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Professor Explains Roots of Church-Laity Conflict in Old New York


Current disagreements between the Catholic laity and the church hierarchy are small compared to those that marked New York City in the mid-1850s. So said a Marquette University theology professor who lectured at Fordham on Thursday, May 22.

Indeed, Archbishop John Hughes, the founder of Fordham, and Orestes Brownson, a prominent public Catholic intellectual, disagreed so strongly that they could barely stand to be in the same room, said Patrick Carey, Ph.D., the William J. Kelly, S.J., Professor of Theology at Marquette.

In 1856, they had a major falling out after Brownson delivered a lecture on the “Church and the Republic” at a commencement at St. John’s College, which would soon become Fordham University.

“Brownson argued that if Catholics were more sympathetic to genuine American values, and less confined to their isolated immigrant communities and foreign traditions, their church would make more progress in America,” said Carey (GSAS ’75). “The Catholic Church could then take its rightful place in American society as a bulwark for authority and freedom.

“At the end of Brownson’s talk, Hughes took the podium and publicly rebuked or at least countered Brownson’s address.”

It was a stunning fall for a man Hughes had first noticed while Brownson was a Unitarian minister in Boston, and it was just one in a series of high-profile disagreements the men would engage in until Hughes’ death in 1864.

“It’s said that the most dangerous place to be in Washington D.C. these days is between Sen. Chuck Schumer and a TV camera,” joked Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley, theology professor at Fordham, in his introduction of Carey. “The most dangerous place to be in 19th century in New York City was between Archbishop Hughes and Orestes Brownson.”

The lecture, which was the fourth celebrating the 200th anniversary of the New York Archdiocese, was co-sponsored by the Fordham’s Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. In a lively question-and-answer period, Carey took pains to emphasize that both men were able to have conversations about assimilation and the role of the church in America without causing irreparable damage to the faith.

“There are things in American society that are well-worth adopting. The church needed in the 19th century, as it needs today, to find values that are consistent with the Gospel and reinforce them,” Carey said.

“There are other things in American society that need to be critiqued, and Hughes was very good at that,” he continued. “He pointed out inconsistencies in the American understanding of freedom and what Americans did with their freedom relative to new peoples coming into society.”


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