Inward promptings: Orestes Augustus Brownson, outsidership and Roman Catholicism in the United States

Craig Wesley Pilant, Fordham University


This study of the American theologian, philosopher and literary critic Orestes Augustus Brownson will examine his life-long journey as a spiritual pilgrim in America, one who sought to be an insider but who remained an outsider. As such, this is a study of religious outsidership and the efforts of one religious thinker to alter that form of alienation. R. Laurence Moore, in his classic study, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, maintains that many Americans gained a sense of what it meant to be an American by going to the "frontier" of the inner self. Moore's thesis about the relationship between religion and "outsidership" helps to clarify the uniquely pluralistic society called America, as well as the role of Catholics in America--in a society in which being Catholic has historically often been at odds with being American. Building on Moore's idea, this study attempts to show through the figure of Orestes Brownson, that "outsidership" is not just a stage of integration in society, but rather how, in the case of Catholicism, it is a necessary state of being. Indeed, Brownson's life and work indicate that the essential state of Catholicism in America is that of "outsidership". This thesis will attempt to show that this "tension" between being Catholic and American is actually quite healthy. Using the Christ and culture model advanced by H. Richard Niebuhr this religious and creative tension between Roman Catholicism and American society will be examined. The dissertation--in using these ideas--seeks to modify the largely Protestant, New England bias of much of 19th century religious history. The dissertation examines many forays into different forms of religious belief as each contributed to not only to his eventual understanding of Catholicism, but also his ability to use his outsidership as a means to enter and critique each group, thereby facilitating his search for the "truth"--that which he seems only to have found with his belated entry into Roman Catholic Church. That eventual meeting was in many ways a meeting of the individual "outsider" with an "outsider" institution. The dissertation will commence with a close examination of the problem of using Brownson's spiritual autobiography, The Convert, as a principal source for Brownson's thoughts. The dissertation will then examine the principal historical influences upon Brownson. His conversion to Catholicism under the influence of French philosophy and his subsequent troubled history with the Church form the apex of the work. The chapters examine the role of Brownson as Catholic outsider. Brownson embodied the problem of being an outsider within an outsider institution--that is, being a convert to Roman Catholicism. In the Church, Brownson encountered the seemingly conflicting roles of being American and being Catholic. Finally, integrating the theories of Moore and Niebuhr into the use of the ethnogenesis model of Andrew Greeley, the dissertation maintains that this model helps us to understand that the dynamism of Catholic in America lies in their being simultaneously both inside the culture, as well as outside it. Brownson was the embodiment of that paradox--one who was inculturated by, but not assimilated into, American society.

Subject Area

Theology|Religious history|American history|Biographies

Recommended Citation

Pilant, Craig Wesley, "Inward promptings: Orestes Augustus Brownson, outsidership and Roman Catholicism in the United States" (1997). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9715521.