Orestes Brownson’s Legacy: Why Catholicism Is as American as Apple Pie

The Roman Catholic Church, it needs to be remembered, is quite literally an un-American institution. It is not democratic. The Church’s political views . . . are sharply at odds with those that inform the laws of American secular society.

—David Boldt, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 1, 1990

Orestes Brownson is most often remembered for his 1840 tract entitled “An Essay on the Laboring Classes.” Yet the full significance of his life and work cannot be adequately grasped through this essay alone. To be sure, the early Brownson was thoroughly dedicated to the theoretical application of radical socialism to the American situation. However, after his startling conversion to Catholic Christianity in the mid-1840s, Brownson began to devote a great deal of energy toward a reformulation of his political theory, and especially of his outlook toward the American order. Gradually his thought evolved until it was entirely at odds with the revolutionism of his youth. In particular he began to recognize a need for the reintroduction of a Christ-centered and specifically Catholic humanism into the conduct of modern politics, including American politics.

For many American readers, of course, the natural reaction to all of this is that Brownson has overstepped his bounds. Even if one grants that his analysis of modernity is accurate, precisely how is the American order to be related to the Catholic Magisterium, given the nation’s Protestant religious heritage and the common perception that she represents a secular, democratic, and liberal political tradition? In other words, how is it possible for the present American Constitution to coexist with a general insistence that all political power is subject to judgment by the transcendent moral law as taught by the Church?

Clearly the charges leveled against the Church from the camp of enlightened democratic liberalism are nothing new; nor are these charges the exclusive property of American amateur philosophers like David Boldt. What is unique and worthy of reconsideration, however, is Orestes Brownson’s thoroughly American response to them, a response that came decades before Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, and Richard John Neuhaus. Indeed, it is rare to find in any age an American thinker of rank so comfortable in his Catholic faith, not to mention a Catholic so comfortable in his Americanism. There is every reason to believe, therefore, that the resolution of the perennial conflict between these two “faiths” (if such a resolution is possible) will come from a body of reasoning distinctly Brownsonian in character.

As a starting point, let us examine exactly what is given in the epigraph’s assertion: “The Catholic Church is an un-American institution.” At first glance the statement appears vague, but upon reflection it seems that quite a bit more is being said than first meets the eye. The assertion seems to hold within it, for example, certain assumptions about the meaning of the American political experiment, especially the meaning of the American Revolution. It assumes that the founders of American government were engaged in a highly commendable effort to throw off the shackles of authoritarian political and religious control (represented by the tyranny of the English monarchy) in the name of the most lofty of social values: individual liberty.

The great heroes at the center of this view of the American founding are Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Both of these figures were firmly in the so-called “Rights of Man” tradition popularized by the French pilosophes. This tradition holds as a central belief the “common sense” idea that the most enlightened forms of government, those that are most conducive to human happiness, are those that are committed to an uncompromising individualism. Paine in particular adopted the view that no institution in society (whether it be church or state) may command obedience on authority alone; all government, civil and ecclesiastical, must derive legitimacy from the consent of the governed. In short, this view asserts that a primary objective of the American founding was to secure the conditions whereby each individual citizen would be free to pursue happiness in any way that he or she sees fit. Such a view, of course, is at odds with the Catholic view that individuals depend for their happiness upon guidance from authoritative social institutions.

To put the matter in slightly different terms: the assertion can be said to represent a conviction that America is (or should be) a modern, secular, and progressivist society that has the betterment of humanity in this world as its objective, and that Rome represents a medieval and reactionary spiritualism that is entirely unworthy of a reasoned, scientific, and enlightened approach to human happiness. Catholicism, more than any other Christian body, places oppressive restrictions upon our pursuit of happiness; it insists upon asserting the will of Christ over and against our individual human creativity, desires, and impulses. By contrast, it is argued that Americanism proposes that happiness is found in the unmitigated pursuit and satisfaction of our individual desires, without any reference to a will external to the individual.

Furthermore, Americanism (at least as we have defined it thus far) asserts that no external will is to act as a limit to the creative desires of the American people, especially as those desires extend to the progressive control of nature (i.e., through the development of increasingly complex machines designed to eliminate not just suffering, deformity, and disease, but all of life’s inconveniences). In short, the statement “the Catholic Church is an un-American institution” is one that suggests a great deal more than it might appear on the surface; it implies that one cannot in principle be both a good American and a good Catholic.

Moreover, it expresses a commitment to the liberation of both the individual and society from all forms of moral authority that run counter to individual impulses or prevailing currents of public opinion. As such, the statement suggests that institutions such as the Catholic Church, while certainly permitted to exist in America, are not to be given the opportunity to influence the public life of the nation. Why? Because such an opportunity would be tantamount to admitting in principle the legitimacy of returning to principles that contradict the entire raison d’etre of the American political experiment.

Enter Orestes Brownson. As a Catholic, Brownson was exposed to a radically new perspective on the philosophy of history and politics, one which presented him with the necessary intellectual tools to break out of the typical modern way of interpreting the creation and maintenance of order in American society. These tools were fashioned out of classical Greek and medieval traditions of political philosophy, and ultimately it is Brownson’s reading of American history in the light of these traditions that enables him to develop a coherent theory of Catholic-American convergence. First we should deal with Brownson’s theoretical understanding of the rights of government and the origin of political sovereignty. Second, we will explore Brownson’s attempt to apply this understanding to the specifically American emphasis on constitutional rights and liberties. We will conclude by illustrating the precise way in which the Catholic Church, according to Brownson, is to find its place in the American constitutional order.

On the most general level we find in Brownson’s post-conversion writings a strong attachment to the distinctly pre-modern notion that civil society is not a mere human creation but has its origin in human nature and ultimately in the divine will itself. Brownson argues that a well-ordered society, protected by the watchful hand of government, is a “necessary and essential condition of man’s life, his progress, and the completion of his existence.” Government, even for Americans, is therefore a necessity, in both a positive and negative sense. It is required to check the products of a fallen human nature, as well as to

render effective the solidarity of the individuals of a nation, and to render the nation an organism, not a mere organization—to combine men in one living body, and to strengthen all with the strength of each, and each with the strength of all—to develop, strengthen, and sustain individual liberty, and to utilize and direct it to the promotion of the common weal—to be a social providence, imitating in its order and degree the action of the divine providence itself, and, while it provides for the common good of all, to protect each, the lowest and meanest, with the whole force and majesty of society. It is the minister of wrath to wrongdoers, indeed, but its nature is beneficent, and its action defines and protects the right of property, creates and maintains a medium in which religion can exert her supernatural energy, promotes learning, fosters science and art, advances civilization, and contributes as a powerful means to the fulfillment by man of the divine purpose in his existence. Next after religion, it is man’s greatest good.

In the Christian tradition, therefore, Brownson argues that rightful government has a clear right to exist and has a divine right to our undivided allegiance. All citizens, under any nation or culture, are under a moral obligation to uphold the supremacy of the law. Citizens must obey legitimate civil authority under penalty of sin, even when to do so may offend our own private desires and impulses. Only at this price can we purchase immunity from the desires and impulses of others. In fact, civil society cannot exist for long without a settled conviction on the part of the people of government’s right to rule over them.

In this way Brownson tried to address the problems of anarchy and revolution that were prevalent in European politics at the time, and which he saw as threatening the basis of order in America as well. Consequently, he often drew the charge of being hostile to individual rights and liberties and favorable to absolutism or despotism; in short, of being “un-American.” After all, his position seems to many to deny the validity of a principle at the heart of the American political tradition—the supposed right of the people to rule themselves as they see fit.

As Brownson sees it, however, his assertion of the rights of government actually favored genuine liberty. Such liberty, he argues, does not mean following always one’s own inclination, without any civil restraint whatsoever. Brownson accepts the classical distinction between license (which leads not to true happiness but dehumanization) and rightly-ordered liberty. In his mind, there is no violation of freedom, and hence no tyranny, when license is suppressed; nor is there any violation of liberty when the community requires obedience to rightful commands. In this sense Brownson does not see any essential antagonism between genuine liberty and obedience to legitimate authority. In his mind freedom is not to be understood as the exemption from all authority, but only the exemption from all unjust or usurped authority; and tyranny is not any exercise of authority but is the imposition of illegitimate authority. “Liberty is violated,” he says, “only when we are required to forego our own will or inclination by a power that has no right to make the requisition.”

For Brownson, then, the obligation on the part of the subject to obey (that is, an assertion of the rights of the state) is coterminous with the obligation on the part of the state to act lawfully and in the true interests of the common good (an assertion of the rights of the subject). The civil power is to be held accountable before a transcendent moral order, and that order is ultimately what defines civil liberty and reconciles it with authority. For Brownson there is a “public conscience,” a moral law which the people recognize as highest and most sacred among them and to which governments as well as individuals must conform. If in the exercise of its lawmaking power a government transgresses the requirements of this moral law, then it has sacrificed any claim to legitimacy, and at that point Brownson places no obligation on the part of subjects to obey. Brownson therefore defends the rights of individuals just as he defends the rights of society.

At this point, of course, Brownson is forced to confront some important theoretical questions. A peaceful order is maintained only when there is a widely-held belief in the legitimacy of the civil authority. On what grounds are we to grant such legitimacy? In short, what is the origin and ground of political sovereignty? Over the centuries political thinkers have formulated a number of responses to the question of the origin of sovereignty; the one generally accepted by American politicians and statesmen is the social contract response. As might be expected, nearly all of Brownson’s writings are critical of the social contract view. In proposing that civil society is a mere voluntary association, it suggests that human beings are but isolated individuals, with no inherent social or political nature, and are free to enter and leave such associations at their pleasure. Such a notion, for Brownson, is contrary to the very idea of a government itself:

Any number of individuals large enough to count a majority among themselves, indisposed to pay the government taxes, or to perform the military service exacted, might hold a convention, adopt a secession ordinance, and declare themselves a free, independent, sovereign state, and bid defiance to the tax-collector and the provost-marshal . . . Would the government employ military force to coerce them back to their allegiance? By what right? Government is their agent, their creature, and no man owes allegiance to his own agent, or creature.

In short, Brownson argues that any contract presently in force can bind only temporarily and could at any moment be dissolved. “Mr. Jefferson saw this,” he remarks, “and very consistently maintained that one generation has no power to bind another,” since “a generation cannot give its consent before it is born.”

Brownson bases his alternative to the social contract position on the conviction that society is no temporary aggregation but an organism, and “individuals live in its life as well as it in theirs.” There is a real living solidarity, he says, that makes individuals members of the social body. “No mechanical aggregation of brute matter can make a living body, if there is no living and assimilating principle within; and no aggregation of individuals, however closely bound together by pacts or oaths, can make society where there is no informing social principle that aggregates and assimilates them to a living body, or produce that mystic existence called a state or commonwealth.”

Therefore, the people (whether American or not) never lawfully make their own constitution, for such an act implies political sovereignty, a sovereignty that cannot be self-generated. Rather, their constitution as one people, as one social body, is antecedent to any act of political will on their part. In his essay “Political Constitutions” Brownson argues that there must be for every state or nation a constitution “anterior to the written constitution which the nation gives itself, and from which the one it gives itself derives all its vitality and legal force.” The written document is but a memorandum, “a mere cobweb,” of the real constitution, which is “written in the hearts, and in the habits, manners, and customs of the people.” The constitution is what God has revealed to a people concerning their meaning and destiny; it is the living soul of a nation,

that by virtue of which it is a nation, and is able to live a national life, and perform national functions. You can no more write it out on parchment, and put it into your pocket, than you can the soul of a man. It is no dead letter, which when interrogated is silent, and when attacked is impotent; it is a living spirit, a living power, a living providence, and resides wherever the nation is, and expresses itself in every national act.

This conception of an “organic constitution,” one that has a providential origin and has been given by God working through historical events, is in stark opposition to the common eighteenth-century notion that a constitution may simply be drawn up “as one draws up a note of hand.” Brownson is convinced that the political constitution of a state is always generated, not made; “that it grows up by divine Providence, and is never framed beforehand, drawn up deliberately, and put into operation by those who live or are to live under it.”

One may say that the organic constitution is the political counterpart to the Catholic Magisterium; the constitution is the revealed political will of God, and a statesman has no right to overthrow the established order any more than a theologian has a right to overthrow Church tradition. A nation’s constitution exists by divine will and authority and is therefore legitimate, sacred, and well-suited for the disposition of that particular people. For instance, a monarchy is perfectly legitimate for a people previously organized on monarchical principles, and a republican constitution is best suited for a republican people. The generative principle would forbid the subjects of the former from throwing off monarchy and instituting a republic and would forbid the citizens of a republic from attempting to found a monarchy.

Brownson is unimpressed by any assertion of the merely human origin and right of government, or the supposed right of the people to implement whatever form of political organization which happens to please them. His opponents, he remarks in “Legitimacy and Revolutionism,” “are desirous mainly of getting rid of kings and nobles, and to do so, they assert the sovereignty of the popular will.” Brownson’s concern, however, is “to get rid of despotism and to guard against all unjust government,” and to establish “the sovereignty of God over kings, nobles, and people, as well as over simple private consciences.” On no other ground, he argues, can provision be made for liberty or for resistance to tyranny, without resorting to the revolutionary principle.

In suggesting this sort of ground for political authority, Brownson contends that he “neither denies the legitimacy nor mistakes the character of our American system of government.” To be sure, we have a government administered by and for the people; our rulers are elected by them and must act responsibly in their name. However, we must understand the unique way in which popular rule functions under the American Constitution. Describing our organic constitution, Brownson is unequivocal: it is a mixed constitution, republican by Providence, and neither wholly democratic nor wholly aristocratic. It is “intended to be a contrivance for collecting the popular reason separated from popular passion, and enabling that which is not corrupt in the people to govern without subjection to that which is corrupt.”

Brownson argues, then, that the facts of our founding, rightly interpreted, “afford no countenance to the Jacobin interpretation.” The doctrine of the popular origin of government and the concomitant pressure toward more radically democratic institutions show no respect for American government as a form sui generis. They are recent developments, prompted by the importation and adaptation of foreign-born political ideologies that ignore the hand of Providence in human affairs and do not rest on the authority of our own organic constitution.

In Brownson’s view some of our most eminent statesmen have been misled in their ready acceptance of radical democracy and the social contract theory generally, particularly as it had been handed down through the influence of Locke and Rousseau. At the time of the drafting of the Constitution a number of prominent Americans were greatly affected by the “mischievous theories” of their times and were carried away by “the Utopian dreams of liberty, equality, and the perfectibility of human nature, and the realization of a paradise on earth.” As a result, Paine and others were able to “direct and color” the events in such a way that it appeared to many that the political ideologies of Europe had the sanction of the American people. In fact, the American people never engaged in a revolution of the sort anticipated by European visionaries. If one investigates the matter honestly, Brownson argues, one will discover that what is popularly termed the American “Revolution” was in reality a rebellion designed to assert rightful government. It was not an act of the people as a contrived majority but an act of the people as subjects of the colonial governments, then the constituted authorities. All organic American institutions predate the rebellion, and the authority of England was not resisted until it had forfeited its rights and ceased to be a legal authority.

Furthermore, for Brownson the republican Constitution affirmed by the colonists was not based on the abstract “Rights of Man,” a notion he says was borrowed from the French. The American conception of human rights, he argues, is more comparable to the British; it was they who first settled the land and brought their institutions with them, as far as these could be adapted to the circumstances of the New World. An understanding of this British legal inheritance is essential to understand our own organic constitution, and simply put, this inheritance knows nothing of the extreme individualism at the heart of the “Rights of Man” doctrine. The American Constitution knows only of the rights of Englishmen, and these rights derive not from the abstract speculations of theorists but from civil society itself, “which grants and guarantees them.”

Rights are inseparable from the citizen’s duty toward the social order. This understanding of rights recognizes power as a trust from God, not a right of man, for it realizes that man has no inherent, indefeasible, natural rights, those that bind as law, which are derived from man himself; second causes can have no proper legislative authority. In the Anglo-American tradition, individual human beings may not simply conjure up abstract “rights” and demand that the civil authorities uphold them. As a rejection of human-derived rights, American constitutional rights “destroy . . . in principle, the very basis of despotism, and offer . . . a solid foundation both of liberty and authority.” Constitutional rights are genuine and inalienable rights, for they originate in the providence of God as it is manifested in the organism of society, and not merely in human reason, whim, or force. Brownson therefore maintains that loyalty to American political culture does not require unquestioned acceptance of radical individualism in the area of human rights.

The ordered freedom of America, Brownson adds, is due in large part not to the wisdom of our political institutions but to the common-law system of jurisprudence at the heart of our British inheritance. The American people, though largely Protestant in their religious heritage, have at the same time a tradition of political common sense carried over as a remnant from centuries of pre-Reformation teaching. The liberties enjoyed by Americans, argues Brownson, go back to old Anglo-Saxon times, times never really forgotten by the English people. The memory of the laws of Edward the Confessor, “with the great principles asserted by the sovereign pontiffs,” survived in the minds and hearts of the English people down to the time “when our ancestors emigrated to this western hemisphere, and formed, as it were, their civil and political common sense.” It is on this basis that Brownson is able to say, contrary to the common opinion of his day, that the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Americans are not due to the influence of Protestantism.

Consequently, he argues, the real threat to the American order is not from the possible overthrow of her institutions but from “a silent, bloodless revolution,” one that abolishes our common-law patrimony. Such a revolution would “leave us no restraints on lawless power, and no standard of justice but the will or caprice of the majority.” The common law is historically anterior to our political institutions, including our legislative bodies, and “is to be regarded as common right, or, in a word, as law for the convention in framing what we call the constitution, and for the legislature in its enactments.” In America, common law is the true “higher law” and “public conscience”; in the temporal order it is the most authoritative expression we have of the divine law, that from which all human laws derive their legality. Hence, any enactment that is contrary to any one of its essential principles is unconstitutional and can never be law for an American citizen. “The common law is the fundamental constitution of the country, older than the political constitutions, and able to survive them.” Our rights and liberties derive from the common law and cannot be abrogated by the political power “without usurpation, tyranny, and oppression.”

In Brownson’s view one essential element of the American common-law heritage is its conception of the proper relationship between church and state. This inheritance finally allows him to bring the American political tradition in line with the teaching authority of Catholic Christianity, thereby balancing the historical and the philosophical components of his analysis. It is true, says Brownson in “Civil and Religious Toleration,” that the Church is given no special recognition by the American state and enjoys no more liberty than any Protestant denomination. Yet in his mind the American state is nonetheless founded on the right basis; it is Roman and Christian in its origin and is actually more in harmony with true Catholic principles than any European nation.

The founders, he argues, while not Catholics themselves, were “nursed in the bosom of Catholic civilization.” Brownson remarks that the founders would have been startled to see how much they were indebted to Catholicism for every important improvement they introduced. Insofar as they receded from the royalty and absolutism of the House of Stuart and the Anglican establishment, they returned to political principles that “the popes for more than a thousand years labored in vain to induce the European nations to adopt.”

These principles center around the religious freedom now “for the most part honorably maintained by our American government.” In fact, Brownson goes so far as to say that there is no professedly Catholic country in the world where the Church is as free and as independent as it is here and none where the pope finds so little resistance to the full exercise of his authority as visible head of the Church. The reason for this is not that the government favors the Church but that in its wisdom it lets her alone.

For Brownson this constitutional recognition of the integrity and rights of the spiritual order is tantamount to an acknowledgement of its primacy over the temporal. “The American state recognizes the rights of God, and therefore the freedom, independence, and supremacy of the spiritual order.” In acknowledging its duty to “respect, protect, and defend” religious rights, the American state shows that it is unwilling to “adopt and carry out any policy it judges proper, without consulting [the spiritual authorities], or without regard to the law of God.” In other words, the American Constitution admits in principle the right of the Catholic Church (and all churches, for that matter) to speak freely to the public about moral, spiritual, and political matters. From this perspective, then, the Catholic Church and the American state, though distinct, are not entirely separate.

In unprecedented fashion Brownson has attempted to demonstrate a real compatibility in principle between the two, despite the fact that most foreigners and many Americans interpret the relationship as one of inherent and total separation. In The American Republic Brownson argues that the Constitution harmonizes intrinsically with the true religion, since the state is itself founded according to the real or divine order of things. “The Church being free, and the state harmonizing with her, Catholicity has, in the freedom of both, all the protection it needs, all the security it can ask, and all the support it can, in the nature of the case, receive from external institutions, or from social and political organizations.”

On this basis Brownson concludes that from the point of view of Catholics there is no need for any essential changes in the American Constitution in order to accommodate their worldview. That is, genuine Catholic belief and American patriotism are perfectly compatible. A church establishment, or “what is called a state religion, would be an anomaly, or a superfluity.” He is confident that America, as a state properly constituted, offers the Church all the protection it needs from the temporal power, for he is confident that the Church presents the true faith and hence is able to achieve its goals through its own power of moral suasion. Indeed, Brownson notes that whenever modern civil authorities attempt to aid the Church in its spiritual work, the effect is almost always detrimental to its mission.

The fact that in America the Church does not possess civil power is, according to Brownson, no cause for regret among Catholics. In abandoning the medieval unity of church and state, he continues, we suffer no great loss; “we lose nothing of Catholicity, nothing of its vigor and efficiency; we lose simply certain special favors of the government, and are relieved in turn from certain burdens at times almost too great for the Church to bear, imposed by the government as the price of those favors.”

False Prophets

The importance of this relationship between church and state is more than simply academic for Brownson, and it is more than simply a Catholic concern. Brownson believes that no attempt to uphold individual rights and liberties can survive in the modern atmosphere of moral and spiritual relativism. He argues that such conditions tend to breed prophets of inner-worldly salvation, those which capitalize on the prevailing spiritual chaos by carrying forth a program of “humanitarian” progress.

Such “reform” movements, according to Brownson, appeal to the unsophisticated because they flatter residual religious sentiments and claim to be the true and enlightened carriers of good for mankind, in opposition to traditional forces of “oppression,” both spiritual and material. The dangerous irony is that part of the baggage of oppression that must be cast off invariably includes Western man’s preoccupation with human freedom and dignity, paper constitutions notwithstanding. A genuine commitment to rights and liberties presupposes a limited view of the state, but that view will itself eventually be recognized as an obstacle to social “reform.” (Indeed, the political history of our own century can almost be defined by the progressive withering away of anachronistic “rights” in the face of man’s quest for total control of his environment, both human and non-human).

Brownson’s analysis, then, should appeal to Americans of secular disposition. Indeed, Brownson is convinced that Americanism actually demands Catholicism for its own completion: “No national character stands more in need of Catholicity than the American, and never since her going forth from that ‘upper room’ in Jerusalem, has the Church found a national character so well fitted to give to true civilization its highest and noblest expression.”

In this way does Brownson appear as the first of the so-called “Catholic Moment” thinkers. The moral sense of a nation, he believes, must proceed from a tradition that is in a position to maintain an authoritative teaching; for this reason he was sure that no form of Protestantism would suffice for very long. In his view, the distinguishing feature of all Protestant denominations was their insistence upon leaving religion in control of the private judgment of the individual conscience. This, he says, is the one principle that all Protestantism necessarily asserts; all denominations object in principle to any source of external authority in matters of faith. This makes one’s religion the effect of one’s virtue and intelligence instead of its informing principle, rather like “the patient directing the physician what to prescribe.” Protestantism, like democracy, is subject to the control of the people and must teach what they say and must follow, rather than limit, their passions, interests, and caprices. The principle of private judgment, once admitted either politically or theologically, cannot be restricted in any way, for to do so is to point to some authority beyond the individual conscience.

For this reason Brownson seriously desires that the American people work to realize the potential of their organic constitution. As he sees it, any rational response to the political crisis of the modern world must include a role for the Catholic Church, and this is no less true for the American order.

Catholicism, then, is far from being “un-American.” In fact, for Brownson the American Constitution has its origin and ground in the spiritual order, and has the potential to become the first realization of the true Christian republic, a distinction he sees as reserved for the United States by the hand of Providence. Brownson sees in American republicanism a unique opportunity for a society to achieve a reconciliation between liberty and authority and to break the modern cycle of individualistic anarchy followed by despotism or utopian socialism. “It is original, a new contribution to political science, and seeks to attain the end of all wise and just government by means unknown or forbidden to the ancients, and which have been but imperfectly comprehended even by American political writers themselves.” In fulfilling her appointed mission, he says, it is possible for America to make no greater contribution to civilization.

Author

  • Gregory S. Butler

    Dr. Butler teaches political philosophy and American government at New Mexico State University.

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