In late spring or early summer of 1842, Isaac Hecker had a vision. Standing beside him, so it seemed, was “a beautiful angelic pure being” whose presence gave him “a most heavenly pure joy.” Here was a life-changing experience that set the young man, just 22 at the time, in search of a way of life that would somehow correspond to it.
Although it isn’t recorded that Hecker had other visions after that, in a larger sense the founder of the Paulist Fathers remained a visionary all his life.
His great goal was the conversion of Protestant America to Catholicism, something he was convinced could happen. After all, he said, in the United States “true religion will find a reception it has in vain looked for elsewhere.”
If he ever is declared a saint (the process began in 2008 and he now has the title “Servant of God”), you could imagine him being named patron of the Americanist impulse in American Catholicism. On the level of ideas, no one before or since has done more than Isaac Hecker did to promote Catholic assimilation into the secular culture of the United States.
He was born Dec. 18, 1819, in New York, third son and youngest child of a German-American immigrant family. The Heckers were bakers, a trade Isaac also pursued. But from early on, though having few if any ties with a church, he exhibited an uncommon interest in religion.
"Religion is the answer to that cry of reason which nothing can silence, that aspiration of the soul which no created thing can meet, that want of the heart which all creation cannot supply."
— Isaac Thomas Hecker
In time, that led him to the vaguely religious movement of New England intellectuals called Transcendentalism and to the experimental communities at Brook Farm and Fruitland. Traveling in these heady circles, the young man at first was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most prominent American thinker of the early 19th century. Eventually, though, he soured on Emersonian beliefs, complaining that the great man had “no conception of church.”
Around this time he met and became friends with Orestes Brownson, a well-known writer and lecturer on religion and social questions and a religious-seeker like Hecker. Brownson, 16 years his senior, pointed him in the direction of Catholicism. As early as April 1843, Hecker wrote in his diary, “The Catholic Church alone seems to satisfy my wants.” On Aug. 1, 1844, he was baptized by Bishop (later, Cardinal) John McCloskey of New York. Brownson took the same step soon after.
Feeling called to the priesthood, Hecker joined the Redemptorist order, and, following seminary studies in Belgium, he was ordained in October 1849 by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman of Westminster.
Back in the United States, Father Hecker labored as a Redemptorist missionary. As his vision of a Catholic America grew and took shape, he also started setting his ideas down on paper. The result was the book “Questions of the Soul.” Published in 1855, it was widely discussed and won its author a national reputation.
Arguing that Protestantism failed to meet the needs of seekers like himself, he wrote that the time was approaching when the Catholic Church would be seen as the only satisfactory answer. “Hecker called for nothing less than a Catholic America, for the sake not of the Church but of the nation and its people,” according to biographer David O’Brien.
Moving quickly to take advantage of his book’s success, Father Hecker two years later published “Aspirations of Nature,” a volume spelling out his evangelizing vision for the United States and the logic of its conversion to Catholicism. To his sorrow, “Aspirations” received much less attention than its predecessor. Especially disappointing to the author was a review by Orestes Brownson in his own Quarterly Review.
Brownson dismissed the idea that America was congenial ground for Catholic missionary work. The number of “earnest seekers” was, he maintained, far less than Hecker supposed, and indeed there was “scarcely a trait in the American character ... that is not more or less hostile to Catholicity.”
On a mission
In the meantime, Hecker was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Redemptorists, whom he found more interested in giving parish missions for German immigrants than in converting intellectuals like his old Brook Farm friends. In August 1857 he made an unauthorized trip to Rome to argue his case with the order’s head. Instead, he was expelled from the order for his pains.
But by no means was the trip a dead loss. While in Rome he met Pope Pius IX and won the pope’s support for his ambitious scheme of evangelization. Back in the United States the following year, he and four other ex-Redemptorists joined in establishing a new order — the Congregation of the Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle, better known as the Paulist Fathers.
In the years that followed, Father Hecker was a busy man, traveling constantly to deliver lectures to largely non-Catholic audiences. On one such trip, he covered 4,500 miles and spoke to some 30,000 people — a considerable number in the days before radio, television and social media. “He is putting American machinery into the old ark and is getting ready to run her by steam,” one writer remarked.
In 1865 he launched a magazine, The Catholic World, which was to continue publishing for more than a century. The following year he founded a publishing house, Paulist Press.
During the First Vatican Council (1869-70), Father Hecker wangled a place on its fringes as a representative of the non-attending bishop of Columbus, Ohio. At first he agreed with the faction that opposed issuing a formal definition of the doctrine of papal infallibility at that time, but after the council defined the dogma anyway he welcomed it and even saw it as a potential boost to evangelizing America.
Early in 1870, he sent his friend Brownson a remarkable letter from Rome that evoked a no less remarkable response. Seldom have the terms of the debate over the situation of the Church in America been set out more starkly than in Hecker’s missive and Brownson’s reply.
Hecker wrote with characteristic enthusiasm of the reception he’d received from Europeans who envied American-style separation of church and state. Here was affirmation of something he’d long believed: American democracy was “giving an extension to [the Church’s] influence, adding a new title of gratitude for her services, and showing in a new light the absolute necessity of Religion for civil society & good government.”
Brownson wasn’t buying it. While supporting the American system as “the legal & only practicable form,” he said, he judged it to be in fundamental conflict with Catholicism. “Catholics as well as others imbibe the spirit of the country ... freedom from all restraint, unbounded license. So far are we from converting the country, we cannot hold our own.”
Soon after Vatican I, Hecker’s health went into decline. He passed his last years in a semi-invalid state, increasingly isolated within the community he’d founded. Worn out by illness and disappointed hopes, he died on Dec. 21, 1888, after blessing the Paulists with whom he lived.
Inevitably, Isaac Hecker’s name is linked to what now is known as “Americanism.” The story, a tangled one, briefly is this.
In 1896, “Life of Isaac Thomas Hecker” by a Paulist named Walter Elliott was published in a French translation with a long introduction by a liberal French priest that made exaggerated claims for Hecker. Meanwhile Rome was becoming worried about trends in liberal Catholic thought in Europe that it associated with the Church in the United States and the founder of the Paulists.
In 1899, Pope Leo XIII published a document — nominally addressed to the leader of the American hierarchy, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore — in which the Pope specifically condemned ideas that he summed up under the heading “Americanism.”
Historians sympathetic to the Americanizing of American Catholicism typically shrug off the papal critique and call Americanism a “phantom heresy.” But Pope Leo’s document contains a remarkably prescient warning against attitudes common in American Catholicism today. Notable among these is the pick-and-choose approach to Church teaching often called “cafeteria Catholicism.”
Still, it’s only fair to ask how much any of this has to do with Isaac Hecker. Now, as in his lifetime, he is best understood as an ardent visionary and determined optimist who wanted Catholics to join the American mainstream in order to convert it. If that hasn’t happened quite yet, it’s hardly Hecker’s fault.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.