Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Isaac Hecker's Bicentennial begins

Today the Paulist Fathers commence a year-long commemoration of the bicentennial of the birth of our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (December 18, 1819 - December 22, 1888). Twelve years ago, “conscious of the need for contemporary models of holiness,” the Paulist Fathers declared Hecker’s life and teaching “a valuable resource that needs to be widely recognized and communicated,” suggested that Hecker “can inspire others beyond ourselves towards holiness of life, heroic virtue and personal faithfulness to Christ,” and resolved that “the time has come” for Father Hecker’s story “to be disseminated throughout the larger church.” 

"The pressing problem confronting Luther Zwingli, and Calvin," Sheldon Wolin famously observed, "was to bring Protestant man back to a consciousness of community after having first encouraged his individualism." [Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Little, Brown, 1960), p. 240] . Born into an immigrant family in New York on this date in 1819, Isaac Hecker saw firsthand the divided and fragmented character of American Protestantism and its impact on American society. He responded with his enthusiastic embrace of and conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, fully appreciating the importance of the Church as the divinely sanctioned providential alternative to the principle of individual interpretation.  

Like the 19th-century’s most famous observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Hecker appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections between individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their newly found freedom. In 19th-century Europe, the Church was struggling to survive as an institution against an increasingly liberal political order. It sought to counteract the social fragmentation associated with liberalism and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. The way to do this was to assert the Church’s claims to authority as vigorously as possible and to insist upon its political privileges and institutional rights in relation to the state. In contrast to that time-honored political approach, Hecker’s American alternative saw a social solution in which citizens, converted to Catholicism as the answer to their deepest human aspirations and thus opened to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives, would be empowered, by combining true religion and democratic political institutions, to develop their intelligence and liberty along Catholic lines. Thus, at his very first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, “in which parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker confidently replied that  “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties “and act like oil on troubled waters.” [“From a letter to the American Fathers, dated Rome, December 22, 1857,” The Paulist Vocation, p. 46.] In one of his last Catholic World articles, published in the year he died, Hecker, quoting an anonymous acquaintance, said “he didn’t care for union of church and state if he could have union of church and people.” [“The Mission of Leo XIII,” Catholic World, 48, 1888, p. 9.] Such comments convey how important the transformation of society through the the transformation of tis citizens was for Hecker, and how he confidently expected this religious transformation to accomplish what others looked for in politics.

Politics is important, of course. As a young man in the Jacksonian era, Hecker himself had been interested in politics, and his older brother John  remained active in New York Democratic politics all his life. But, in this peculiar period in our own American history, when politics has increasingly replaced religion (and everything else) both as cultural identity marker and personal belief system, we would all do well to recall Hecker's prioritization of religious transformation as the primary prerequisite for social and political peace.

(Photo: Bicentennial Hecker Quilt, created by the Immaculate Conception Women's Quilting Group, the "ICBees," to hang in Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.)

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