Orestes Explains It All for You

March 1992By David Hartman

The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

Orestes A. Brownson: Selected Writings.  Edited by Patrick W. Carey. Paulist. 321 pages. $24.95.



Euripides' tragedy Orestes opens with the hero dead asleep and his sister Electra bemoaning how things have generally gone to blazes: Troy sacked; their father, Agamemnon, murdered by their mother, Clytemnestra; Clytemnestra slain in turn by Orestes, who awakes to ask, “Whence came I hither? How is it I am here? For I have lost all previous recollection and remember nothing.” That lack of remembrance could have foreshadowed his namesake, Orestes Brownson (the Freudians could have a field day with this — what mother would name her son after a matricide?), who changed religions almost with the harvests and finally came to rest in Rome.

To understand the turbulence and range of American religion in the early days of the Republic, one can do one of two things: One can read the works of New England Calvinist divines like Jonathan Edwards; Universalists like Hosea Reilly; independent restorationists like Thomas and Alexander Campbell; Unitarians like William Ellery Channing; and Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker; topping the exercise off with a helping of Catholic apologists (John Hughes, say). One can do all those things, or one can read Orestes Brownson by himself, who, in his magazines, notably Brownson's Quarterly Review, wrote almost as much as all the rest put together and at one time or another held every one of their beliefs.

Brownson acknowledged that he had “gained a sneer…for my versatility and frequent changes of opinions.” Nor did his personality compensate for his “versatility”: Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May) thought “the marvels of holiness…beyond [his] grasp.” Theodore Parker thought him “intellectual always, but spiritual never…not a Christian, but only a verbal index of Christianity….” Even Archbishop John Hughes of New York, who might otherwise have welcomed such a renowned convert, found him exasperating, and publicly ridiculed him during commencement exercises at Fordham University. After all, how receptive could any prelate be to a new Catholic who had already had a half-dozen very public conversions, and who had previously published declarations like, “The beau ideal of a good Christian [according to Catholicism] was one who renounced all his connections with the world…immured himself in a cave or cell, and did nothing the live-long day but count his beads and kiss the crucifix,” or, “Catholicism…was a noble institution in its time…. Its vices — and they need not be disguised — appertain to the fact that it has lingered beyond its hour…. Its work was long since done, its purpose accomplished, and it now only occupies the space that should be filled with another institution.” For most of his editorial life, Brownson had the smack-inviting persona of the know-it-all, a Sir Oracle, someone whose ipse dixit he thinks to be vox Dei.

I digress. Perceiving Brownson's charms may be an acquired taste, but his frequent conversions were less evidence of infidelity than of a restless heart questing for ultimate meaning. The fact is, when Brownson was right — and he was very often right, even prophetic, especially in his Catholic days — he had a near-unerring capacity to alienate his audience. When a free-thinker, he was the archetype of one enamored of the Gospels who concludes, with a pittance of proof, that the subsequent life of the Church was ruined by the naifs, numskulls, and criminal types who invariably ran it. When he became a Catholic, his work became weightier — opaque, even — but he was still capable of citing the lyrics of the sublime hymnist Isaac Watts to prove a point, and then casually dismissing him with “heretic as he was.”

What he never lacked was the courage of his convictions, whatever they happened to be at the time. He certainly didn't become a Catholic in 1844 because it was a socially estimable thing to do. Bigotry against large-scale Irish immigration was coupled with virulent anti-Catholicism. Lurid propaganda like Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal (which had sold 300,000 copies by 1860) incited the credulous. The anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” Party (so called because of its origins in a secret society) was surging, and in 1856 society member and former President Millard Fillmore ran for his old office under its banner. The year of Brownson's conversion a nativist riot in Philadelphia resulted in the burning of two Catholic churches and dozens of Irish homes; 13 people lost their lives. A similar atrocity was prevented in New York only because Archbishop Hughes placed large numbers of armed men around every Catholic church.

Why, then, did Orestes Brownson become a Catholic? For the same reason that John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton did: He concluded that Catholicism is true, and didn't give a damn for the consequences. Brownson lacked Newman and Chesterton's winsomeness, but not their passion for truth. He is worth reading not so much for his explication of doctrine as for the fact that he was a uniquely American phenomenon. He could not have been duplicated apart from his place — or time. His selected writings, splendidly edited and introduced here by Patrick W. Carey in the Paulist Press's very useful “Sources of American Spirituality” series, touch upon his various religious phases, culminating, of course, in his Catholicism, where even his unbridled controversialism could find a home (he became an Ultramontanist). Thirty-two years after his last conversion, he died in the arms of the Church.



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