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In Memoriam, Orestes A. Brownson

The American Catholic Quarterly Review, July 1876

Since the publication of our last number, Orestes A. Brownson, one of our most distinguished contributors, has been called to reap the fruit of his labors in a better world.  He was from its beginning a warm friend of the Quarterly, and an article for its pages was the very last literary work on which his pen was engaged.

Living in a remote part of the country, which Dr. Brownson never visited but once, and then only for a few days, it was not our privilege to become intimately acquainted with him, and thus have an opportunity of appreciating those qualities which are so highly spoken of by his friends and those who enjoyed his daily intercourse.  It is, therefore, out of our power, even did it lie within our scope, to eulogize the merits of his private life and character.  It will be enough for our present purpose to call attention to one predominant trait of his character, as it stands before the world, which constitutes his highest praise before God and man, and makes of him no unworthy model for the imitation of our Catholic men of letters and the Catholic laity in general.  We mean his inherent love of religious truth, as evinced by his earnestness in seeking it, and his sincere, manly, bold profession of it when found.  And let no one imagine that this rises little or in no way above the level of commonplace praise.  According to Holy Writ, it is one among the properties of the Divine Nature to love the truth (Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti.  “For, behold, Thou hast loved truth.”—Ps. 1:7).  And man is elevated and perfected in proportion as he approaches near to this Divine model.  Of Brownson it may be said that this love of truth was one of the most distinguished features in his mental character.  It gave shape and form, where it did not give actual origin to many of his other good qualities; it even furnishes a clew to understand and explain what some consider his defects and shortcomings.

Born in one of the strongholds of American Puritanism, and educated in the straitest doctrines of that form of religion, his natural good sense, as his mind was developed, turned away in disgust from the teachings that surrounded him.  He could not fail to see, that they were alike in contradiction with whatever there is of good and true in man’s nature, and with Divine Revelation on which they impiously pretend to be found; and he rejected them accordingly.  Another in his place might have been satisfied, like so many of our youth educated in the Calvinistic doctrines, to please the world and himself, by combining inward skepticism with outward profession of belief, or to betake himself to the creed and practice of Libertinism.  But young Brownson found a safeguard, in what even then showed itself as his leading characteristic, and served to mould his whole subsequent course of life.  He earnestly loved the truth; and he had the firm conviction that God, who had given him this restless longing after truth, would not withhold from him the means of finding it.  His search was long and painful; but his trust in the Author of truth was, as it deserved to be, crowned with success.  How toilsome and desolate was the road over which he traveled, none can adequately feel but he who has trod the same dreary path, and can judge from his own experience.  Those born to the inheritance, and brought up in the household of Faith, can form no just conception of it.  He that stands safely on the shore watching the struggles of the mariner, who is a prey to the fury of winds and waves, and in imminent danger of being swallowed up, far from enjoying the sight like the heartless worldling of Lucretian philosophy, may pity the sufferer and pray for his rescue; but he never can realize the mental agony of him who is battling for life against such fearful odds.  His own sense of security is a barrier to sympathy in the full, original sense of the word, which implies fellowship in suffering.  Thus it is with the Catholic who dwells in the house built upon a rock by no human hand, and from under its shelter looks out upon the unhappy crowd, with no guiding star but private judgment, tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and in hourly danger of spiritual shipwreck.

Our inquirer in his search after religious truth wandered through all the mazes of religious error, from the rigid tenets of Knox to the depths of rationalism.  And in these he might have been hopelessly submerged, had it not been for a happy, providential circumstance.  His studies, at this period of his life, became political as well as religious.  It was, perhaps, the fruitlessness of his attempts to construct from the materials at his disposal a satisfactory scheme of religion, that led him insensibly to turn from God to humanity.

The phantom of world reform, social and political, which haunts so many aspiring, unsettled intellects outside of the Church, became his ideal.   He undertook yet more diligently the study of history, to find in it, no doubt, what might support and confirm his own crude theories.  But the effect was wholesome, for it tended to undeceive him.  His politics from ultra-democratic, wild and utopian, became by degrees rational and conservative.  He was compelled to recognize, especially in the Church of mediaeval Europe, what not only realized but fully completed his own imperfect ideal.  He saw in her the only element able, not only to preserve, but to control, guide, and develop civilized society.  In the logical course of thought the question soon presented itself to him: was not that mediaeval Church the same that on the day of Pentecost came forth from the supper-room with Peter and the other Apostles?  Was it not the same, which even now under the rule of Peter’s successors, does battle with error and infidelity in Europe and throughout the world?  Was not this the same Church, to which Christ promised His perpetual presence and protection, the Church which the apostles preached as the only pillar and ground of truth, and which the early Christians were taught by them to look upon as the ark out of which there is no salvation?  His own reflections, aided by God’s grace, gave answer in the affirmative, and obedient to the voice of conscience and duty, he entered the one fold of Christ.  Some thought it a mere passing whim, a new phase of religious change.  He had taken up as heretofore, they said, a new creed, to discard it whenever its charm of novelty should have passed away.  We now an able lawyer and statesman, who at the time offered to wager any amount that Brownson would not remain three years a Catholic.  Other imagined that, out of mere weariness and disgust, he had surrendered to authority an intellect, which had proved powerless to discover positive truth, and, in its place, was willing to accept whatever in any way would satisfy man’s natural craving for something to believe.  Little did such men know the depth of his convictions and the sincerity of his belief.  He had for years been searching for religious truth; he found it at last in its genuine source, the Church of Christ.  And if he crossed its threshold, it was only with the view of enjoying undisturbed possession of what he had so anxiously and lovingly sought.  It was no voluntary caging of himself, because his wings were wearied with flight; no cowardly surrendering of his intellectual powers, because they had hopelessly failed in the search after truth.  He found in the Church not a prison and bondage, but repose and liberty.  He submitted to her his great restless intellect, because it is only at her feet, or rather in her loving motherly embrace that submission has the power to set free, to purify, to ennoble and perfect man’s understanding.  He showed the sincerity of his conversion not only by his perseverance, but by the sacrifices that he made.  He did not give his allegiance to a Church that possessed wealth and worldly prosperity, that could wield a controlling influence in literature, that could dispense at her will fame and reputation.  We were then comparatively few in numbers, and like St. Paul and his fellow-Christians, poor, despised, and persecuted, in some places given over toe the fury of the populace, in others marked out as fit subjects for legislative coercion.  Only a few months before, in the very centres of our boasted American civilization, our people had been murdered, and our temples given to the flames by the boldness of riotous mobs and the connivance of cowardly magistrates.  But non of these things moved him.  The possession of Divine truth, so long and ardently sought, so happily found at last, repaid him for every sacrifice, if indeed he ever stooped to call it by such name.

After his conversion he devoted his energies, and indeed his whole life, to the defence of the truth to which his eyes had been opened.  His Review, and other works, which will live as his monument are perennius, attest with what loyal constancy and fond affection he consecrated to the service of the Church the carried talents with which God had endowed him.  His Review is a rich mine, which will never lose its value for the student of controversial theology, of Christian philosophy, and Christian politics.  His style, based on the best English models, gives an additional charm to all he wrote.  He stands out certainly unsurpassed, perhaps unequalled, by any of our countrymen in his masterly handling of the mother tongue.  But the beautiful workmanship is as nothing compared to the glorious material which it adorns.  It is like the mantle of god which enwrapped the matchless Olympian Jove of Phidias.  His logical power is simply wonderful; no sophistry, no specious reasoning of error or unbelief can stand before it.  And coupled with this is the gift, so rare amongst profound thinkers and subtle dialecticians, of bringing home his triumphant process of reasoning to the minds even of ordinary readers with clearness and precision.  One need not subscribe to his philosophical system, to recognize the power and skill that characterize his grappling with the most abstruse and intricate problems of metaphysics.  And even those who do not assent to all his philosophical and political views, must allow that they were as conscientiously held as they were ably defended.  Here, too, his great love of truth was manifest; for he retracted without shame or hesitation whatever he afterwards discovered to be false or unsound.  Even when he laid down certain doctrines or opinions that gave offence and exposed him to obloquy, and in some degree to persecution, from his brethren in the faith, his fault, if such it must be called, arose both from his own brightness of intellect and his inherent love of truth.  What he said he had to utter, because he saw it in the clearest light of evidence; and because it was unpopular, he feared that to give it anything short of the boldest expression might seem like paltering with the truth.  Hence, doctrines, maxims, facts, and perhaps at times individual views, in proportion to what he considered their evidence and importance, were enunciated by him in a direct, blunt, stern, and occasionally harsh manner, that pleased some but offended others.  It was merely the storm-wind proclaiming in clear, loud, defiant blast what might have been conveyed as well and with undimmed, undiminished truth, in gentler tones.  Some may question his prudence; non can doubt that he was prompted solely by his strong convictions and zeal for the truth.
Had Dr. Brownson confined himself to the role of a merely political writer, in the service of a party, he would have attained not preferment—for his honesty made that impossible—but wealth and reputation.  But he would not; he had made up his mind to serve a nobler Master than party, and his soul aspired to higher rewards than worldly fame or riches.  It had cost him much to come into possession of the truth.  He determined to become its champion and defender, to spread it abroad amongst his countrymen, that they, too, might have a share in “all the good things and innumerable riches” (Wisdom vii. 11) that had come to him though its acquisition.  And yet, to this man of noble nature and lofty disinterestedness, at the very end of his glorious career, within the last few years, some parties it seems—gauging the hearts of others by the meanness and corruption of their own—had the face to make an offer of wealth and popularity, if he would only apostatize and do his best to build up and Americanize a despicable little sect that cannot thrive in its own home, though backed by the gigantic power of the German Empire!  And they thought that, for this paltry bribe, he would barter away the Church of his affection, the merits of many years, and his hopes of eternity!  One might well exclaim with the Pagan poet:

  “O stultas hominum mentes, O pectoral coeca!”

It is hard to say which was greater, the insolence or the absurdity of such a proposal.

If Dr. Brownson, like the holiest of his predecessors in conversion, was not ashamed of the Gospel (Rom. i. 16), if he ever had its fearless profession on his lips, we should be led to expect, from his characteristic earnestness and love of truth, that in his case deeds kept pace with words, and that his religious faith was realized in his daily life and actions.  And that such was the fact we have from the testimony of all who knew him.

He is gone, but his memory lives not only in the work he had done, but also in the example he had left behind him.  And it is precisely this example that should commend itself to the educated portion of our Catholic laity.  Most of them have had no laborious struggle to acquire the treasure of religious truth.  Grown up from infancy in the house of their Father, they succeed to its possession as to their birthright.  Let them prize and love it, as Brownson did; let them seek to extend its domain, so that all within their reach may be conquered, of their own good-will, by its gentle power.  The sphere in which the educated layman can co-operate with the Church is daily widening, and the value of his co-operation is daily growing in importance.  The number of distinguished laymen who are rendering incalculable service to the Church is increasing every day in Germany, France, and Great Britain.  Can we say the same of our own country?  How is it that, of the many who graduate at our colleges and academies, only a few seem conscious of their duty in this respect?  Fewer still have the courage to discharge it.  Yet it is no inconsistent with the pursuit of any learned profession which may be adopted as a means of living.  There is only one calling incompatible with it; it is that of the professional politician.  Oh, for a warning voice. Loud and powerful enough to deter our young men from entering on this career!  In our day it is simply the road to corruption and moral death.  Let them learn a lesson from those of their non-Catholic fellow-citizens, who have not parted with self-respect, and retain a nice sense of honor.  None of them, that prides himself on his good name, but would scorn to expose it in the political atmosphere.  We are not speaking now of those, some of them honorable men, whom their position, or the exigencies of the hour, may call into public life.  We speak only of the professional politician, whose more or less plainly avowed standard of right and wrong is not that of Christianity nor even of decent Heathenism.  All may not be called on to write or speak publicly in praise of defence of their religion.  But there is a sphere open to them all, in which they may show their zeal for the advancement of God’s kingdom.  If they love Catholic truth not only with their lips, but with all the earnestness of their hearts, “Non verbo neque lingua sed opera et veritate,” as St. John says (1. John iii, 18), let them do their best to exemplify it in their daily life and intercourse with the world.  “Nos non magna eloquimur sed vivimus,” exclaimed triumphantly one of the Fathers, speaking of the early Christians.  “We do not speak great things; we live them in everyday life.”  It was this silent but forcible speech of living example that, with God’s grace, conquered the Pagan world, as widely as the preaching and miracles of the Apostles and their successors.  And if our laity will only act up to this high standard, the gentle persuasion of their example will do more to root out error and unbelief, and spread the saving doctrines of true Christianity, than long and eloquent debate or innumerable tomes of controversy.  Further, in the intercourse with those outside of the Church,; never strive to temper them so as to suit the prejudices of heresy or of the world.  The Church has nothing to be ashamed of.  We held these doctrines long before heresy came into the world, and unless they were wholesome for the hearing and the souls of men God would not have revealed them.

In the death of Dr. Brownson the Catholic laity, as well as the clergy, has sustained a great loss; and we know not when it may be given us to look upon his like again.  He had his faults; we speak not of his private life, which was above reproach and most edifying, but of those blemished, which, like spots upon the sun, are visible occasionally in his long public career of writer and Reviewer.  But our purpose does not call for any discussion of them.  None could differ more radically from some of his opinions than the writer; but in the presence of the mighty deed, he thrusts aside all these petty remembrances.  Let Brownson’s faults, such as they were, sleep undisturbed with him in his honored grave.  Far more welcome than praise or blame to his departed spirit is the soothing prayer of Mother Church, in which we invite all our readers to join: “Eternal Rest Give Unto Him, O Lord, and May Perpetual Light Shine Upon Him!”