Catholicity, Liberalism and Socialism (A look at the late Spanish Catholic, Donoso Cortes; Brownson's Works, Vol. 20, 1862)

Catholicity, Liberalism, and Socialism


We do not insert the name of the accomplished and gifted translator of this remarkable essay by the late Donoso Cortes, for we do not know whether it is her intention to publish it with her name, or not, the work being not yet out, and we having before us only 16 pages of the advanced sheets.  We, however, commend her for having sought consolations amidst the troubles of her country, and her own private griefs in translating for her countrymen so valuable a work and one so much needed at the present time to be read and studied, as the profound and eloquent essay on Catholicity, Liberalism, and Socialism, certainly one of the very few truly excellent works our age has produced, and, in the original, one of the most eloquent books to be found in Spanish, or in any other language that we are acquainted with, while its theme is the loftiest, the profoundest, the most comprehensive that can engage the thoughts of the philosopher, the statesman, the citizen, the Christian, or the man.

Donoso Cortes was a great man, a man of true genius, and deserves to rank in the first class of the really eminent men of our time.  Like nearly all the men who in our days have risen to eminence and been remarkable for the richness and firmness of their faith, and the sincerity and depth of their devotion, his youth, though he was born of Catholic parents and piously educated, was overcast with doubts and perplexities as to the Christian faith, and for a time marked, if not by unbelief, yet by a lamentable religious indifference.  At length, domestic afflictions brought him to reflection, and reflection restored him to faith; he became understandingly as well as lovingly a Christian, and one of the most prevent and influential Catholic laymen of Europe.  With him faith was not a mere sentiment, religion a mere feeling, but a deep and profound conviction in which his whole nature as a man sympathized and took part.  He was a Catholic from conviction, not from inheritance only, and understood and could give a reason for the faith that was in him.  His genius was synthetic, and no man in modern times, if we except his illustrious contemporary, the much decried and calumniated Vincenzo Gioberti, has more clearly seen, or more firmly grasped the Christian synthesis, which embraces in one living whole God and creation, nature and grace, religion, the church, society, family, and the state.  His high position as a senator of Spain, and ambassador of the Spanish government to various foreign courts, as well as his personal character, so true, so gentle, so energetic, so disinterested and self-sacrificing, gave weight to his words, while his rare eloquence charmed and to a great extent captivated for a few brief years his age, and gave a new impulse to Catholic thought.  Too brief was his career, too soon he died for us, but not too brief or too soon for himself, for he died in the Lord, and his works do follow him.

In early life, in the freshness of youth and the opening of manhood, Donoso Cortes was a Spanish liberal, and though he subsequently despaired of liberty in the sense he had at first hoped to secure it, yet never did he cease to breathe a free spirit, or to labor for what he had held to be true freedom.  There are passages scattered through his works, which indicate his loss of confidence in constitutional guaranties, and so-called parliamentary governments, and that he was prepared to take refuge from the evils of his times in monarchy, unlimited save by moral and religious restraints; but no man ever lived who held despotism in greater detestation, or who was prepared to make greater sacrifices for genuine liberty.  He saw or thought he saw, in the revolutions of 1848, in the prevailing social uneasiness and political convulsions of the times, a breaking up of social order, and a return towards barbarism, and he felt the need of authority, or power, of a strong concentrated government able to compress the dissolving tendencies, and to hold society back from absolute ruin, till reason, religion, and Catholic instruction could resume their legitimate empire over the rebellious and licentious populations of Christian Europe.  Notwithstanding what we see in this moment in our own country, notwithstanding the demand, as yet only whispered, for a dictatorship to save us from the weakness and vacillation of the administration, which threaten the existence of the nation, and create at home and abroad that impression that our experiment in behalf of free government has failed, because under its influence intelligence and virtue have declined; we, for ourselves, hold fast our old convictions, and retain our confidence in constitutional government, and think the Spanish statesman too easily desponded, and allowed himself to go too far in his advocacy of a strong government, and the centralization of power.  If we were forced to choose between them, we should prefer to come under the federative order, contended for by the so-called confederacy, to coming under the centralized despotism of Philip II, Louis XIV, or Napoleon III.  Better Jefferson Davis than a dictator, whether that dictator be William H. Seward or George B. McClellan, or Abraham Lincoln; better state sovereignty with republican organization than the maintenance of national sovereignty by means of a military or any other despotism.  Yet it was not despotism the Marquis de Valdegamas loved, but it was liberty through republican and parliamentary systems he despaired of; and if he approved assumption of supreme power by the French president, he saw that under imperial centralism he had and could have no place; he withdrew from the public, sought occupation and consolation in his religious exercises, in visiting the sick, and in ministering to the poor and the afflicted, and soon died, clothed with the habit of a Jesuit; fitting end for a man who loves liberty and despairs of obtaining it for the world through political action or combinations. 

Donoso Cortes was a theologian formed by the study of the Holy Scriptures and the fathers, not by the exclusive study of the later scholastics, and the compendiums of modern professors.  Hence he was most furiously attacked by French abbes, especially the Abbe Gaduel, a man of more learning than knowledge, who undertook to prove him heretical, or at least unsound in the faith.  But these French abbes, though clever as all Frenchmen are, never understood, and could not understand the depth and the reach of the Spaniard’s thought, and therefore very naturally concluded that it must be unorthodox.  Moreover he had borrowed his terminology from the Scriptures and the fathers, not the schools in which they had been educated, and therefore could not fail to fall under their suspicion.  This fact is, that there has grown up amongst us in later times, a very rigid, but narrow and shallow theology, which a great many amongst us confound with Catholic faith itself, and whoever departs from it, in any direction, or fails to adopt its dry and frigid terminology, is at once assumed to be unsound in doctrine, disloyal to the church, at least deserving to be censured as rash, bad sounding in his expressions, or offensive to pious ears.  Under the rod of temerarium, male sonans, offensive to pious ears, our pedantic abbes, our theological petis maitres, attempt to lash almost every generous spirit, every really thinking student, who aspires to a free, living theology, into subjection to their hide-bound and cramping systems, which squeeze the very life out of them.  Both faith and theology suffer from their pedantry and intolerance. 

The system of theology, which is the most generally adopted at present in Catholic schools, is that taught or patronized by the fathers of the Society of Jesus, and there is a very wide feeling among honest and devout Catholics, that to depart from anything approved by the fathers of the society, is to depart from what is approved by the church herself.  Yet we should do well to bear in mind, that, that while Catholic faith is always and everywhere one and the same, embraced alike by all, there are among us various systems of theology, which often differ widely one from another.  Every Catholic is free, according to his own convictions, to follow any one of these systems or schools, or to differ from them all, so long as he does not contravene the Catholic faith, or Catholic dogma.  A man may be a Molinist, a Thomist, or an Augustinian, defend the scientia media, or assert the praemotio physica, and yet be irreproachable as a Catholic believer.  Theology is not faith, nor is any system of theology or philosophy a divine revelation.  Every system of theology or philosophy is a human science, the production of the human faculties operating on divine things supernaturally revealed, or cognizable by the light of reason, and is subject to the fallibility common to all our faculties.  No man, no number of men, no school, no religious order of congregation has any right to set up its peculiar system of theology or philosophy as a test of orthodoxy, or to require conformity to it on pain of being decried as a disloyal or suspect Catholic.  The early fathers of the Society of Jesus were great men, and good men; they though freely for themselves, and gave currency to a theology which, with various modifications, has since become that of the society itself.  It is permissible for the society to hold and teach it, but it is not Catholic doctrine, to differ from which is heresy; it is only the society’s view of Catholic doctrine; its systematic and logical explanations of it, and deductions from it.  Through various causes this system is very widely accepted, and most of our seminarians are trained in it, whether they are Jesuits or not.  We complain not of this; we only complain of the attempt, unconsciously made perhaps, to impose this system upon us as authoritative, and to denounce as unsound in the faith those who do not see fit to accept it, or prefer to follow a different school.

For ourselves, we are not, in all things, a disciple of the Jesuits’ school of theology.  We regard their system as the weakest and least philosophical of all the systems of Catholic theology that have been emitted.  We do not accept the scientia media, for we know no medium between God and man but the creative act of God, and unless man has proper creative power, God is and must be the determining cause of all that is good and positive in the action of creatures, and therefore must know all things in knowing his own determinations.  We, therefore, prefer the doctrine of the praemotio physica, or that the determining cause of whatever is good and positive in creatures, is God himself; but a determining cause that in man determines him as a free second cause, not as bound by the law of fate or necessity.  The Jesuit may differ from me, refute me by natural reason, or by what is called the ratio theologica, if he can, but he must not denounce me, or pretend that I am unsound in the faith, for my opinion is as free in the church as his; nor is it permitted me to denounce or defame him, for his opinion is as free as mine.  In regard to the status naturae purae, original sin, natural beatitude, etc., we go with the Augustinians, rather than with the Jesuits.  We hold their system of theology to be profounder, more philosophical, and more consonant with the attributes of God, and the unity and simplicity of the divine action in creation, redemption, regeneration, and glorification than are the teachings of Molina and other fathers of the society.  Under the influence of the society, as we believe, theology has become a dead science, and the Catholic world has shrunk to very narrow dimensions, which are daily becoming narrower; while under the influence of the profounder and more comprehensive theologies of earlier times, the clergy conquered the world, and led the human race.  In this fact we see the interpretation of that hostility which the society incurs even from Catholics.  Yet the Jesuits individually are learned men, able men, excellent, pious, devoted, self-sacrificing men, whom to know is to love and venerate; and the theology they teach is unquestionably permitted by the church, who neither approves nor condemns formally any system of theology, unless the rights of dogmas are in question.

Donoso Cortes had grand theological conceptions, which he always expressed with a living and energetic eloquence, but not always with what, in our times, is regarded as strict verbal accuracy.  In a few instances he is not fully master of his own thought, and fails to vindicate it to ordinary minds.  He seeks the origin and type of creation, of family, of the state, of society, in God as the ever-blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in which he is eminently philosophical, and eminently Catholic.  God is the origin and type of all created existences, and in him are and must be the principles of all the relations which do or can subsist among them, since he is universal creator, origin, cause, exemplar, and end of all things.  In the Trinity we must seek the principle of generation, production, reproduction, perfection, and consummation, and, consequently, not sex, as the heathen did, but the principle of sex, essential to production, or development in the natural order.  In this principle is the origin and ground of natural human society, as in grace is the origin and ground of supernatural human society or the church, whose ministers are rightly and felicitously called fathers, spiritual fathers, fathers of the spiritual life.  But not having penetrated into the divine mystery of the Trinity as far as reason operating on revealed data can go, he presents this grand doctrine in a confused and imperfect form, which, under some points of view, may seem objectionable.  We extract what he says on this point, and which the Abbe Gaduel considered as a denial of the Trinity itself.

“The same God, who is the author and governor of civil society, has also created and regulated domestic society.  Placed in the most hidden, the highest, the purest, and the brightest of the celestial regions, is a tabernacle, which is inaccessible even to the choirs of angels.  In this unapproachable tabernacle is perpetually enacted the prodigy of prodigies, and the mytery of mysteries.  There dwells the Catholic God, one and triune: one in essence, three in person.  The Son is coeternal with and engendered by the Father; and the Holy Ghost is coeternal with and proceeds from the Father and the Son; and the Holy Ghost is God, and the Son is God, and the Father is God; and God has no plural, because there is only one God, three in person and one in substance.  The Holy Ghost is God even as the Father is God, but he is not the Father: He is God even as the Son is God, but he is not the Son.  The Son is God even as the Holy Ghost is God, but he is not the Holy Ghost; He is God even as the Father is God, but he is not the Father.  The Father is God even as the Son is God, but he is not the Son; He is God even as the Holy Ghost is God, but he is not the Holy Ghost.  The Father is omnipotence; the Son is wisdom; the Holy Ghost is love; and the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are infinite love, supreme power, and perfect wisdom.  Their unity, expanding perpetually, begets variety, and variety in self-condensation is perpetually resolved into unity.  God is thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; and he is the supreme thesis, the perfect antithesis, the infinite synthesis.  Because He is one, He is God; because He is God, He is perfect; because He is perfect, He is most fruitful; because He is most fruitful, he is diversity; because He is diversity, He is the family.  In his essence exist, in an inexpressible and incomprehensible manner, the laws of creation, and the exemplars of all things.  Every thing has been made in his image, and, therefore creation is one and many.  He is the universal word, which implies unity and variety combined in one.  Man was made by God, and in his image, and not only in his image, but also in his likeness; and for this reason man is one in essence, and represents a sort of trinity of persons.  Eve proceeds from Adam, Abel is begotten of Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve are the same thing; they are man, they are human nature.  Adam is man the father, Eve is man the woman, Abel is man the son.  Eve is man as Adam, but she is not the father; she is man as Abel, but she is not the son.  Adam is man as Abel without being the son, and as Eve without being the woman.  Abel is man as Eve without being the woman, and as Adam, without being the father.

“All these names are divine, even as the functions which they signify are divine.  The idea of paternity, the foundation of the family, could not have had its origin in the human mind.  No fundamental differences exist, in the relation between father and son, of sufficient importance to constitute in themselves a right. Priority is simply a fact, and nothing more; and the same thing may be said of power; and both united cannot of themselves make the right of paternity, although they may originate another fact, that of servitude.  This fact supposed, the proper name of father is master, as that of son is slave. This truth, which reason suggests to us, is confirmed by history.  Among those nations who have forgotten the Biblical traditions, the title of paternity has ever been the synonym for domestic tyranny.  If there could have existed a nation forgetful, on the one hand, of those great traditions, and on the other, neglecting the worship of material power, among this people the fathers and sons would have been, and would have called themselves, brothers.  Paternity comes from God, and can alone exist through him, either in name or in reality.  Had God permitted an entire oblivion of all paradisiacal traditions, mankind would have lost even the name of this institution.

“The family relation is divine in its institution and in its nature, and has everywhere shared the vicissitudes of Catholic civilization; and it is very certain that the purity or the corruption of the first is invariably an infallible symptom of a corresponding condition of the second; as the history of the various vicissitudes and changes of the latter becomes equally the history of similar alternations in the former.

“In Catholic ages, the family relation tends to the highest degree of excellence; its human element is spiritualized, and the cloister takes the place of the domestic circle.  While in the domestic life children reverently submit to their father and mother; the inmates of cloisters, with a still greater reverence and submission, bathe with their tears the sacred feet of a better Father, and the holy habit of a more tender mother.  When Catholic civilization is no longer in the ascendant and begins to decline, the family relation immediately becomes impaired, its constitution vitiated, its elements disunited, and all its ties enfeebled.  The father and mother whom God had united in the bonds of affection, substitute for this sacred tie a severe formality; while the children lose that filial reverence enjoined upon them by God, and a sacrilegious familiarity usurps its place.  The ties which unite the family are loosened, based, and profaned.  Finally, they become obliterated, the family disperses, and is lost in the circles of the clubs and places of amusement.

“The history of the family may be traced in a few words.  The divine family is the exemplar and model of the human family, and all its persons are eternal.  The spiritual human family, which most closely approaches the divine in perfection, exists through all time.  Between the father and mother in the natural human family the tie lasts during life; and between them and their children it is prolonged many years.  But in the human anti-Catholic family the relation between father and mother lasts only some years; between them and the children only some months; in the artificial family of clubs only a day; and in that place of amusement only a moment.

“In this, as in many other things, duration is the measure of perfection.  Between the divine family and the human family of the cloister, we find the same proportion as between time and eternity.  When we compare the spiritual family of the cloister, which is the most perfect human type, and the sensual life of the clubs, which is the most imperfect, we again find the same proportion, as between the brevity of a moment, and the immensity of all time.” pp. 36-40

There are grave defects in this statement, and the human trinity presented as the copy of the divine lacks exactness, and indicates that the author has not sufficiently grasped the principle of the interior, essential, and eternal progression of the divine being, by virtue of which he is inherently active, living being, or as the schoolmen say, most pure act, actus purissimus; but the thought itself is profoundly philosophical and truly Catholic, and it was only the lack of a more perfect mastery of the prima theologia, almost wholly neglected in our days, that could have made the good Abbe Gaudel suspect it of heterodoxy.  The human trinity as presented may not correspond to the divine in all its parts as the copy to the exemplar, but it is clear that the author accepts in good faith the doctrine of the Trinity, and founds every thing on it, as he should do.  What has happened to Donoso Cortes has happened and will happen to others, to all who are borne by the order of their genius, the temperament of their minds, or the character of their studies, to leave the beaten track, and to labor or advance or elevate thought, or to gain a free and fuller comprehension of divine things, than that which generally obtains.  God redeems the world by dying for it, and all who would serve humanity must imitate him.  The world always crucifies its redeemers, and crucifies them between two thieves, not to indicate that it crucifies them as redeemers, but as criminals.  Therefore, said our Lord, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  It is precisely in what we in these sentences have done that the misunderstanding begins.  We have here given a general application to particular revealed facts, and the theological petits maitres at once conclude, with their peculiar logic, that because we deduce general truths from the individual facts, we deny the facts themselves, or simply resolve them, after the manner of the rationalists, into general propositions or rational truths.  Thus, if we speak of the Word as incarnated in the race, they at once conclude that we deny his incarnation in the individual, as if the race could subsist without the individual, or that Christ was an individual man hypostatically united to the divine person.  So, if we deduce a universal truth from a miracle recorded in the Bible, they conclude that we deny the miracle as a fact, and are simply rationalists.  They cannot understand that we are synthetists, not mere analysts. 

Now, we accept the simple facts, the simple defined dogmas in all sincerity, and in precisely the literal, definite sense in which they are accepted by our pedantic and literalistic theologians and by the vulgar; but we take also, as they seem not to be able to do, the facts as symbols of ideas or universal truths, and the dogmas as universal principles.  Because we believe more than they do, they suppose we believe less: because we see more in the facts and dogmas than they see, we are presumed to see in them nothing at all.  Here is the source of the misunderstanding between them and us, and the reason why we find bishops and priests, as well as journalists denouncing us as uncatholic, or as evidently under the influence of an heretical tendency. Did not the high priest say it was better that our Lord should die than that the whole nation should perish?  Is it not better that we should be denounced and defamed than that the faith of the least of those little ones should be endangered?  Certainly.  If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more them of his household.  But they are the wicked Jews, misbelieving heretics, or besotted pagans, never Catholics, who do these things!  Yet what our Lord said, he said for all times, and the faults he rebuked in the synagogue are faults in the church, and are hardly less common in the new than they were in the old. The fact is, we take it, as did the fathers, the great facts recorded in the Bible are not only particular facts, individual facts, and to be accepted as such, but also facts symbolic of great ideas, and of the general laws of divine providence, and therefore, may and should teach us something beyond what the literalists see in them.  The dogmas of the church are all Catholic, and if Catholic, universal principles, and susceptible of a universal sense and application.   

Here meet the men we call literalists, and the rationalists.  The literalists see only the particular facts and isolated dogmas, and confine themselves as far as possible to the strict letter.  So taken the facts and dogmas appear arbitrary, capricious, unmeaning, and remain unproductive.  They are the dry bones, not the living body of truth.  They have no soul, for their soul is in their union and relation with God, the living truth itself.  Repelled by the literalists, the rationalists reject the letter altogether, and take only the general principles and truths which the facts and dogmas are supposed to symbolize.  They thus render all religion subjective, abstract, without any concrete or objective reality or support.  Either class is fatal to religion.  What we aim at is the real and sincere acceptance of the letter with the literalists, but at the same time as significant of universal or Catholic truth.  We wish to show that the individual facts are pregnant, that the dogmas of the church are not arbitrary, capricious, and isolated assertions, but great and living principles subsisting and operating in the system of things of which we are a part.  This is what we have aimed to do, and what has led to so much misunderstanding of our views by well-meaning and fervent Catholics, but who never look beyond the mere letter.  It is what was attempted with perhaps greater success than by any other man in modern times by Gioberti in Italy. It is what, under certain aspects, was attempted by Balmes in Spain, what, under other aspects, is attempted by Montalembert in France, by Kuhn and Froschammer in Germany, by the editors of the Home and Foreign Review in England, and by every really living man, rising above routine, now in the church.  This was the great work of the lamented Donoso Cortes, of which the essay before us is a splendid, a most valuable, though not an absolutely faultless monument.

The translator could not in the actual state of theological controversy among us, have selected a better or a more opportune work.  It must be received by all thinking men with gratitude, and be read with avidity.  The school of Alexandria triumphed over that of St. Irenaeus, and will continue to do so whatever the opposition the literalists may offer.  Donoso Cortes will give a new impulse to theological thought in this country, and elevate controversy to a higher and serener region than that in which it is now carried on.  For her part, the translator has performed her task with taste and fidelity, and given us one of the very best translations to be found in our language.  As far as we have compared the translation with the original, it is remarkably exact.  It is also free, spirited, and elegant, and the author suffers very little from his English dress.  The most elegant book we ever read, it is hardly less eloquent in the translation than in the original.  The most gifted and accomplished lady has evidently translated it as a labor of love, but we hope a discerning public will appreciate and reward her labor.