The middle class is always a firm champion of equality when it concerns a class above it; but it is the inveterate foe when it concerns elevating a class below it. ~ "The Laboring Classes," 1840

Orestes A. BrownsonIn 1937, New York City police investigated a vandalism case on West 104th Street and Riverside Drive, where teenagers had toppled and defaced a statue dedicated to Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876). After extensive investigation, police couldn't find anyone that knew who Brownson was.

It turned out that he had a loose connection with Fordham University in the Bronx, so the statue was sent there. But many years later, one Jesuit recalls, students still "hadn't the vaguest idea" who he was.

The irony is that Orestes Augustus Brownson was one of the previous century's foremost intellectuals, involved in every major debate of the time: political, religious, intellectual, with strong opinions on all. (His collected writings number twenty volumes.) A seeker after truth, he joined several churches before finding Catholicism. In time he forged a place for himself as Catholic America's first great lay intellectual.

Brownson was largely self-educated. Born to a poor Vermont family and raised Presbyterian, at 20 he converted to Universalism, returned to Presbyterianism, and reconverted to Universalism -- all in a single year. Ordained in 1826, he ministered in New England. Religiously speaking, the New York Herald commented, "Brownson has blown from all points of the compass." Peers wondered "what direction his mind would take next." The one constant, a close friend recalled, was a "passion for truth."

By the 1830s, he was a Unitarian pastor in Boston. In a time of great political and economic unrest, Brownson believed Christianity must lead the fight for social justice, and he publicly declared Jesus "the prophet of the workingman." In 1838, he started Brownson's Quarterly Review as an organ for his views. Its motto was "We Know No Party but Mankind." (Foes suggested, "We Know No Party but Brownson.")

A brief foray into political campaigning disillusioned Brownson, who concluded that human action, alone, was incapable of transforming society. "No Church, no reform" was his new motto. He was looking specifically for a Church that would unify, not divide, society. It should offer communion rather than the disunity he saw among various Christian denominations. In short, he wanted a Church that was "catholic," in the universal sense.

Brownson could not immediately decide whether he should join the Roman or Anglican Church. Through reading and prayer, he came to view Rome as the fullness of revelation and hope for true reform. Ultimately he saw conversion as a matter of "saving my soul." In early 1844, he began receiving religious instruction from a bishop in Boston, and in October he was formally received. He remained a Catholic for the rest of his life.

As a husband and father of eight, Brownson was ineligible for priesthood, but he found other ways to preach, through his magazine and public lectures. (He remained his own editor because he couldn't "bear mutilation by any hand but my own.") He called upon American Catholics to engage the day's major intellectual and religious issues. "The responsibility of Catholics," he wrote, "is greater than that of any other class of citizens."