But to stave off the day when a single corporation might be strong enough to dictate to a state, he did demand that the governments of the individual states control, within limits, business' rising power. So long as the central government did not positively legislate against labor, let it "leave all the great interests of the country to the natural and immutable laws of trade."[55]

While condemning the concentration of wealth, Brownson did not question the natural right to private property. But he did not think this natural right extended to inheritance.[56] By inheritance the reign of the wealthy was perpetuated without toil. God gave the earth so that each might have his fair share. In a democracy all men ought to be equal. Inheritance denied an equal distribution of land to all.[57] Inheritance must go.

In its broad line, this was Brownson's plan for reform. He was realistic enough to admit that this plan would never be peacefully legislated. Nor was the time yet ripe for the bloody revolution that would raise Brownson's concept of Christian democracy to power. But an opening might be made in men's minds by discussing the problem; hence Brownson's essay.[58]

Discussion there was a-plenty. Had the Whigs hired Brownson to betray their Democratic rivals, he could not have better served them. His unfailing logic showed all just how far the Democratic Party would have to go to win that equality for the masses of which they boasted. And, of course, no good American could tolerate such Jacobin nonsense! The Democrats tried to disavow Brownson, but to no avail. Though the Panic of 1837 did more than its share, Van Buren blamed his defeat in November upon Brownson's stupid straight-forwardness.[59]

His experience with the Democrats had disillusioned Brownson. The presidential race of 1840, with its ballyhoo and hysteria, revealed the utter shallowness of the mass of men. How many social saviors had risen to lead men to new heights? Yet, despite their efforts, man had not added an inch to his social stature. Was Brownson so much wiser than these reformers that he would succeed where they had failed? No. It would take more than a political party or a self-appointed prophet to bring Christian democracy into existence. Neither a political party nor the school of a prophet was stronger than the men who made it up. Christ's democratic way of life seemed to demand more than poor human nature had to offer.

Man is now below what I would have him, and behind the goal I propose for him. I propose his progress; I propose to elevate him in virtue and happiness. But if he is below what I would have him, how, with him alone, am I to elevate him? Man is what he is, and, with only man, how am I to make him, or is he to become, more than he now is? . . . No man can rise above himself, or lift himself by his own waistband.[60]

A study of Pierre Leroux, a St. Simonian associate of George Sand and Abbe de Lamennais, gave Brownson an inkling of an answer.

All nature, taught Leroux, witnesses the truth that there can be no growth save by assimilation from without. No acorn becomes an ask without soil, no cub a bear without food. Nor can a man grow in body or in soul without food for that body and reality for that soul. For Leroux objectivity was essential, and he solved the perennial difficulty of objective knowledge by pointing out that thought is a synthesis of two facts: subject and object. For Brownson, shut up in Hume's sensist world, this was lifting the latch on intellectual reality.[61]

The subject cannot think without the concurrence of the object and the object cannot be thought without the concurrence of the subject, or thinker.... The object affirms itself in the fact of consciousness as object, as distinct from, and independent of, the subject; and the subject recognizes itself as subject, as thinker, and therefore as distinct from and opposed to the object.[62]

Being finite, man does not know himself immediately. Only God can be the object of His own intelligence. Man totally depends upon the object outside of himself, not only for his knowledge, but as a condition of his existence and his progress.

Man lives and can live only by communion with what is not himself.... In himself alone, cut off from all not himself, he is neither a progressive nor a living being. His body must have food from without, and so must his heart and his soul. Hence his elevation, his progress, as well as his very existence, depend on the object. He cannot lift himself, but must be lifted by placing him in communion with a higher and elevating object.[63]

According to Leroux, there are three types of communication necessitated by human existence and progress: communication with nature, with other men, and with God. A man communicates with nature through property, with his fellowmen through the family and the state, and with God through humanity. Brownson agreed that the first two communications were indispensable for human living. And a raising to some kind of union with God was needed if the human race was to progress. But communing with God through humanity was not essentially different or more noble than man's work-a-day contacts with his neighbors. Such a communication would give a man nothing he did not already naturally possess, and consequently would not raise him above what he already was.[64]

God, as the divine object of our life, must present himself in a higher order, or we are not elevated above or advanced beyond what we already are. I was obliged, then, either to give up all my hopes of progress, or abandon my doctrine of no God but the God in man.... I must recognize God as superior to humanity, independent of nature, and intervening as Providence in human affairs, and giving us, so to speak, more of himself, than he gives in nature.[65]

If men were to progress, Brownson concluded, God would have to take a hand in human affairs and lift men to new heights by somehow lifting them to Himself. Here was an approach to the supernatural, an approach that led to a new sphere of religious reality. The concept of a providential creator, lifting humanity with careful hands, was a far cry from the remote Jehovah of Calvin or the powerless mechanic Hume called God.

But had God ever found a way to raise men up to Himself and progress? Scanning history Brownson pointed out that God had sent out certain men to lead the race, or at least a part of it, forward. Brownson ventured that, at different times in history, God lifted certain "providential men to an extraordinary or supernatural communion with himself; they would live a divine life, and we by communion with them would also be elevated, and live a higher and more advanced life."[66] Zoroaster, Confucius, the prophets, all were men on a mission from God: to communicate to humanity a fuller share of the divine life. But Jesus Christ was the providential man for the ages. He came with the fullness of divine life and truth. The man Jesus Christ, said Brownson, might well have been taken up into immediate union with God. Since life is such a union of subject and object, Christ could be said to live a divine-human life. Was not the Incarnation the actualization of the divine in the human?[67] By communing with Christ in their turn, the apostles lived a life that made them one with God and one with each other, for Christ, the divine-human life, was their object. This communication raised them above their natural life and put them forward on the path to progress. This kind of communication, Brownson thought, was what the Church meant when she talked of the mystery of Holy Communion.[68]

When the apostles became the objects of their disciples' knowledge, they passed on Christ's divine life from one generation to the next. This communication of life down through the ages, according to Brownson, was what the Church means by apostolic succession.

A virtue evidently, according to the principle of life, must have been communicated by the apostles to their successors. They who have not received this virtue cannot be true ministers of Jesus. For how can I communicate to others the divine life of Jesus, if I have not myself received that life? The doctrine of apostolic succession teaches us simply that the church has held that this divine life is communicable from man to man by spiritual generation. Hence with singular propriety has she called her clergy, [69]

This participation in the divine life gave true meaning to the divinity of humanity and the brotherhood of men under the fatherhood of God.

The injury done to the life of one man is an injury done to the life of all men; the least significant member, however incrusted with filth or polluted with sin, cannot suffer but the whole body must suffer with him. Regard for our own welfare and distinterested regard for others may combine then to ameliorate the moral, intellectual, and physical condition of mankind.[70]

In applying Leroux's philosophy of life to Christianity Brownson discovered Christ. Christ is the very heart, the life of Christianity. For the first time he realized that Christianity without Christ was nothing but a club. True Christianity is dynamic, a participation in the life of Jesus Christ. Those who share in this Christ-life form one universal organism, the Church.

Hence I have the church, not as an association . . . of individuals, but as an organism, one and catholic,-one because its life is one, catholic because it includes all who live the life.... The life of Christ is . . . the principle of life, and, operating in the body, assimilates individuals as the human body assimilates ... food.... It [the church] is no sham, no illusion, but the real body of Christ, a real living organism, and in some sense a continuation of the Incarnation.[71]

Since progress and salvation depended upon living this Christ- life, no one could advance to the heights of Christ's kingdom without it. Outside of Christ's church there was no salvation.[72] Since it was the sole source of salvation, the only way to the kingdom of God, this church obviously had ample authority to teach. Its Bible, holding the doctrine of life, was, beyond dispute, the word of God.[73]

Superficial as his concept of the Mystical Body may have been, Brownson had come to see that God could somehow supernaturalize human nature by quickening it with a supernatural principle that would lift it to a goal above its capabilities. Here was the answer to the mystery of progress.

But if God had found a way to lift men up, where was that way? Which of the sects that cluttered Christendom was the living church of Christ? The Protestant sects, with one possible exception, could claim to be nothing but man-made associations of pious people. Their pedigree stemmed from some year after the dawn of the sixteenth century and they could trace no unbroken line of ancestry back to Christ, the God-man. For the man who believed God had established a church, there were only two choices, as Brownson saw it: the Quakers or Roman Catholicism.

The Quakers made themselves equal to Christ by claiming that God lifted each man of them to immediate union with Himself in this life through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. The Quaker Church, they claimed, was a realm of truth, righteousness and love stemming from immediate union with God. It was not the way of progress, but rather its culmination and end, perfection. Brownson denied this claim. The facts of the case belied it.

My mistakes concerning the church formerly arose from not making a distinction between the church as a mediator, and the end to be effected. I saw clearly the end, and stated, if we had that we wanted nothing else. In this I was right. But it so happened, the world had not attained the end, the mediatorial work was by no means completed. Means are still wanted. This I saw, and then I looked around to find what provision of means God had made for us, and I found that these means were all embodied in the Church Catholic.[74]

If the end had not been attained, then only Roman Catholicism could claim to be the means to that end. For it alone embodied Brownson's concept of the living church of Christ. It alone traced its ancestry back to Jesus Christ, the divine-human object. Christ's life was passed on by the Church. Because this life is a communication of subject with object, this church has to be visible. Necessarily the Church demands the adherence of its members, for it alone is the channel of Christ's life. In passing on this life it cannot fail, for "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it . . ." and again, "Lo, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world."[75]

If Christ is God, and by the middle of 1844 Brownson understood this in the Catholic sense,[76] then the Roman Catholic Church is the way He chose to lift men up to progress.

In the church is ever present the Holy Ghost, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, but who is one with the Father and the Son. As in the days when Jesus, as son of Mary, tabernacled in the flesh, we would have approached him bodily, and sat at his feet in order to come to God and learn of him; so now we must approach the church, the reproduction and continuation, so to speak, of his body.... Such is our radical conception of the church. It is to Christ what Christ was to the Father....[77]

On Oct. 20, 1844, Orestes A. Brownson abjured Protestantism and became a Catholic. He faced and answered the problem confronting many thoughtful men today. There are two ways to change the social order: destroy it with socialism, or reform it with religious truth. No one better than the man who sifted to nothingness the dreams of Godwin, Owen, Fanny Wright, and the St. Simonians knew the futility of socialism. Christ, with His "only one thing is necessary," brings the answer.

St. Bernard, living on the water in which pulse had been boiled... is more to be envied than Apicius at his feast; and far better was it for Lazarus, who begged the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, than for the rich man who fared sumptuously everyday.... You must once more make voluntary poverty honorable, and canonize anew, not your rich old sinner, gorged with the spoils of widow and orphan . . . but the man who voluntarily submits to poverty, that he may lay up riches in heaven....

God has told us what is the kingdom of heaven, in what it consists, and how we may enter therein.... Raise man above the world, if you would make him blessed while in the world.[78]

Immaculate Conception Seminary Oconomowoc, Wisconsin


1 Orestes A. Brownson, "The Convert," , ed. by Henry F. Brownson (Detroit: Thorndike Nourse, 1884), V, 5.

2 .

3 , p. 13.

4 ., p. 40.

5 ., p. 44.

6 ., p. 48.

7 ., pp. 41-42

8 ., pp. 40-43.

9 ., p. 52.

10 ., p. 52.

11 ., p. 53.

12 ., p. 55

13 ., p. 60.

14 Henry F. Brownson, (Detroit: H. F. Brownson, 1898), p. 40.

15 Brownson, Orestes A., V, 60.

16 ., p. 62.

17 ., p. 63.

18 Brownson, Henry F., , p. 47.

19 Brownson, Orestes A., , V, 64.

20 ., p. 61.

21 ., p. 63.

22 ., pp. 49-50.

23 ., p. 64.

24 ., p. 66.

25 ., p. 69.

26 Brownson, Henry F., , p. 85.

27 Brownson, Orestes A., , V, 70.

28 ., p. 73.

29 ., p. 74.

30 Brownson, Henry F., , p. 138.

31 ., p. 143.

32 Sister Mary Rose Gertrude Whalen, C.S.C., (South Bend, Indiana: The Chimes Press, 1936) p. 93.

33 Brownson, Henry F., p. 138.

34 ., p. 140.

35 ., p. 148.

36 The disciples of St. Simon conceived the ideal state as a smoothly operating organism, perfectly reconciling, in itself, the demands of matter and spirit. This reconciliation was brought about by dividing society into three classes: the artists, the scientists, and the industrial workers. The two latter classes, under the wise influence of the artists, humanists, , would meet the demands of man's total nature by their co-operative productivity. This perfectly balanced society would manifest, in its turn, the perfection of God. "This ocean of matter in which we swim is the body, or better yet, the heart of the infinite being we call God." J. Tonneau, "Saint-Simon," XIV, colt 790-94.

37 Brownson, Orestes A., "New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church," IV, 8.

38 ., p. 47.

39 ., pp. 48-49.

40 Brownson, Orestes A., "The Convert," V, 99.

41 ., p. 101.

42 ., p. 110.

43 ., p. 111.

44 Brownson, Henry F., , p. 219.

45 ., p. 180.

46 ., p. 212.

47 Reginald C. McGrane, "The Panic of 1837," , ed. James T. Adams, IV, 208.

48 Brownson, Orestes A., "The Convert," , V, 119.

49 Brownson, Henry F., , p. 241.

50 ., p. 256.

51 ., p. 245.

52 ., p. 244.

53 ., p. 248.

54 ., p. 283.

55 ., p. 285.

56 , p. 261.

57 ., p. 264.

58 ., p. 248.

59 Henry F. Brownson, "Brownson," , III, 1-2.

60 Brownson, Orestes A., "The Convert," , V, 123.

61 ., p. 124.

62 ., p. 128.

63 ., p. 129.

64 ., p. 131

65 ., p. 132.

66 ., p. 133.

67 Brownson, Orestes A., "The Mediatorial Life of Jesus," , IV, 149, 169.

68 ., p. 165.

69 ., pp. 162-63.

70 , p. 165.

71 Brownson, Orestes A., "The Convert," , V, 147.

72 .

73 Brownson, Orestes A., "The Mediatorial Life of Jesus," , IV, 169.

74 Brownson, Henry F., , pp. 465-66.

75 , pp. 456-57.

76 ., p. 464.

77 Brownson, Orestes A., "Sparks On Episcopacy," IV, 562.

78 Brownson, Orestes A., "Church Unity and Social Amelioration," IV, 525.

Taken from the August 1954 issue of "The American Ecclesiastical Review."

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN