Isaac Hecker

ISAAC THOMAS HECKER, (1819–88), founder of the Paulists. A native of New York, he was at first a keen Methodist and as a youth took an active interest in the social conditions of the industrial classes. In 1844 he became a Catholic and, after spending some years in Europe, returned to New York in 1851. Meanwhile he had entered the novitiate of the Redemptorists in Belgium in 1845 and been ordained priest by N.P.S. Wiseman in 1849. In the early 1850s he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the many Catholic immigrants then entering the USA. Difficulties having arisen with his Redemptorist superiors in 1857 he was dispensed from his vows by Pius IX, and founded a new congregation for missionary work in the States which was known as the ‘Paulists’. After his death it was frequently suggested, but perhaps mistakenly, that the condemnation of Americanism by Leo XIII in his Testem benevolentiae (1899) had Hecker in mind.

The Correspondence between Hecker and O. A. Brownson (1803–76), a fellow convert to RCism, ed. J. F. Gower and R. M. Leliaert (Notre Dame Studies in American Catholicism, 1; Notre Dame and London, 1979). W. Elliott, The Life of Father Hecker (New York, 1891;, with preface by l’Abbé Félix Klein, 1897). C. Maignen, Étude sur l’américanisme: Le Père Hecker, est-il un saint? (1898). V. F. Holden, CSP, The Yankee Paul: Isaac Thomas Hecker (Milwaukee [1958]; deals with the period up to 1858). J. Farina (ed.), Hecker Studies: Essays on the Thought of Isaac Hecker (New York and Ramsey, NJ [1983]). D. J. O’Brien, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (New York [1992]). V. F. Holden in Dict. Sp. 7 (pt. 1; 1969), cols. 126–31; P. W. Carey in ANB 10 (1999), pp. 487 f.

The Condemnation of Americanism (adapted from Duffy, Popes)

The limits of Leo XIII’s liberalism were shown also in the condemnation of Americanism. The intransigents and the party of ralliement (rallying to the Republic) in France had their counterparts in America. A substantial group of conservative Catholics, led by Archbishop Corrigan of New York and Bishop McQuaid of Rochester, campaigned for a complete withdrawal of Catholics from the state educational system in America. Others, led by Archbishop John Ireland of St Paul, wanted a compromise which would allow continuing Catholic participation in the public schools.

Archbishop Ireland’s attitude reflected a more general openness to the distinctiveness of American social and religious culture, which was demonstrated by the participation of Cardinal Gibbons in the Chicago Parliament of Religions during the Exhibition there in 1892.

1892 Parliament of Religions at the Chicago Exhibition .

For ten days Christian Churches and denominations took part with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims in a public affirmation of ‘basic religious truths’. Gibbons closed the proceedings by leading the assembly in the Lord’s Prayer and giving the Apostolic Blessing — a sharing in public worship with Protestants and even non-Christians unheard of at the time, for which, remarkably, he had obtained permission directly from Leo XIII.

Such a display of ‘indifferentism’ would have been inconceivable in Europe, and many in America were disturbed by it. Leo himself condemned ‘inter-Church conferences’ in 1895. The continuing eagerness of ‘progressive’ Catholics to participate fully in American life and to integrate Catholic values as fully as possible into the ‘American way’ led many to fear a dilution of Catholic truth. Monsignor Satolli, the Apostolic Delegate in the USA, having initially supported Ireland and the progressives, came increasingly to feel that there was ‘nothing of the supernatural’ about the American church.

Isaac Hecker

Orestes Brownson

Archbishop Ireland

In 1899 these tensions came to a head when a French translation appeared of a life of Father Hecker, founder of the Paulist order and a leading figure in the progressive wing of American Catholicism.

[Hecker had been an idealistic reader of Kant in his youth and disciple of Orestes Brownson, a controversial Catholic convert and extremely gifted pro-emancipation orator.

The Catholic controversial works Brownson had tried to read were written in “a dry, feeble, and unattractive style and abounded with terms and locutions which were to me totally unintelligible. Their authors seemed to me ignorant of the ideas and wants of the non-Catholic world, engrossed with obsolete questions, and wanting in broad and comprehensive views”. Brownson through his own studies had concluded, nevertheless, that Catholicism was intellectually liberating, the perfect religion for self confident citizens of the American republic. The convert’s job was to make this openness more apparent. An intelligent Catholic’s mind, he said, “is no more restricted in its freedom by the authoritative definitions of an infallible church than the cautious mariner by the charts and beacons that guide his course” (Catholic Converts, P. Alitt, 1987, p. 64)

Hecker was a mystic. In 1843 at the age of 24 he was staying at Brook Farm, reading the novels of Richter and Goethe and Newman's Tracts for the Times.  In his diary he wrote:

I saw a beautifull angelic pure being, and myself standing alongside of her feeling a most heavenly pure joy and it was as if it were that our bodies were luminous and they gave forth a moonlike light which I felt sprung from the joy that we experienced. We were unclothed pure and unconscious of anything but pure love and joy and I felt as if we had always lived together and that our motions actions feelings and thoughts came from one centre and when I looked towards her I saw no bold outline of form but an angelic something I cannot describe but in angelic shape and image . . . this vision continually hovers o’er me and prevents me from its beauty of accepting any else. Isaac Hecker, The Diary: Romantic Religion in Antebellum America, ed. John Farina ( Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1988), 105-6.

He converted to Catholicism, joined the Redemptorists in Belgium in 1849 and was ordained by Cardinal Wiseman in England.  In America he labored among immigrants, but was expelled from the order by the superior-general in Rome for having undertaken an "unauthorized" journey to Rome to plead for missionary-methods better suited to American culture (in fact the journey had been encouraged by four young Redemptorist fellow-converts and some members of the US hierarchy, including Bishop Kenrick of Baltimore).  He won the favor of Cardinal Alessandro Barnabo and Pius IX and was permitted to found the Paulists together with his four Redemptorist former-confreres, despite opposition from his former-supported, Bishop Kenrick.  Accepted into the Archdiocese of New York they devoted themselves to preaching, parish mission, and retreats for non-Catholics.]

Felix Klein

Cardinal Gibbons

The biography was prefaced by an enthusiastic essay by Father Felix Klein of the Institut Catholique in Paris, which ‘out-Heckered Hecker’ in recommending the adaptation of Catholic teaching to the modern world.

[He compared Hecker to Lincoln and quoted priase for his spirituality from Pius IX, Archbishop Ireland and Cardinal Newnan. Klein compared Hecker's journal to the Confessions of St. Augustine and the writings ot St. Teresa, called him a doctor, a leader in the new paths which the faithful were called to tread.]

Critics fastened on this preface, and besieged Rome with demands for condemnation. The outcome in 1899 was Leo’s letter Testeni Benevolentiae addressed to Cardinal Gibbons, condemning the ideas that

[1] the Church should adapt her discipline and even her doctrine to the age in order to win converts,

[2] that spiritual direction was less important than the inner voice of the spirit,

[3] that natural virtues like honesty or temperance were more important than the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity,

[4] and that the active life of the virtues was more important than the contemplative and religious life.

Many Catholics, and many bishops, in America were grateful for this papal warning against the over-enthusiastic adoption of pluralist values, the ‘false liberalism’ which they believed threatened the integrity of the American church. Cardinal Gibbons, however, who had tried to fend off the condemnation, indignantly denied that any American Catholics held such views, and believed that the use of the word ‘Americanism’ to describe them was a slur on a great church. Certainly the condemnation had wider implications. There is no doubt that European tensions had a good deal to do with the condemnation of Klein’s preface to the Hecker biography, and the condemnation was a sign that the liberalising forces released by Leo’s own style of papacy were here being called to a halt, the limits of assimilation were being set. In America, the condemnation had a serious impact on American Catholic theological scholarship, inaugurating a phase of conservative anti-intellectualism which had a sterilising effect on American theology. In Europe, it was a straw in the wind which would turn to a gale in the pontificate of Pius X, and the Modernist crisis.



From the Diary of Isaac Hecker while at Brook Farm, 1843

Life appears to be a perpetual struggle between the heavenly and the wordly.

Here at B. F. I become acquainted with persons who have moved in a higher rank in society than I have been and persons of good education fine talents all of which have an improving influence upon me And I meet with those who I can speak and feel to a great degree that I am understood and my feelings responded to. In N.Y. I am alone in the midst of people. I do not feel their presence I am not in any internal sense in rapport with them living in myself in the inner world.

I suppose the reason why I do not now in my present state feel disposed to connect myself with any being and rather would avoid a person whom I felt conscious I might or would Love is that I feel my life is in a rapid progress and that my choice now would not be a permanent one. For when I reflect upon the choice that I would have made time back (if there had not been something deeply secret in my being which prevented me) would be to me now I am a afraid very unsatisfactory I feel conscious there could not have been a change or growth mutually equally because the nature of some are not capable of much growth and I mistrust wether there would not as often happens been a inequality hence a disharmony a unhappiness.

To be required to accept your past is most unpleasant. Perhaps the society with which I was surrounded did not afford me a being which unified with mine own. And I have faith that there are spiritual Laws which lie beneath all this outward frame work of sight and sense which will if rightly believed in and trusted will lead to the goal of eternal life harmony of being and union with God. So I accept my being led here Am I superstitious or egoistical in believing this This is no doubt a disputed territory. What is superstition? Have we any objective rule to compare our faith with it which would give us the knowledge of our superstition. How much of to day was miraculous and superstitious to the past. I confess I have no rule or measure to judge the faith of any Man. The past is always the state of Infancy. The present is a eternal youth aspiring after manhood, hopeing wistfully, intensely desiring, listfully listening, dimly seeing the bright joyfull star of hope in the future artfully beckoning him to move rapidly on while his strong heart beats with enthusiasm and glowing joy.

The Past is Dead. Wish me not the Dead from the grave for that would be death reenacted but now let them go to bright heaven living a life of love sweet joy and peace Oh were our wishes in harmony with heaven how changed would be the scenes of our life. What is now sorrow would be turned into joy and life would give us a more exquisite pleasure that I fear it would intoxicate with its sweet joys This accordence would be music which the Angels now only hear too delicate for beings such as we now are

Listen! Has thou not heard in some of thy bright moments a strain from heavens Angelic Choirs. Oh yes in our sleep the Angels have whispered such rich music. The soul being passive such times we then can hear that the pleasure does not leave us when passion and thought take their accustomed course Doest thou not feel that there is all around thee a music so sweet heard only by God & his angels Oh Man were thy soul more pure what a world would open to all thy senses There would be no moment of thy existence but would be filled with the music of love “And the Prophet said in that day my eyes were opened” And behold what he saw. He saw it Could we but hear. The word of the Lord is evermore speaking Alas where is the one that can hear. Where are our Isiahs Ezekeials &Jeremiahs Ha ha thou old shrunken visaged black hollow eyed doubt! Hast thou passed like a black cloud over Mens’ souls making them blind deaf and dumb Ah ha doest thou shudder I chant thy requiem and Prophets Poets and Seers shall again rise I see them a coming Great heaven Earth again shall be a Paradise and God converse with Men.



About 10 months ago or perhaps 7 or 8 I saw (I cannot say I dreamt for it was quite different from dreaming as I thought. I was seated on the side of my bed) a beautifull angelic pure being and myself standing along side of her feeling a most heavenly pure joy and it was as if it were that our bodies were luminous and they gave forth a moonlike light which I felt sprung from the joy that we experienced We were unclothed pure and unconscious of anything but pure love and joy and I felt as if we had alwayslived together and that our motions actions feelings & thoughts came from one centre and when I looked towards her I saw no bold outline of form but an angelic something I cannot describe but in angelic shape and image. It was this picture that has left such an indelible impression upon my mind, and for some time afterwards I continued to feel the same influence and do now at times so that the actual around me has lost its hold on me In my state previous to this vision I should have been married ere this for there are those I have since seen would have met the demands of my mind. But now this vision continually hovers oer me and prevents me from its beauty of accepting any else For I am charmed by its influence and I am conscious that if I should accept any thing else I should loose the life which would be the only existence wherein I could say I live.

Isaac Hecker, The Diary: Romantic Religion in Antebellum America, ed. John Farina ( Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1988), 1054-6.


Fr. French.

Dict. Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, ed. M. Viller, SJ, and others (16 vols. + index, 1937–95).

ANB American National Biography, ed. J. A. Garraty and M. C. Carnes (24 vols., Oxford and New York, 1999)

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