John Henry Newman was arguably the most notable English convert to Catholicism in the nineteenth century. We only qualify that statement because if we didn’t, we would get a flood of emails demanding to know why we didn’t consider so-and-so or detailing alleged faults of Newman that presumably disqualify him from a position of preëminence.
|Orestes A. Brownson|
At least as arguable, and certainly more argumentative, was Orestes A. Brownson, America’s (possibly) most notable nineteenth century convert to Catholicism, who took as his personal mission the correction of such flaws as he saw in the American system, as we saw, e.g., in the previous posting on this subject. And if you didn’t think that Brownson was the greatest addition to the Catholic Church since Saul of Tarsus got knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus, he would quickly let you know . . . and possibly knock you down in the process. As the Baptist Advocate noted a few years before Brownson’s conversion, “He will probably soon be a leader among the Romanists, as his commanding talents will not permit him to occupy an inferior position.” (Quoted in Patrick W. Carey, Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004, 122.)
At least one biographer has claimed that the reason so many sparks flew between Newman and Brownson is that they were so very much alike. While that argument has some validity, the two men, apart from their Catholicism and the fact that both were converts who had been Protestant ministers (although as an Anglican, Newman held he was a priest and a Catholic, but as a Catholic he held that he had been a layman and a Protestant), were only alike superficially.
|John Henry Newman|
No, Newman and Brownson were not really very much alike. They were, however, complementary, if not at all complimentary at times. Neither one was ever able to get completely past the fact that each one tended to outrage and disgust the other . . . although Brownson tended to be a little more obvious about it.
Newman seems to have realized this and, possibly as an olive branch, offered Brownson a position on the faculty of the new Catholic university he co-founded in the 1850s in Dublin, Éire. Newman even had plans for Brownson to live in his, Newman’s, house, but politics and other factors intervened. Brownson was unable to take on either a position on the faculty or a housemate’s duty of arguing with Newman over the coffee cups every morning.
This was not, obviously, a Don Quixote/Sancho Panza complementarity in which Newman and Brownson were two halves of a whole and both had part of the truth that only needed to be joined. Rather, it was almost as if each one had a talent for being right where the other was wrong (or at least not completely right), although not for the reasons either supposed.
|An interesting approach, but it's not us.|
Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that Newman and Brownson came to the Catholic Church from opposite directions as it were. Newman’s immediate position prior to his conversion was that of English liberalism. He cannot, however, be said to have been a capitalist, but at most an uncomfortable elitist. Both as an Anglican and as a Catholic Newman viewed himself as locked in a struggle against liberalism, even though he groped toward and finally espoused truly liberal principles.
Brownson’s position, coming directly out of the very thing to which Newman was utterly opposed (as Brownson was irrevocably antagonistic to the Anglican Church), was a confusing combination of European and American liberalism and he had definitely been a socialist. As Catholics, however, both Newman and Brownson had arrived at a form of American liberalism, each one’s position just close enough to that of the other to cause the maximum amount of misunderstanding.
Specifically, Newman’s position prior to his conversion had been that sovereignty is vested in a private sector élite. What in part set him on the path to a form of American liberalism in which every human person is sovereign was his conviction that large portions of the Church of England appeared to have departed from original Christian doctrine. Newman did not, therefore, so much adopt American liberalism as abandon English liberalism and its tendency to allow a political or economic élite to determine or modify religious doctrine or even fundamental concepts of right and wrong.
|Father Isaac Thomas Hecker|
Brownson, on the other hand, before his conversion believed without reservation in the socialist goal of the uplift of society, especially the poor, by any and all means. At the same time, he seemed incapable of accepting the underlying doctrine on which socialism, modernism, and New Age thought are founded, that of the sovereignty of the collective to the exclusion of the human person and of the natural law.
Father Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888), in fact, credited Brownson with shaking him out of his individualistic Protestantism and eventually leading him into the Catholic Church by way of socialism — once both of them abandoned the errors of all forms of socialism. As Father Walter Elliot, Hecker’s first biographer, explained his subject’s spiritual state when he made Brownson’s acquaintance,
Isaac Hecker’s problems were at this time mainly social; as, indeed, to use the word in a large sense, they remained until the end. Now, Protestantism is essentially unsocial, being an extravagant form of individualism. Its Christ deals with men apart from each other and furnishes no cohesive element to humanity. (Walter Elliot, The Life of Father Hecker. New York: The Columbus Press, 1891, 27.)
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
In Catholicism Brownson — and Hecker — found respect for essential human dignity and the sovereignty of the individual human person, but also acknowledgement of the great importance of institutions. Brownson, therefore, did not so much adopt American liberalism when he converted to Catholicism as convert to Catholicism and at the same time find it compatible with American liberalism, at least as long as it continued to adhere to Catholic principles as Alexis de Tocqueville observed.
This is not a contradiction of or commentary on either Newman’s or Brownson’s personal religious convictions and acceptance of the tenets of a particular faith as true. Belief in the truth of a religion is, of course, the only legitimate factor in a conversion. What we are discussing here are factors that accompanied their religious conversions, not what led to them. Actual religious conversion and personal motives are not our concern except insofar as they affected or influenced Newman’s and Brownson’s respective philosophies.
|Newman always retained respect for the Church of England|
And yet, in an interesting paradox, both men in a sense “violated” — or at least contradicted — those same personal philosophies when it came to acting in a socially just manner. It was Newman the quintessential individualist and who at so many points in his life failed to appreciate the power and influence of institutions who “loved his institutions as he loved himself.” He was the organizing spirit behind the Oxford Movement that (in modern terminology) was intended to carry out acts of social justice to correct the flaws he saw in the Church of England. As Owen Chadwick noted in his book on the movement,
In the Apologia Newman ascribed to [Edward Bouverie] Pusey the power to be the centre of the party — “He was able to give a name, a form and a personality to what was without him a sort of mob.” But this, as is evident from Pusey’s career, is what Pusey could not, and what Newman himself could, do. (Owen Chadwick, The Mind of the Oxford Movement. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1961, 47.)
It was Brownson the “almost-solidarist” who habitually abandoned institutions he found unsatisfactory. As “Weathercock Brownson” he became notorious for seeking out new institutions and belief systems at what seemed like the drop of a hat until he found those that suited him, such as the American political system and the Catholic faith.
|Brownson at his worst: his idea of a Protestant.|
Thus, Newman left the Church of England only by a supreme act of faith after long reflection and meditation accompanied by what can best be described as a deep and lasting trauma. He never ceased to respect, even honor that communion and his friends who remained within it.
Brownson, on the other hand, had no problem with shaking the dust off his sandals and departing from either institutions or people. He argued and quarreled with anyone who would listen as well as quite a few who refused. Brownson appeared to be convinced that someone who remained a Protestant (and individualism was, according to Brownson, pure Protestantism) when the truths of the Catholic Church were plainly evident (to Orestes Augustus Brownson) was either a knave or a fool, if not worse.
This difference seems to have been responsible for the dispute between the two men. During his conversion process, Newman wrote the book that became An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, published in England in 1845 after Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, and in the United States in 1847.
|John Moody, Newman biographer|
The problem — if it can even be called that — was the fact that Newman’s book was a highly technical theological treatise. It was written by an expert for other experts, or at least for people who were struggling with the same difficulties Newman experienced. These involved resolving apparent differences and discrepancies between the teachings of the Church Fathers of the early centuries as understood by Church of England theologians and those of the modern Catholic Church of the nineteenth century supported by the Magisterium, that is, the authority of the Catholic Church to teach religious truth.
Unfortunately, as has happened so many times in history (and continues at an accelerating pace today, especially in the area of Catholic social teaching), amateur theologians and philosophers with axes to grind were quick to jump on Newman’s Essay to advance their own agendas. As described by John Moody in his 1945 book, John Henry Newman,
[C]ertain Boston Unitarians, after a shallow examination of the book, asserted that Newman had proved that the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity was merely a “corruption” of the third century — whereas he had clearly shown that it was a true development of the original Deposit of Faith. Brownson, who had formerly been a Unitarian himself and had become a Catholic only one year before Newman, seems to have decided, without much investigation, that the Unitarians had tripped Newman up. He forthwith notified certain American bishops that Newman was teaching heresy, and attacked him in Brownson’s Quarterly Review. The bishops took Brownson at his word, and the statement was at once delated to Rome. (John Moody, John Henry Newman. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1945, 186.)
The fat, as they say, was in the fire.