Why Orestes Brownson Believed the U.S. Needed the Church

Professor Peter Lawler on a 19th-Century Philosopher

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MOUNT BERRY, Georgia, NOV. 7, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Orestes Brownson believed that only the Catholic understanding of the relation between reason and Revelation can make sense of the undeniable truth of America's founding principles.



So says Peter Augustine Lawler, the Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and author of several books, including "Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls." He wrote the introduction of the recently reprinted Brownson classic "The American Republic" (ISI Books).

So says Peter Augustine Lawler, the Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and author of several books. He wrote the introduction of the recently reprinted Brownson classic "The American Republic" (ISI Books).

Here, Lawler relayed to ZENIT the thought of the 19th-century Catholic philosopher and convert.

Q: Who was Orestes Brownson and why did he become a Catholic?

Lawler: Orestes Brownson [1803-1876] spent the first half of his life as an ardent seeker of religious truth. He was a Presbyterian, a Unitarian minister, a secular religious socialist, a humanitarian political activist and a leader in the American Transcendentalist movement of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Because of his turn to conservative politics and the Catholic faith, Brownson has been expunged from most histories of Transcendentalism.

In the 1840s, he finally turned to orthodox Christian theology. He abandoned Transcendentalist pantheism with his discovery that belief in supernatural revelation and creation is not incompatible with human reason, and that the modern impulse to pantheism, in fact, places human feelings or sentiments above the rational nature that really constitutes the human personality.

Brownson was received into the Catholic Church in 1844 and spent the rest of his life as a relentless and contentious defender of both the truth of the Catholic faith and its place in a republican America where human beings could fulfill their natural perfections as rational, political and created beings.

Q: Some say Brownson's "The American Republic" is the second best book written about America, after Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America." Why is that?

Lawler: Tocqueville's book, written as a reflection on his visit to America in the 1830s, is rightly viewed as the best book ever written on America and the best book ever written on democracy.

Seeing America from a French, aristocratic and Catholic background, Tocqueville presented himself as a friendly critic of democracy. He showed how the Americans, sometimes in spite of themselves, managed to do so well in reconciling the democratic principle of equality with the spirit of liberty and the spirit of Christianity.

The Americans were the largely unwitting beneficiaries of certain aristocratic inheritances that moderated their democratic extremism, the most important of which was Christianity.

Tocqueville also made clear that without such moderation, the progress of democracy might turn against human individuality itself. Like Brownson, he believed that American Protestantism was an unstable compromise between transcendent religious authority and the reduction of faith to merely a matter of private judgment or subjective experience.

He predicted that the future would bring either a renewal of Catholicism in the service of human liberty or some liberty-negating version of pantheism, which would be nothing but an edifying or sentimental version of atheistic materialism.

Two signs of the greatness of Tocqueville's book is that it understands America better than she understands herself and that it is in many ways far more true today than when it was written.

Brownson's book, published in 1866, does not match Tocqueville's in either literary style or political astuteness. But through his own wide learning, his Catholic faith and his rejection of the selfish willfulness of modern philosophy in favor of the realism associated with St. Thomas Aquinas, Brownson was also able to be a friendly critic of America from a perspective that transcends fundamentally the characteristic prejudices of modern democracy.

Like Tocqueville, Brownson sees that the political forms of aristocracy and monarchy, although legitimate in certain times and places, are neither possible nor desirable for his nation, but he adds that the aristocratic qualities of the South are indispensable to balance the sentimental humanitarianism -- a democratic, virtually pantheistic excess -- of the North.

He also explains far more clearly than even Tocqueville why the American Constitution cannot be defended coherently according to the theory of the Constitution's framers. Brownson first had the thought made famous by the American John Courtney Murray that only from the perspective of Catholic realism can we explain why those framers built better than they knew, why their remarkable practical accomplishments were far superior to their thin or "social contract" theory.

Q: What was Brownson's objection to the "social contract" understanding of the American Constitution?

Lawler: The Jeffersonian view, according to Brownson, is that government has no natural or divine foundation. It originates "in convention"; the source of its authority is purely human and the foundation of obedience is the enlightened self-interest of the individuals who consent to that authority. The Jeffersonian view is inadequate because government needs more than unfettered egoism to sustain dutiful citizens.

The philosophy of the American founding, Brownson contended, is basically atheistic, and for him any theory of "political atheism" suggests that there is no real check on the human rule, that there is no real distinction between republican and despotic government. For every human being to view himself as irresponsibly and personally sovereign is as despotic as for a king or emperor to view himself that way.

And by the time Brownson wrote "The American Republic," the state-of-nature theory of John Locke had become incredible; the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau had made it clear that it is impossible really to conceive of enlightened, selfish and asocial beings inventing government out of nothing.

Brownson concluded that Americans think both falsely and detrimentally about liberty when they believe that the Constitution is their own creature to be manipulated at will.

Q: Why did Brownson think that America's "providential" or unwritten constitution is more fundamental than her written Constitution?

Lawler: The unwritten or providential constitution -- what we have been given and cannot understand as our willful product -- is properly constitutive or organic.

The written constitution is merely legislative; only a people who are already constituted can lay down the law. An unwritten constitution is always the precondition for a written constitution, and it sets limits to what the written constitution can reasonably accomplish.

What the American founders were given by nature and tradition included the republican form of government from Rome, science and art from Greece, British political institutions and the Christian truth about the rights of human beings -- the rights of beings who are both part of and transcend by their natures a particular political community.

The mysterious gift of the unwritten constitution -- its providential origin -- is what inspires the loyalty of citizens that is rooted in much more than consent. By denying the reality and goodness of what we have been given, the modern or contractual spirit, according to Brownson, is opposed above all to the high and indispensable political virtue of loyalty.

Brownson concludes that it is providential in more than one sense that the American founders could build better than their theory because they were more constrained by their largely Christian tradition than they knew. It would be the height of ingratitude for Catholic Americans to ridicule their nation's founders, and any correction they offer to the founders' thought is with the intention of providing a further foundation for their remarkable accomplishments.

Q: Why did Brownson think the Declaration of Independence's fundamental American truth that all men are created equal depends on the providential inheritance of Catholic thought?

Lawler: Brownson thought that all human beings have equal rights as men, and no human being has the right to govern another. That is because "man is never absolutely on his own, but always and everywhere belongs to his Creator." Our acknowledgment of our dependence as creatures -- the very opposite of the Lockean principle of self-ownership -- that is the true foundation of human equality.

All governments that truly protect rights depend on the assumption that the human being is not God and all despotism originates in the error or sin that he is. So only the Catholic understanding of the relation between reason and Revelation, or nature and the Creator, can make sense of the undeniable truth of America's founding principles.

Because revelation is needed to complete reason -- or illuminate the most reasonable account of the origin and perpetuation of all things -- only something like Thomism can see clearly and so protect adequately the proper basis of our freedom of thought.

Q: Why did Brownson think that America, properly understood, is particularly ready for Catholic instruction?

Lawler: The Catholic Church's mission of evangelization is neither supported nor impeded by American government and the Church has full freedom to wield political influence through persuasion. In one sense, Brownson wrote, "The American state recognizes only the Catholic religion," because her [the U.S.'] Constitution and laws are free from the peculiarities of sectarianism.

Americans are ready to see that true religion must be catholic, that is, universal. The proper view of the American understanding of liberty reflects openness to the truth about God being available to us all. Thomas Jefferson worried mainly about "religious tyranny," the use of political authority to impose religious conformity. But his solution to that form of tyranny tended to be another, the imposition of the thoughtless indifferentism of Unitarianism.

Brownson thought that, providentially, America opposed both forms of religious tyranny. Reason leads the mind in the direction of catholic or universal truth, the truth about human liberty and dignity under God. The power and charm of Brownson's writing comes from his unflinching devotion to that truth.