23 Mar

Orestes Brownson, “Become a Catholic” (1857)

Orestes Brownson was a nineteenth-century New England intellectual and well-known convert to Catholicism. In 1857, Brownson wrote The Convert: or, Leaves from My Experience. The book chronicled Brownson’s life-long religious experiences and his conversion from Transcendentalism to Catholicism in 1844. Chapter XVIII “Become a Catholic” described his conversion.

Brownson was born in Vermont in September 1803. He was brought up by an older couple as a Congregationalist. The couple taught Brownson to read. The family library included the Bible, Watt’s Psalms and Divine Songs, The Franklin Primer, and Edwards’s History of Redemption. Brownson attended Congregationalists meetings as well as those of the Methodists and Christians. He was also acquainted with “new sectaries,” universalists, deists, atheists, and “nothingarians.”[1] When Brownson was nineteen, he attended a Presbyterian meeting and was “much affected” by it. He began to question religious truth and doubt his Congregationalist faith. Brownson struggled to submit his reason to revelation, but did so in 1822 when he was baptized in a Presbyterian church in New York. Soon after, the Presbyterian Church passed resolutions that forbade Presbyterians from any kind of personal or business intercourse with non-Presbyterians, except for conversion attempts. By the late 1820s, Brownson realized he did not want to be constrained in this way. He felt that he was being watched by other church members for any infidelity with non-Presbyterians. He also began to regard predestination, eternal sin, and eternal punishment of the wicked (Reformed doctrines) as too harsh. Brownson also felt no loyalty to the Presbyterian Church.

Brownson searched for a religion that suited him by reading books about religion. He decided to become a Universalist minister. This form of liberal Christianity, however, did not stop Brownson from having doubts about religion and he continued to search for religious truth. Brownson edited the Universalist journal Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator and published essays about his doubt. Brownson also criticized organized religion, Divine inspiration of the scriptures, and the supernatural. He recognized Universalism as a more rational doctrine than evangelical Protestantism.

In 1832, Brownson joined the Transcendentalist movement that became popular among Boston Unitarians. Brownson lauded reason, social egalitarianism, and social and religious reform. Browson became “a believer in humanity, and put humanity in the place of God.”[2] Like other Transcendentalists, he recognized the divinity of humanity, not the divinity of Jesus. Neither did Brownson recognize miracles in the Bible nor the supernatural in nature. Brownson continued to read about religion and religious truth. He eventually came to believe again in the divinity and superiority of God over man. By 1843, Brownson considered converting to Catholicism.

Chapter XVIII “Become a Catholic” describes Brownson’s conversion to Catholicism. Brownson realized that his conversion to Catholicism was carried out by “divine grace.” Yet, this grace did not exclude reason. Brownson recognized conversion as a “rational process, though not always distinctly noted by the convert.”[3] Brownson realized that the Church did in fact promote the progress of society, but that this was not “the end she proposes, or what she directly aims to effect.” The real end “is not attainable in this world, and the heaven she points to is a reward to be received only after this life.”[4] Moreover, Brownson understood that punishment was personal. Individuals needed to take responsibility for their actions, go to church, and beg for forgiveness. Brownson accepted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church since it was “clearly the Church of History.”[5] There was less in-fighting and denominational splits among Catholics than Protestants because of scriptural, church, and clerical authority. In 1844, Brownson contacted the Right Reverend Benedict Joseph Fenwick, Bishop of Boston, and announced his wish to convert to Catholicism. The Right Reverend John Bernard Fitzpatrick served as Brownson’s spiritual advisor, council, theologian, and catechist for eleven years.

On October 20, 1844 Brownson was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. Brownson’s acquaintances deemed his conversion unreasonable and illogical. Even so, Brownson wrote “but I honestly believe, as I believed in 1844, that [Catholicism] does, better than any other philosophical doctrine, show the harmony between the natural and the supernatural, and remove these obstacles to the reception of the Church, and her doctrine on her authority, which all intelligent and thinking men brought up outside of the Church in our day do really encounter.”[6] The Catholic Church provided clear and reasonable answers for Brownson and the modern world about the natural and supernatural.

Brownson felt that the modern world had forsaken Christianity and promoted methods of skeptical reasoning: “the philosophy which prevails, and after which the modern mind is, in some sense, moulded [sic], is opposed to Christian revelation, and does not recognize as fundamental the principles or premises which warrant the conclusions drawn in favor of Christianity. The prevalent philosophy with very nearly the whole scientific culture of the age, is not only un-Christian, but anti-Christians, and if accepted, renders the Christian faith an impossibility for a logical mind.”[7] In fact, Brownson argued that this sort of reasoning had infiltrated Evangelicalism to the point that most believers doubted the faith they practiced. “There is always lurking in the mind a suspicion of the antecedent improbability of the whole Evangelical doctrine.”[8]

Catholicism presented a worldview that supported faith, authority, reason, and history over doubt. Catholicism ordered the natural and supernatural world in such a way that Brownson no longer felt doubt about religion. Catholicism was reasonable and logical in a modern. Catholicism reconciled faith and reason in ways that Evangelicalism, liberal Christianity, Transcendentalism, evolution, and science could not. For Brownson, Catholicism was a modern religion for modern people. It would resolve the questions of doubt that ran rampant through the United States. In fact, Brownson suggested that Catholicism should be practice in public schools as a means “to combat the unbelief of the age and country.”[9] The Catholic Church, not Transcendentalism, provided ways of thinking about the natural and supernatural in reasonable terms.

[1] Orestes Augustus Brownson, The Convert: Or, Leaves from My Experience (E. Dunigan & Brother, 1857), 13.

[2] Ibid., 148.

[3] Ibid., 368.

[4] Ibid., 370.

[5] Ibid., 371.

[6] Ibid., 384.

[7] Ibid., 388.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 396.