The Weathercock and the Mystic: The Prophetic Friendship of Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker

Except for a few saints and possibly a handful of bishops, Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker were the two most interesting American Catholics of the 19th century. They were certainly the most intellectually interesting and, in the long run, the most influential. The matters they agreed on, and especially those they disagreed on, are crucial to today’s debate about Catholic identity and the future of the Church in America. Together, Brownson and Hecker not only anticipated its terms but, almost despite themselves, pointed to its ideal outcome.
It hardly needs saying that America in the middle decades of the century before last — roughly from the 1850s through the 1870s — was very different from America today. Still, many of the issues Brownson, Hecker, and their colleagues and antagonists confronted and fought about have contemporary parallels: for crassness and commercialism then, crassness and consumerism now; for anti-Catholic nativism, anti-Christian secular humanism; for ethnic conflict between Catholic Irish-Americans and Catholic German-Americans, ideological conflict between Catholic liberals and conservatives; for slavery and the Civil War, abortion and the culture war.
Hecker biographer David J. O’Brien calls the Brownson-Hecker relationship “one of the great stories of American Catholic history.” Indeed it was. But even those who know the story often fail to grasp its message for American Catholics. In their collaboration and their conflict, these two men framed the central question for the Church in the United States, relevant both then and now: Is it possible to be fully American and fully Catholic at one and the same time? In doing so, they underlined the still-unresolved issue of whether Catholic evangelization in America is a pipe dream or a realistic possibility.
‘The Weathercock Rules’
Orestes Brownson was born in Stockbridge, Vermont, on September 16, 1803. His father died when he was two years old, and the little boy was separated from his mother and four siblings and raised by an elderly couple who were non-practicing Congregationalists. While receiving almost no formal schooling, he had a powerful intellect and was a voracious reader and determined autodidact.
Religion obsessed Brownson from an early age, and the bubbling stew of new movements and ideas that was the American religious scene in the 1820s and 1830s suited him perfectly. First he tried Presbyterianism. Next came Universalism — Brownson served as a Universalist minister at several places in upstate New York — followed by Unitarianism and even, for a short time in Boston, his own “Church of the Future.”
In Boston, Brownson fell in with the Transcendentalists. Major figures in that avant-garde movement — Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and others — became his colleagues and friends. In these years, too, he earned a growing reputation as an editor of periodicals and as a writer and popular lecturer. He read widely in current philosophy and theology and argued heatedly about religion and social issues. In 1837 he launched a journal called the Boston Quarterly Review.By the early 1840s he was a national figure with a substantial audience.
In late 1841 or early 1842 Brownson had a life-changing religious experience that opened his eyes to what he called the “freedom of God.” God, he explained, is “not a resistless fate, an iron necessity, inaccessible to human prayer…but a kind and merciful Father who hears when his children cry, and is ready, able, and willing to supply all their wants.” The insight spurred him to resume his religious quest, and in short order the quest led him to Catholicism. On October 20, 1844, Brownson was formally received into the Catholic Church.
Old friends found this move impossible to comprehend on any grounds except Brownson’s well-known changeableness. In his Fable for Critics (1848), after speaking of Emerson and Alcott, James Russell Lowell wrote of Brownson:
He shifts quite about, then proceeds to expound
That ’tis merely the earth, not himself, that turns
And wishes it clearly impressed on your mind
That the weathercock rules and not follows the wind.
Biographer Patrick W. Carey calls Brownson “an American intellectual activist” whose best insights were sometimes buried under a too-copious output of journalism and polemical rhetoric. It’s a verdict many would share: “Not an academic specialist…more like an American Renaissance man, always engaged on many different fronts.”{mospagebreak}
‘Angelic Pure Being’
Preceding Brownson into the Church by several months was Isaac Hecker, 16 years his junior and a disciple of Brownson since 1841. “God alone knows how much I am indebted to him,” Hecker wrote many years later. Born December 18, 1819, in New York, he too was a religious seeker, as well as a mystic whose life was changed forever in his early 20s by a vision of “a beautiful angelic pure being.” Hecker’s spiritual journey led him to the Transcendentalists’ experimental Brook Farm community, then to the Catholic Church, the Redemptorist order, and on October 23, 1849, to ordination as a Catholic priest.
Early in their Catholic years Brownson and Hecker shared the conviction that the United States was ripe for conversion. But they differed significantly in temperament and style. The older man was an aggressive, argumentative logician of whom Hecker wrote:
He is so strong and intellectually active that all his energy is consumed in thought. He is an intellectual athlete. He thinks for a dozen men…. He defeats but will never convince an opponent…. No one loves to break a lance with him because he leaves such ungentlemanly gashes.
In contrast, Hecker was a person of great charm; even people who disagreed with his ideas seldom disliked the man. But the commitment to evangelization that Brownson and Hecker shared soon brought both of them into conflict with others who took a different view of the Church’s priorities at mid-century.
Brownson moved to New York in 1845 where he re-launched his journal under the name Brownson’s Quarterly Review. But his relations became strained with the pugnacious Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, who regarded the conversion of America as an unrealistic distraction from the pressing needs of an immigrant Church. “I want no one in my diocese I can’t control,” Hughes is said to have told Brownson. Brownson took the hint and in 1856 moved himself and his Review to Elizabeth, New Jersey.
For his part, Hecker was frustrated by what he considered the ethnic narrowness and cramped vision of the American Redemptorists, who were more interested in giving missions and doing parish work among German immigrants than in converting members of the New England intellectual elite whom Hecker had known at Brook Farm. In August 1857, Hecker went to Rome to plead his case with the leadership of the Redemptorists; there — depending on how one interprets events — he either was expelled from the order or quit. But his pleasing personality and sincerity won friends in high places, among them Pope Pius IX. Returning to the United States, in 1858 Hecker founded the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle — the Paulists — with a nucleus of members who were ex-Redemptorists like himself.
Early Signs of Trouble
Symptoms of serious disagreement between Hecker and Brownson appeared at a fairly early date. Hecker’s first book, Questions of the Soul (1855), established him as, in O’Brien’s words, a prominent Catholic spokesman. But he was disappointed when his second book, Aspirations of Nature (1857), declaring the country ready for conversion (“…in this unfettered civilization, true Religion will find a reception it has in vain looked for elsewhere”), received much less attention.
Particularly galling to the author was Brownson’s skeptical review. Proclaiming that the number of “earnest seekers” in the United States was far less than Hecker imagined, he wrote that those most likely to be attracted to Catholicism were evangelical Protestants, not the post-Christian Brook Farm types who interested Hecker. America’s conversion would not be easy, Brownson warned, since there was “scarcely a trait in the American character as practically developed that is not more or less hostile to Catholicity.” Americans, he held, were “imbued with a spirit of independence, an aversion to authority, a pride, an overwhelming conceit, as well as with a prejudice that makes them revolt at the bare mention of the Church.”
Hecker was surprised and hurt. Their friendship survived the shock, but it was never quite the same again. Still, when Hecker launched a new magazine called the Catholic World in 1865, with the aim of giving American Catholicism a first-rate journal of ideas as a vehicle for evangelizing culture, Brownson became a regular contributor. The great parting of ways finally came in the early 1870s. By then both men had outgrown the naïve idealism of new converts and had suffered hard knocks from life and from their experience of the Church.
Brownson, deeply saddened by the loss of two sons in the Civil War, was disgusted by Catholic support for the South in that conflict, and on top of that was plagued by gout and failing health. Having given up Brownson’s Quarterly Review, he chafed under the editing of Rev. Augustine Hewit, Hecker’s colleague at the Catholic World. In religious matters, he had become a convinced ultramontanist who declared himself “a convert to” Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors and its repudiation of many aspects of the secular consensus of the day. “The bolder and more uncompromising the Church,” Brownson pronounced, “the sounder is the policy.” His intense dislike of whatever he judged to be Catholic accommodationism made him increasingly suspicious of Hecker and the Paulists.
Hecker had problems of his own. Having wangled a place on the fringes of the First Vatican Council (1869–70), he sided emotionally with the inopportunist party which opposed defining the dogma of papal infallibility at that time. Strange to say, he nevertheless embraced infallibility enthusiastically after the fact, even calling it a helpful vehicle for the evangelization of America. But few of his fellow Paulists seemed much interested in that great work.{mospagebreak}
Separate Ways
Matters came to a head over a letter Hecker wrote Brownson from Rome dated January 30, 1870. Citing the “increased interest and appreciation” for the United States that he claimed to have found among “men of all parties and schools in Europe,” Hecker declared that “no greater service can be rendered” to the Europeans than to give them an account of “the relations of the Church to our free institutions.” He went on:
This extension of political power to the people, is in no way hostile to the spirit and dogmas of the Catholic Religion. For the more the responsibility in the direction of a nation is shared by those who compose it, provided they rightly fulfill its duties, the greater their dignity and merit, & the greater the glory of God….
This concession of greater political power to the people, will call forth fresh zeal in the Church to educate and direct the people in order properly to fulfill their new responsibilities. This will extend her influence, and a new title of gratitude for her services, and show in a new light the absolute necessity of Religion to sustain civil society and good government….
In our own country, where the Church exists in her entire independance [sic] from State control, yet all her rights acknowledged and protected by the laws of the country, where her right to hold property, of establishing colleges, schools, charitable associations, etc. and to govern and administer her affairs according to her own laws and customs; it is here she is putting forth an energy and making conquests which vie with the zeal & success of the early ages of Christianity.
Brownson was not impressed. He had long suspected Hecker and his colleague, Father Hewit, of holding a watered-down view of the effects of original sin bordering on heterodoxy. His own certainty that the effects went very deep fed his increasingly jaundiced view of American democracy, and Hecker’s effusions evidently struck him as jejune. Brownson also deplored the tendency he found in Hecker to paper over differences with Protestants for the sake of agreement, and on that score he considered his old friend’s views not merely fatuous but dangerous.
On August 25, 1870, Brownson wrote the Paulist a letter saying that he supported the American system of government “because it is the legal & only practicable form,” but added: “I no longer hope anything of it.” Then he continued:
Instead of regarding the Church as having advantages here which she has nowhere else, I think she has here a more subtle and powerful enemy to combat than in any of the old monarchical nations of the world. Say what we will, we have made little impression on our old American population, & what little we have made we owe to the conviction that [the] Church sustains authority, demands government, is anti-radical, anti-democratic.
The United States was emphatically not good for the spiritual health of Catholics, according to Brownson. Perhaps thinking of his old friend Emerson and the quintessentially American theme of radical individualism to which Emerson lent an eloquent voice, Brownson wrote:
Catholics as well as others imbibe the spirit of the country, imbibe from infancy the spirit of independence, freedom from all restraint, unbounded license. So far are we from converting the country, we cannot hold our own…. How many Catholics can you find born & brought up in the country that do in reality hold the Church to be higher than the people, or who do not consider her voice authoritative only when it coincides with that of the people?
Hammering away, the aging controversialist declared:
These considerations make me feel that the whole influence of democratic ideas & tendencies is directly antagonistic to Catholicity. I think the Church has never encountered a social & political order so hostile to her, & that the conversion of our republic will be a far greater victory than the conversion of the Roman Empire…. I have heretofore wished to effect a harmony of the American & the Catholic idea, but I believe such harmony impracticable except by sacrificing the Catholic idea to the National.
The professional relationship between the two men survived a while longer, but in January 1872, Brownson formally resigned as a writer for the Catholic World.
The habit of mutual affection kept them on personally friendly terms until Brownson’s death. By then he was living with his son, Henry, in Detroit. After enjoying a table-thumping theological argument on the meaning of the unpardonable sin, the old man took to his bed on Good Friday of 1876 and, having received the last rites, died on Easter Monday, April 17.
Hecker lingered on another twelve years, increasingly isolated within his religious community. Few if any of the Paulists seemed to share his vision. His own efforts as a writer and lecturer had brought comparatively few converts into the Church. And despite his persistently optimistic vision of the future, he was suffering intensely from depression — an “almost unceasing desolation of spirit” — that earlier had led him to spend several strangely lethargic years in Europe. On December 21, 1888, worn out by emotional illness and the disappointment of his hopes — for the evangelization of the United States and for the religious institute he founded for that work — he blessed the Paulists with whom he was living and died.
What They Have to Teach Us
Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, as fervent an Americanist as Hecker himself, paid tribute to him as “the ornament, the flower of the American priesthood” after his death. It remains a disputed question among scholars whether it was truly his ideas or only a caricature of them that Pope Leo XIII condemned in 1899 under the name “Americanism.” In time, Hecker came to enjoy iconic status among liberal Catholics, while Americanism, understood in a broad sense as signifying Catholic assimilation into the secular culture, has been the dominant current in American Catholicism for many years. “At the dawn of the twenty-first century,” Notre Dame’s Jay Dolan could write in 2002, “Catholicism is no longer a stranger in the land. It has found a home in the United States.”
The received wisdom about Brownson for a long time viewed him as a quirky figure of mainly historical interest. Now that may be starting to change as the prophetic character of so much that he said and wrote becomes apparent. There is a striking case in point in the contemporary phenomenon of pro-choice Catholic politicians and the Catholic voters who support them. In his 1870 essay “Church and State” Brownson remarked:
We shall find even Catholics who…gravely tell us that their religion has nothing to do with their politics; that is, their politics are independent of their religion; that is, again, politics are independent of God, and there is no God in the political order; as if a man could be an atheist in the state, and a devout Catholic in the church.
As it was in 1870, so it is in 2006.
It would be simplistic to declare either Hecker or Brownson the winner of their arguments about America and the right course of action for American Catholics. Each was seriously wrong in part. Brownson’s gloomy intransigence was an off-putting tactical and substantive mistake; Hecker’s too-easy optimism about human affairs — optimism that the sorrows of his later years diluted but did not destroy — sounds a gratingly Pollyanna-ish note today. But each was also right in important ways, and from what was right a new synthesis can and should be forged by the Church in America.
From Brownson, that synthesis should draw a hard-headed, realistic appraisal of the intrinsic incompatibilities between Catholic faith and American values — incompatibilities that have only grown more serious as the secularization of America has progressed. From Hecker it should derive a firm determination to evangelize the culture, in the belief that this is truly God’s will. And from both it should receive the certainty that Catholicism is true, and its message is one that Americans urgently need to hear. These principles are the basis for the essential work of building a renewed Catholic culture in America, in continuity with — yet vastly superior to — the one that formed, frustrated, and sustained these two remarkable men.

Russell Shaw is a crisis contributing editor whose most recent book is Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press, 2005).


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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