It’s hard to say how many people today have more than passing knowledge of Isaac Hecker, nineteenth-century convert, priest, founder of the Paulists, and, posthumously, the bête noire of European theologians who linked his name to Modernist attacks on “not just the branches and shoots but the very root” of the Catholic faith. As it happens I didn’t until this year, when I read David J. O’Brien’s sweeping biography, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic. O’Brien, long a Commonweal contributor, provides an accessible, thorough-going education in his subject, who dreamt with rather joyful hope, and perhaps real naiveté, of a Catholic America leading a Catholic world. O’Brien makes “Heckerism” seem an appealing vision of vibrant belief that’s “firmly within Catholic tradition, yet faithful in pushing it to the horizons of the contemporary world,” as Hecker himself occasionally characterized his project. In underscoring the indefatigable, occasionally misplaced optimism both fueling and hampering Hecker’s mission—he spent some of his early years among Emerson and Thoreau, and didn’t quite seem to understand why his notion of the “indwelling spirit” might alarm institutionalists—O’Brien presents Hecker as “a mystic in an age of pragmatism” and an American of his time. He was not just an “earnest seeker” (in O’Brien’s words) but also an energetic one.
What’s the benefit of reading about Hecker in these times, nearly thirty years after O’Brien’s book first appeared and almost one-hundred-thirty years after Hecker’s death? The quick answer is: Look around. There’s something bracing about Hecker’s belief in Catholicism’s ability not only to survive, but flourish in a nation established on the principles of freedom of religion and separation of church and state. There’s something authentically inspiring about his sense of evangelization, which was, as O’Brien puts it, “not primarily a matter of membership, but of bringing all human life, art and science, politics and culture, to their fullest realization.” There’s his principled emphasis on Trent’s Catechism definition of the nature of the true Christian, who “possesses nothing which he should not consider common to all others with himself, and should, therefore, be prepared promptly to relieve an indigent fellow creature.” Readers of a certain stripe might feel a frisson of solidarity in learning of Hecker’s very American exasperation with structure, hierarchy, and doctrine, which occasionally found expression in journal entries: “I’d sometimes like to make a clean sweep and have nothing binding but the Apostle’s Creed.” Many others would be moved by his desire simply, or not so, to “make Catholicism catholic.”