"No Party but Mankind!": Orestes A. Brownson

Brownson's Catholic period was no less controversial than those preceding. When asked if he found it a bed of roses, he replied: "Spikes, sir -- spikes!"

Some of those spikes may have been of his own making. Quick-tempered and opinionated, he offended casually. He called Jesuit schools "intellectually inefficient" (even though his sons attended them); he accused one bishop of "muddle-headed" philosophy, and labeled an author's English "far less intelligible" than any "Latin we have ever encountered."

An equal-opportunity offender, Brownson declared to Protestants that they were not real Christians. During a time of heightened anti-Catholicism, he insulted the Irish by urging them to become better Americans. He was, one author wrote, "too Yankee for the Catholics and too Catholic for the Yankees." To a friend he privately complained that New York was "becoming more and more Irish," and soon he moved to New Jersey.

Plagued with poor health in later years, Brownson lived with relatives until his death at age 73. Although he soon vanished from history, scholars have reclaimed his place in recent decades. In a study of conservative thinkers, Russell Kirk placed him high. Jesuit author Raymond Schroth calls him "America's first great Catholic intellectual," who defined the laity's role in public life. For American Catholics, Brownson's politics are ultimately less important than his work in bringing their faith to bear on modern culture and life, a task we continue to face today.

3/8/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Pat McNamara
    About Pat McNamara
    Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.