A Life of Orestes Brownson in Five Parts: Part Four
If a person looks at maps of the world by early cartographers, he is struck by two inconsistent things: Their grotesquely disproportionate geographical features and their accurate geographical features. Looking at the maps with the benefit of another five hundred years of exploration and enhanced tools for observation (like airplanes), the maps are poor. But looking at the maps from the early cartographers’ vantage point, their accuracy is impressive.
Brownson is the intellectual Gerardus Mercator of nineteenth-century America. He was the first of a species: The American Catholic. There were earlier American Catholics, but they were more American than Catholic, more Catholic than American, or gave little thought to either. Brownson was fully both: American and Catholic. Moreover, he was one of America’s earliest political philosophers and was the first American scholar to apply the question of the origin and ground of government to the American experiment.[i]
He was breaking new ground in difficult territories. Here is how John Courtney Murray explained the intellectual difficulties confronting the American Catholic almost one hundred years after Brownson’s death:
The Catholic may not, as others do, merge his religious and his patriotic faith, or submerge one in the other. The simplist solution is not for him. He must reckon with his own tradition of thought, which is wider and deeper than any that America has elaborated. He must also reckon with his own history, which is longer than the brief centuries that America has lived. At the same time, he must recognize that a new problem has been put to the universal Church by the American doctrine and project in the matter of pluralism, as stated in the First Amendment.[ii]
Brownson grappled on those mats back when American Catholicism was at its infancy. In light of this, his efforts were impressively accurate. He made mistakes, and his approach often…