Orestes Brownson
on the Conversion of America and Russia

By JAMES LIKOUDIS


The famed Yankee convert Orestes A. Brownson (1803- 1876) was assuredly one of the most powerful writers and apologists defending Catholics teachings in a largely Protestant America that had little understanding of "the Catholic Faith which comes to us from the Apostles", and which – in the words of one historian:

"associated Catholicism with censers and ornate masses and the scarlet whore of Rome or with drunken Irishmen beating their wives and selling their votes."
(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in his
"A Pilgrim’s Progress: Orestes A. Brownson" 1966)

Those who may possess the treasure of the 20 volumes of his "Collected Works" or have access to his writings will appreciate his Editor-son Henry F. Brownson’s observation that "The great aim of Dr. Brownson’s life was the attainment of truth in matters of religion."

Gifted with a powerful intellect, a formidable logician, and well- read in philosophy, theology, the philosophy of religion, and political and social thought, Brownson was drawn to the Catholic Church after his wanderings in the wastelands of Naturalism, Rationalism, Transcendentalism, and Protestantism. Received into the Church in 1844, one year before another giant of the faith John Henry Newman equally astonished friends, Brownson would engage with his impressive "Brownson’s Quarterly Review" in all the major religious, political and social controversies that agitated America until his death in 1876. As Prof. Schlesinger observed, Brownson remains a:

"vigorous figure in American intellectual history... His observations on society had a profundity no other American of the time approached... He belongs to all Americans, not simply to Catholics... His life still touches contemporary nerves – from the antagonisms of capital and labor to the place of Catholics in American society, from the nature of American culture to the death of God... He is a part of the national heritage." (pp. xi, 297)

It was in his remarkable BQR article, April 1860, reviewing the Jesuit periodical "Etudes de Theologie" for 1857-1859 edited by Fathers Charles Daniel and Jean Gagarin (the latter a convert from Russian Orthodoxy) that Brownson expressed his pleasure that "Etudes" had treated:

"the 'Russian question' as a primary question in our day, and regards the reconciliation of Russia with the Holy See as a matter that should engage the thoughts and prayers of Christians throughout the world. Fathers Gagarin, Verdiere, and Buck... dissipate many prejudices long entertained by the Latins against the Greeks... They show, however inexcusable is the Eastern schism, and however fatal it may be, that all the blame is not on the side of the orientals. The Popes have always been just to the Greeks, but many of the Latin princes, bishops and writers have always seemed to us, when we were reading the history of the unhappy schism, to have treated the orientals with a passion and bitterness, with a haugtiness and contempt, which but little comport with the Christian character."

Anticipating the ecumenical orientations of Vatican II, Brownson further noted that Russia was converted to Christianity when the Byzantine Greeks were still in communion with the See of Peter, that many of the Russians were in good faith, and that certain theological differences did not amount to dogmatic obstacles to Reunion.

"The mass of the Russian people have always held, and still hold fast the doctrine they received from their Catholic ancestors... They, we think it fair to presume, are only materially, not formally schismatics; and we saw in the Crimean War that the Russian soldiers, wounded and prisoners in the hands of the allies, did not hesitate to receive the last sacrament from Catholic priests... They are separated only by a simple schism, and all that is needed to reestablish union and restore unity is simply for the orientals to recognise the supremacy of Peter, and the authority of his successors in the See of Rome to feed, rule, and govern the Church."

In agreement with the Jesuit theologians of "Etudes" Brownson declared that even the centuries’ old controversy between Latins and Greeks over the Procession of the Holy Spirit was not an insuperable obstacle to dogmatic Reunion. The controversy had been fueled by mutual misunderstandings, polemics, and lack of charity. It must be acknowledged, however, that Brownson registered an excessive political optimism regarding the fortunes of the Reunion of the Russian Church with the Holy See in the near future (he could not foresee the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution and 70 years of Communist oppression), he was (like his contemporary Vladimir Soloviev, the "Russian Newman") nevertheless prophetic in declaring the establishment of a Catholic Russia as "the greatest conceivable service to the cause of religion and civilization":

"It would not only balance the West, proving so widely false to the Church of God and the civilization she has fostered, but it would open the way to the conversion of the whole Asiatic world. We are strong in our convictions that this is in the designs of Providence. As one nation proves false to its mission [Brownson lamented anti-clerical France "deserting the cause of Christian civilization"], Providence usually rejects it and gives its mission to another. As the West fails, the East will come to its rescue... The two great conquests now most important to religion and to civilization, are the conquests of Russia and the United States... The reconciliation of Russia with the Holy See would reestablish the reign of law in Europe, and secure the conversion and civilization of Asia.; the conversion of the United States would secure the triumph of religion and its attendant civilization on this continent.

To the reconciliation of these two young, growing and already great nations, it seems to us, should be directed the labors and prayers, and the most ardent zeal of all who love the Lord our God, and seek the glory of the Church, His Body. And yet to this the mass of Catholics seem to us to have been, and to be even yet, fearfully indifferent... For the conversion of Russia, nothing appears to be doing. The subject is hardly thought of. There is even a feeling, not seldom expressed in words, among our Catholic population, that Americans, Yankees especially, cannot be converted, as if Christ died, not for them as well as for others... As a body, we have no hope of converting non-Catholics, and make not the slightest effort in that direction. We think it quite enough to retain and practice our religion for ourselves, in peace and quietness. If there is any one thing among us that will bring a blight on the Church, in our country, it is our lack of apostolic zeal, and our indifference to the salvation of our non-Catholic neighbors and fellow citizens.

The Holy Father has written to us and admonished us again and again, but all to little purpose... We are too prosperous, and are contracting the vices of prosperity. A little adversity, a little real persecution, would invigorate us, renew our zeal, expand our charity, and hasten the conversion of our country."

The confused state of the Catholic Church in the U.S. in the wake of post-Conciliar disorders and a still virulent anti-Catholicism increasingly reflected in legislative and cultural efforts to drive the Church out of the public arena assuredly present serious impediments to any New Evangelization on the American scene. As to Russia’s possible mission in the Third Millennium, it should be recalled that there are more Muslims in Russia than in any other European country. Of the 145 million Russians, 15-20 million are Muslims or 10% of the population. The former Soviet Union, in fact, was one of the largest Islamic States, with another 50 million Muslims living in the Central Asian nations like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It was the feeble missionary activity of the Russian Orthodox Church under the Czars which for the 19th century Jesuit authors of "Etudes" urged the need for Unity with Rome to reinvigorate that Church’s apostolic energies. Recent statements by leading Russian Orthodox prelates observing the shortcomings of their Church, decrying the impact of militant secularism, liberalism, and moral relativism in Europe, and calling for the "necessity of a common front to create a pan-European alliance of traditional Christianity" (Bishop Hilarion of Vienna) indicate favorable conditions for a truly serious consideration of that Reunion with the See of Peter so desired by Soloviev, the Jesuit Ivan Gagarin, and the American Brownson.

Brownson did not spare his countrymen who were "nominal Catholics". Others he blamed for their failure to possess a true Catholic world view and for their lack of evangelical zeal to help heal by prayer and study the wounds inflicted on the visible and Mystical Body of Christ by the Byzantine Greco-Russian schism and the spread of Protestantism. As he observed with sorrow in words equally applicable to all too many Catholics today in our secularized society:

"The age is frivolous, and wants not only faith, but seriousness, earnestness, save in trifles or in the accumulation of sensible goods... In plain words, we have to defend the Catholic cause in the public arena, before a light, frivolous, captious, and impatient audience."

Brownson’s words written in 1860 appeared long before the apparitions and call of Our Lady of Fatima for prayer and penance for the conversion of Russia and for sinners whose lives impede the growth of the visible Kingdom of God in this world. May his words and Our Lady’s call challenge us to overcome a continuing and all too prevalent indifference to the salvation of souls.


James Likoudis’ own reflections on the Reunion of the Eastern Orthodox Churches with Rome are found in his three works "Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism" (available from CUF, 1-800-693-2484) ; "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church" ($27.95 includes S&H); and "Eastern Orthodoxy and the See of Peter" ($24.95 includes S&H). These latter books can be ordered directly from the author, P.O.Box 852, Montour Falls, NY 14865.



The above article was published in "The Wanderer" a national Catholic newspaper, in its December 2, 2007' issue.
For other articles of interest visit:  James Likoudis' Homepage