A Life of Orestes Brownson in Five Parts: Part Four
On Marxism, Agrarianism, Consumerism, and Spiritualism
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Brownson’s thought is his perceptiveness. Although he concentrated on contemporary American issues, writing what is known as “periodical literature,” the truths and conclusions he pulled from the contemporary scene transcend the era. Perhaps more interestingly, he pointed out looming problems, particularly problems about modern life, decades before others even noticed what was happening.
He was, for instance, the first person to condemn Marxism as a Christian heresy, a position that would be echoed throughout the twentieth century in the writings of Arnold Toynbee, Christopher Dawson, and others. He also adumbrated the church-state teachings of John Courtney Murray that would play a major role in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, holding that all religions not contra bonos mores (not incompatible with the public peace) are equal before the state and entitled to full protection: a “free church in a free state implies the liberty of false religions no less than the true one, the freedom of error no less than the freedom of truth.”[i]
He also predicted that Catholics and Southerners would find a common interest in opposing the plagues from the North: urban industrialism, big business, and centralized central government. About fifty years later, both the South (through the Agrarian Movement) and the Catholic Church (through distributists like Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton) would wage intellectual battles against those plagues.[ii]
He was also concerned about America’s preoccupation with material progress and its exploitation of natural resources, warning that America was placing a disproportionate amount of effort into building new railroads and canals. Progress, he taught, shouldn’t be equated with material growth, but rather with moral growth, and America was neglecting the latter in favor of the former.[iii] It’s a problem that has come to a serious head…