The Canonization of Isaac T. Hecker?

The Catholic Archdiocese of New York is now officially pushing for the canonization of Fr. Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888), founder of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle (aka, the Paulists).

Will it happen? No mention in any of these articles about Hecker’s association with “Americanism,” condemned by Pope Leo XIII in Testem benevolentiae in 1899. Paulist historians argue that Leo was reacting to a mistranslated biography of Hecker, and that he didn’t actually hold to the teachings condemned. Indeed, apart from the mention of the biography, there is no condemnation of Hecker himself nor citation of any of his books.

But when you read Leo’s remarks, they surely can apply to the order that Hecker founded, especially in the decades since the Second Vatican Council:

It is known to you, beloved son, that the biography of Isaac Thomas Hecker, especially through the action of those who under took to translate or interpret it in a foreign language, has excited not a little controversy, on account of certain opinions brought forward concerning the way of leading Christian life. …

The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them. It does not need many words, beloved son, to prove the falsity of these ideas if the nature and origin of the doctrine which the Church proposes are recalled to mind. …

We cannot consider as altogether blameless the silence which purposely leads to the omission or neglect of some of the principles of Christian doctrine, for all the principles come from the same Author and Master ….

But, beloved son, in this present matter of which we are speaking, there is even a greater danger and a more manifest opposition to Catholic doctrine and discipline in that opinion of the lovers of novelty, according to which they hold such liberty should be allowed in the Church, that her supervision and watchfulness being in some sense lessened, allowance be granted the faithful, each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity. They are of opinion that such liberty has its counterpart in the newly given civil freedom which is now the right and the foundation of almost every secular state. …

This sounds like it could have been written by Pope Benedict XVI against contemporary Paulists!

And yet, I think the Paulists have reason to be optimistic. Hecker is responsible for turning Catholicism away from the insular path of the Counter Reformation and giving it a vision and passion for evangelism. He was a convert; he was raised a Protestant, but got caught up in Transcendentalism, and his wide reading in philosophy and religious mysticism led him on to the Catholic faith. He became a Redemptorist, and preached parish missions aimed at reviving the faith of Catholics, but then got a vision for evangelizing non-Catholics. He put aside the ceremonial of the parish missions and the smells and bells of rituals, and put on a plain black suit and presented Chautauqua lectures in theater halls, showing how Catholicism answered the deepest “questions of the soul” and “aspirations of the heart” (two of his books). He began a magazine–his followers would go on to use television, movies (Romero and Entertaining Angels), and the internet. The order he founded helped begin Catholic campus ministry at state colleges and universities (the Diocese of Galveston, for example, had them start ministry at University of Texas one hundred years ago). It has led the way in Catholic evangelization since the 1970s. It has pioneered ecumenism and interfaith relations.

The real legacy of Isaac Hecker is in transforming the self-image of Catholicism in America, giving it the courage to reach beyond its former defensiveness, and in transforming its public image as well. Hecker’s legacy can be found not just in the loopy liberalism of the order he founded, but also in new visions of Catholic outreach that are in perfect harmony with the vision of Pope Benedict XVI. Hecker and Benedict together–there’s a pair of names that could transform the bedraggled and divided Catholic church of today into something that all the world might wonder after.

Update: Commentary by Dwight Duncan (an Opus Dei member) on Hecker and Newman in the Pilot.

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