The Catholic Writings of Orestes Brownson
Edited by Michael P. Federici.
University of Notre Dame Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 452 pages, $70.

Reviewed by Richard M. Reinsch II

A question that most had thought long answered has returned to stir and prick the conscience of faithful Catholics in America: How loyal to America should they be? This question has been renewed primarily because of contemporary controversies over marriage and religious freedom, and a palpable sense that when the Democratic Party again wields unified federal power it will harass and go after Catholic institutions should they fail to bow to the latest iterations of sexual liberation and identity politics. These political battles have sparked a number of recent essays and books from post-liberal Catholic thinkers who say that America’s origins are rooted in the worst aspects of liberal modernity: secularism, individualism, materialism, and relativism. America’s undoing is largely inevitable, they argue, owing to the philosophic, anthropological, and political errors that have shaped it, and what we are presently witnessing is the beginning of this fated end. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s string of judicial opinions that highlighted a self-defining liberty rooted in emancipated human will serves as a revealing coda to an American constitutionalism breathing its most pure expression.

But other Catholic minds have asked, must we hope against all practical judgment for the return of some neo-medieval unity of church and state, as the integralists are at pains to teach us? Are we really stuck with wishing for a modern day Ruth to capture the administrative state to protect Catholics, as Adrian Vermeule seemed recently to be counseling in American Affairs? Should we just wait it out with our local Tridentine Latin Mass community, Benedict Option style? Others, more historically minded, have asked, have we been here before?

Brownson Studies

Almost on cue, a number of American Catholic thinkers are again studying the neglected nineteenth-century thinker Orestes Brownson. I take it as a good sign—a positive sign of the times—that new engagements with actual historical and political roots in Catholic American life are happening. A subject of dozens of dissertations in American universities in the early twentieth century, Brownson’s influence went somewhat dormant in the post-Vatican II Church in America. Brownson’s collected writings were read by Russell Kirk, who learned much from this New England Yankee and Catholic convert, most evident in Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) and his later book, The American Cause (1957). Kirk’s efforts are one bridge connecting contemporary Catholics with Brownson’s insights. Peter Augustine Lawler, in several of his essays and books—most notably his introduction essay to Brownson’s The American Republic (1865), republished by ISI in 2003—viewed Brownson as the key to a proper understanding of the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty in America.

More recently, in Throes of Democracy (2008), one of the preeminent historians of American foreign policy, Walter McDougall, features a nearly twenty-page discussion of Brownson and conscience and the obligations of citizenship that is well worth reading. Gerald Russello, editor of this journal, has written on Brownson and Kirk and their shared conception of the “unwritten Constitution.” Daniel Mahoney’s The Idol of Our Age (2018) contains an informed overview and analysis of Brownson’s sober republican constitutional judgment that emerged from his Catholicism. The latest entry in Brownson Studies is an anthology entitled The Catholic Writings of Orestes Brownson (2018), edited by Michael P. Federici and published by University of Notre Dame Press. Federici’s thoughtful introduction and his wise selections make available Brownson’s thoughts on religious freedom, America’s purpose, the role of Catholics in America, American constitutionalism, the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments, as well as his conversion to Catholicism and his incisive critique of humanitarianism.

Brownson’s intellectual labor was a prolonged meditation on the great polarities of philosophic and political discourse: faith and reason, freedom and authority, socialism and property rights, humanitarianism and political community, among others. He took up the question of how loyal Catholics can be to America because many mid-nineteenth-century Americans held that Catholic citizens couldn’t be loyal to the American Constitution and would overhaul the Constitution in order to make America compliant to the Vatican. And this fact alone required the suppression of Catholic primary schools and other institutions. The anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment campaigns were just around the corner.

Brownson, however, turned the table on his opponents. He understood well John Courtney Murray’s retort in his significant book We Hold These Truths (1960): the real question for Catholics is if America can be justified to Catholicism. On this question, Brownson, along with Murray, argued that our Constitution is deeply in debt to the fundamental principles of natural law that Catholicism developed over the centuries of Christendom. The American Constitution, properly understood, is worthy of our loyalty and defense.

The Civil War, a war that cost Brownson two of his sons, raised a different problem. The Constitution as a work of republican self-government had failed to prevent a disastrous war. Selections in this anthology including “The Great Rebellion,” “State Rebellion, State Suicide,” and “The Federal Constitution” explore the following sets of questions raised by that great contest: Had the Constitution not enshrined an atomistic view of political authority that the South gave rightful expression to by seceding? Was not slavery in accord with our constitutional order, making the Southerners right about the political means they chose to protect their peculiar institution? And does this fact make the Abolitionists and their extra-constitutional, even violent, acts to abolish slavery actually understandable? Was it really a good Constitution, worthy of loyalty? If there was ever a period where Catholics could have thrown in the constitutional towel because of its defective fabric surely this was it. Brownson did the opposite by attempting to vindicate the Constitution against the slaveowners and the rebellious South, but also against the humanitarian abolitionists and philanthropists whom he worried would consolidate and centralize the constitutional order in the postwar environment.

Brownson’s example indicates that not only have Catholics been here before regarding a dissolving American constitutional discourse, but it has been worse. Moreover, while our challenges differ from those faced by Brownson, they touch the same rails of both an atomistic liberty and its dialectical partner, consolidated federal power.

Modern Heresies

Brownson himself was early in his life subject to the errors of modern political thinking. A disciple of the nineteenth century French humanitarian and positivist thinker Auguste Comte, he was a proto-liberation theologian who saw and used Christian symbols as instruments of progressive and egalitarian reform. He records in his account of his journey to Catholicism, The Convert, that one day he listened to the sermons of a Rev. Parker and suddenly found his own humanitarianism “repugnant.” What Brownson came to understand was that in dethroning God, he had falsely deified man and made humanity’s perfection an immanent salvation. Neither man nor society could bear that burden.

A concomitant change in Brownson’s political thinking likewise emerged when he saw the “People” making what he regarded as a foolish and manipulated political choice in the 1840 presidential election. Brownson thus turned against his earlier faith in pure democracy: there was nothing infallible in the here-below. Taking counsel from Aristotle’s Politics, Brownson chose to defend constitutionalism, the rule of law, and a restrained, even chastened, politics, instead of egalitarian, humanitarian reform. He understood that America contained multitudes and the better course was to use the forms of our Constitution to provide balance and to encourage compromise between the competing sections and “isms” of our country.

And this consideration makes me skeptical of Federici’s judgment in his otherwise admirable introduction essay that Brownson was a Catholic American “Exceptionalist” with a dangerous streak. Federici notes that Brownson assumed America would take control of the entire North American continent, swallowing Mexico and Canada, albeit peacefully. Catholic Americans would need to lead America in the future if the country was to fulfill its destiny, Brownson forecasted. These searching and enthusiastic judgments Brownson made seem strange to us, humorous even. But then, Brownson thought a vanguard of educated and devout Catholics would gradually assume the mantle of political and cultural leadership in America as Protestant belief waned. Brownson was wrong on one count. Protestantism has collapsed as a religious and cultural force. He said as much. Catholicism, however, worked its own implosion in America after Vatican II and barely leads a portion of its own flock. Much less is it able to contend for national leadership of any kind. The vacuum created by the collapse of Christian faith has given us an elite now formed by meritocratic tests and egalitarian schlock that leads them to despise much of their country. Maybe Brownson was on to something?

Brownson defended the American Constitution, written and unwritten. Constitutions, Brownson stated in “The Federal Constitution” (1873), cannot be made or improvised according to a rationalist experiment. Nor in the case of the American Constitution can it be reduced to a written document. Written constitutions, Brownson concluded, must be “written in the sentiments, convictions, consciences, manners, customs, habits, and organization of the people.” Part of this unwritten constitution is the sheer originality of the United States.

As colonies, they originated from separate charters, but shared the same English nationality and governed their internal affairs under English common law and following an English tradition of self-government. These colonies then united together to achieve independence, and while facts, Brownson acknowledged, can be produced to challenge this interpretation, the effectual truth is that the colonies who were once under the Crown, now placed this sovereignty in the United States as articulated in the premature Articles of Confederation. But this wartime document was inadequate to their real purpose of union: “The very failure of the Articles of Confederation, proves that the American people were, and felt themselves, one people; a nation, not a confederation of nations.” The convention of 1787 would provide “a more complete national government.”

The States could only exist in their Union and the Union depended on “the political people of the United States” for its existence. Brownson argued that sovereignty does not reside in the several states, or in the people at large, but in the people “existing in several state organizations, united in one general organization, as one people in many, and many in one.” Who made it? “It was not made, it grew, grew up with the people, with the circumstances in which they were placed, and came into play with national independence.”

Brownson did not reject liberal government and even chided certain Vatican officials—men he dubbed the oscurantisti—for their simple opposition to any form of republican government in his 1864 essay “Civil and Religious Freedom.” But Brownson did not set liberalism apart from the accumulated wisdom of social, cultural, and religious thought. It was a way for people to govern themselves as citizens and not as subjects or passive recipients of monarchical rule. A certain form of liberalism, however, Brownson thought was the enemy of constitutional government. In his 1864 essay “Liberalism and Progress” Brownson opined that liberalism’s adherents frequently chose a passionate and destructive course of sheer rebellion and opposition, goaded on by their legitimate grievances against certain constituted orders. Liberals, Brownson observed, defined themselves in opposition to religion and tradition, and associated themselves with the progress of the age. The result was an erroneous definition of liberty, which Brownson recognized in his 1874 essay “The Democratic Principle,” as “the liberty of the people not from aristocracies, kings, Kaisers, or arbitrary power, but from all authority or law that does not emanate from the people.” This was, Brownson thought, a crucial blow to constitutionalism, which could only be authoritative if it was connected to the natural law and the moral order: “justice, eternal and immutable right.”

A Tradition of Natural Law

A sound constitutional order must connect with the natural law if it is to govern the people and provide the government the moral authority to fulfill its secular purposes. Brownson never called for the state’s imposition of religion, but he did think that the Constitution must recognize and affirm a constellation of natural law truths and heed the deep moral reserves of religious authority. Christianity, Brownson argued, was the ultimate source of the Declaration of Independence’s teaching of the equality of persons: all were equally created by God. To bolster his case, in “The Papacy and the Republic” (1873), he noted that the Constitution and its common law principles recognize the superiority of the spiritual and moral order. The Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion assumes that religious practice is benevolent and worthy of defense and that the government cannot invade it with a religious establishment. Likewise, the protections in Article I, Section IX of the Constitution and other listed protections of persons and property through due process impose a hard stop on democratic excesses and abuses. The state, Brownson thought, must not be so secularized that its only authority was human will itself.

Near the end of his life, Brownson noted in 1873 that our Constitution “needs no change.” The state, however, does need “a spiritual authority above and independent of it, competent to define what are or are not the rights of men … and to enforce through the conscience of the people respect for them and obedience to them.” Well might that be the perpetual vocation of Catholics in America. By divine Providence, we are Americans as well as Catholics. We must preach and teach with humility the primary truths of God and man. It is a task that does not end. 

Richard M. Reinsch II is the editor of Seeking the Truth: An Orestes Brownson Anthology and is coauthor with Peter Augustine Lawler of the forthcoming book A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty (University Press of Kansas, May 2019).