Shaping Catholic Education

In new book, SOE's Power examines Orestes Brownson's impact on the Church in 19th century America

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The 19th century editor and philosopher Orestes Brownson is a fascinating, paradoxical figure in the history of American Catholicism, says Prof. Emeritus Edward Power (SOE). An outspoken, often controversial man who staunchly defended the Church at a time of widespread anti-Catholic prejudice, Brownson also urged its accommodation to American democracy.

Power discusses Brownson's ideas and their influence on US public and Catholic education in his recent book Religion and the Public Schools in 19th Century America: The Contribution of Orestes A. Brownson . The book chronicles Brownson's religious development and embrace of Catholicism, his prolific career as a writer and editor of literary journals, and his opinions on the standards and character of Catholic and public schools.

Prof. Emeritus Edward Power (SOE)-"Brownson - even putting the most favorable interpretation on his views of Catholic schools - could hardly be called a friend of parochial education." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
Brownson was not - as some latter-day admirers might characterize him - the American version of Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose Idea of a University so inspired modern Catholic higher education, according to Power. He was a contrary-minded and not always reasoned critic whose views on Catholic schools were often quite at odds with the Church leaders of his day.

Despite Brownson's criticism of the Church, said Power, he remained popular with Catholic audiences as a "fierce defender of the faith." While his legacy is obscure among many scholars today, Power says, he is best remembered as an important spokesman for the entry of the Church into the mainstream of American society.

"Unquestionably," Power said, "Brownson made important contributions to thought in America, clarifying the often troublesome religious issues that cropped up in 19th century America, and demonstrating that the Catholic Church is an institution whose doctrines and practices are entirely compatible with American democracy.

"He raised an awful lot of questions," Power added. "Some of his answers were good - and some weren't very helpful."

Brownson wanted to "Americanize" the Church, said Power, and believed the newly established Catholic schools to be inferior to their public and Protestant counterparts. He argued that Catholic pupils should attend public schools, where they would outshine - and potentially convert - their Protestant peers. He also differed with many Catholic educators in proposing that US Catholic colleges play a secondary role to one elite national Catholic research university, modeled along European lines.

"Brownson - even putting the most favorable interpretation on his views of Catholic schools - could hardly be called a friend of parochial education," said Power.

Yet Brownson himself had little personal experience with formal schooling, Power said, and largely educated himself by reading books in the library of a foster home. Other aspects of his life seem equally contradictory, Power said, such as his conversion to Catholicism in 1844 after serving as a Unitarian minister.

Brownson converted during a period of widespread prejudice against the Church, which nativists considered an alien institution incompatible with American democracy. Though his spiritual mentor was the Irish-American Boston Bishop John Fitzpatrick, Brownson - like many nativists - thought the American Catholic Church was "too dominated by the Irish," said Power. Nonetheless, he eagerly embraced his new religion.

"He came to believe it was the true faith," said Power. "The Church offered stability on which he could depend and had a message that could easily be understood. In the inner workings of the Church, he was often critical. He was an authoritarian on matters of faith, but on parish matters he remained a Congregationalist."

Brownson went on to write on issues of the day as editor of the literary journals Boston Quarterly Review, The Democratic Review and Brownson's Quarterly Review . His selected writings fill 20 volumes.

Power first became interested in Brownson while a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, where Brownson was buried. He was struck by the irony of a nettlesome critic of American Catholic education lying in eternal rest at a Catholic college campus.

"You could take almost any side on Brownson," Power said. "I don't maintain he was a hypocrite, but he saw different things at different times. He was a controversialist, not a scholar. He took positions quickly and ventilated them as best he could."

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