The Greatest Writer of the 19th Century » Brownson's Writings » From Protestantism to the Catholic Church

From Protestantism to the Catholic Church

by David Goldstein

taken from My Boston Pilot Column, pp. 183-185

            Our attention has been centered during the past week upon the character and the works of Orestes Brownson, the famous convert, whom we believe to have been the foremost philosopher and gallant champion of Catholic principles and rights among the native laymen of our country.  This Vermonteer, who was successively a Presbyterian, a Universalist preacher, Utopian Socialist, Unitarian clergyman, and then a Catholic, was unequalled as a controversialist.

            Brownson was an intellectual dynamo, who was ever ready to get into conversation with strangers in trains, on ferry boats, in barber shops and general stores, regarding the Catholic Church.  He was impatient at times with persons met face to face in discussion, who offensively opposed arguments favorable to the church of his adoption, as converts with an intense propaganda spirit are likely to be.  For instance, upon meeting two lean ministers whom he was acquainted with during his Protestant days, one of them asked: “How is it, Brother Brownson, you who used to be as thin as we are have grown so big?”  “Very simple,” said Brownson, “become Catholics and go to confession and get your sins off your conscience, then you will grow fat.” Upon entering a bookstore in which a Mr. Hoover was tirading against him, the proprietor said: “There is Brownson now, talk to him.”  When Hoover turned to Brownson and abused him for becoming a Catholic, Brownson interrupted saying: “Another word, and I will throw you over that stove.”  As the man continued, the 240 pound Brownson took hold of Hoover’s coat collar with one hand, and pitched him over the stove.  One must not conclude from such instances that Brownson lacked regard for his former Protestant brethren.  The deep affection for them was expressed during Brownson’s Catholic days in the declaration: “There is no sacrifice that I would not make to bring my kinsmen after the flesh to Christ  in His Church.”

            Brownson was a journalist of marked ability, who operated largely from Boston.  He numbered among his personal friends such celebrities as Emerson, Channing, Alcott, Webster, Buchanan, and Isaac Hecker who preceded him into the church and founded the Paulist Congregation.  Fr. Hecker, who admired Brownson’s “passionate love of truth” and intellectual ability, said in his diary:  “He was a master, I the disciple.  God alone knows how much I am indebted to him.”

            Brownson’s conversion caused quite a sensation among the literati of our country. It seemed to them to be fantastic for so intellectually competent a person to become a Catholic.  His conversion ought not to have surprised them, as he had been proclaiming Catholic philosophy in his high standing “Quarterly Review” long before declaring therein: “If the Church of Rome is not the one, holy, apostolic, Catholic Church, then that church does not exist. We have tried everything to escape this conclusion, but escape we cannot.”

            Writing of “Socialism and the Church” over three generations before Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin-Marxian-Socialist-heresy took on governmental form in Russia, Brownson said: “Socialism is a heresy...It is a resume of all the particular heresies which have been and can be.  The ingenuity of men, aided by the great enemy of souls, can invent no further heresy.  All possible heresies are summed up and actualized in one universal heresy, on which the age is proceeding to erect a counterfeit Catholicity for the reception of Anti-Christ...”

            Our attention was centered upon this great American convert during the past week by “The Sailor’s Snug Harbor: Studies of Brownson’s Thought,” presented for our enlightenment by Rev. Thomas R. Ryan, C.PP.S.  This timely book is composed of Catholic magazine writeups of this “Hercules of American Controversy,” who “wandered long on many seas,” and reached “at last the Sailor’s Snug Harbor,” the Catholic Church.

            We believe a service of value has been rendered by the appearance of this book during these days when the Blanshardists are braying against our church from anti-Catholic platforms and pulpits.  The book furthers the realization that the Blanshard stuff is old stuff, that was answered in a positive manner by Brownson in his expose of the shallowness of the charge of the irreconcilability of Catholicism with Americanism, during Nativist and Know-Nothing days.  Surprising it is, as Fr. Ryan notes, that “Everyone in England reads Newman for his style, while the comparable Brownson is strangely neglected in his native land.”  Of this, this columnist has been guilty, as evidenced by the fact that the many writings of and about this American Newman, whose style should be copied, have not so much as been mentioned in this weekly Bit of This and That during the more than six years that it has been favored with space in The Pilot.

            The apologetic technique of Brownson, noted in “The Sailor’s Harbor,” was as we said, of a positive, informative nature.  It is the technique we Catholics should copy in meeting the enemy of things Catholic in the press, and on the platform, in order to bring spiritually floundering non-Catholics into Christ’s “Snug Harbor.”

            Instead of allowing himself to be forced on the offensive, as do all too many Catholic controversialists, Brownson insisted upon settling questions of a positive character in controversies, before answering charges, such as “Did our Lord actually found a church with authority to teach? And, if so, is this church the Catholic Church or some other? Once it is established that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded, all debate on particular questions is foreclosed.  All objections or arguments urged against such an authority are and must be futile and unavailing.