Wedged between the old theology office building and the University church on Fordham's Rose Hill campus in the Bronx is a stately bronze bust of Orestes Brownson. Rarely have I heard a student ask who this man was, but I have often seen the bust wrapped in a Fordham scarf or sporting a Fordham baseball cap. Whoever "Brownson" is, he's one of ours. Fordham's links to Brownson are not unique. There are many other colleges that could lay some claim to him (the University of Notre Dame claims his bones—they are in the crypt in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart). He crisscrossed the country going from one speaking engagement to the next: hall to hall, church to church, campus to campus. He was the most popular lay Catholic American orator and writer of the nineteenth century.
Patrick Carey of Marquette's Theology Department tells us why. Carey is probably the country's leading expert on all things Brownson, having spent the last twenty years sifting through Brownsoniana, editing a collection of his writing for the "Sources of American Spirituality" series published by Paulist Press (1991), and now directing his efforts at completing a projected seven-volume set of Brownson's early works. Carey's present volume forms part of a string of highly acclaimed books published by noted historians in the Library of Religious Biography series under the Eerdmans imprint. The series lists biographies that are free of academic notation; bibliographic essays and detailed indexes are provided instead. Carey delivers a biography that does the near Herculean task of tracking major religious, intellectual, and political influences on Brownson and seeing them in light of a turbulent century marred by war, racial and social unrest, and a virulent anti-Catholicism.
Brownson's life (1803-1876) is not easily categorized, let alone catalogued, given his prodigious output. As a youth and well into manhood, Brownson dabbled in Universalism, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, Unitarianism and finally Catholicism. In 1844 Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston received him into the Church. The subtitle of Carey's book is therefore apt. The first four chapters pertain to Brownson's intellectual struggle for a religious home and we see how a two-fold doctrine of biblical revelation and life in communion begin to take hold in Brownson's mind. These foundational aspects of Brownson's thought recurred with greater frequency and importance, Carey argues, as Brownson found himself embroiled in many of the major nineteenth century political and religious controversies. We see it, for instance, in Brownson's early assessments of states' rights over slavery or, between 1860 and 1864, his repeated calls for freedom within the church itself. These principles would not always be applied with equal force or efficacy. Brownson's views on the preservation of the Union, for instance, often found him belittling abolitionists. Only later was he convinced that emancipation of slaves was central to the war effort and once convicted, he saw the necessity of somehow dealing with the "Negro question" in a manner befitting the interests of the nation, not simply of the North or South. Carey rightly points out that Brownson never condemned slavery outright but in fact manifested a rather clear position of racial bigotry both in print and in his lectures, a rather nauseating aspect of his character that Carey somewhat uncritically chalks up to being an echo of the majority opinion.
The next five chapters relate the transition into Catholicism and it was not easy, either financially or socially. Nearly all his intimates in New England abandoned him or shunned him in print. Brownson was fortunate in that he had an able companion and fellow convert in Isaac Hecker to sound out his reasoning. But the conversion made Brownson somewhat hardnosed. He argued against Newman's idea of doctrinal development (and thought little of the Oxford Movement in general). He believed his way of perceiving the proper relationship between the church and the state was best. He urged Catholic assimilation into the Union and an abandonment of "ethnic" Catholicism. Shortly after moving to New York, Brownson gave Fordham's commencement address in 1856, where he solicited some unfriendly remarks from Archbishop John Hughes. This initiated some heated exchanges between the two. Brownson eventually moved out of the see of New York in 1858 in part to avoid Hughes' jurisdiction and continue to publish freely.
In perhaps his best chapter, Carey describes the years 1856-1864 as producing a "synthetic vision" in which Brownson, mainly through the pages of Brownson's Quarterly Review, began to articulate a theologically grounded program for American political culture. In the process, he raised the Review to be one of the single best journals of Catholic opinion then available. Carey's examination of the themes Brownson undertook is essential for anyone hoping to understand both the period and the man. As one of the most prolific and restless personalities of his time, Brownson could not help but make a few enemies, including a number of bishops—a fact illustrated in reactions to Brownson's writing on the temporal power of the pope relative to the Italian unification question as well as his peculiar brand of ultramontanism, especially on the infallibility question raised by the Vatican Council. He was often delated to Propaganda Fide, which never placed Brownson under any serious scrutiny or censure. Arguably, Brownson's orthodoxy was always secure.
Carey's book presents a man who is perhaps overly cerebral, more occupied by ideas than his own family, though he does acknowledge (sparingly) what a toll the deaths of five children had. We do not find much that relates the social portrait of someone who had an open door policy in his home and frequently entertained and received guests. That, of course, is not the objective of this study, which is precisely to unpack a life filled up by ideas. It is on those same ideas this lay Catholic left an indelible mark. Carey rightly points to them as if to underscore how vital they still are. Given last fall's politico-religious brouhaha, there is little doubt that the concerns Brownson had are still very much in play.