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Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic.

This is the first full-length biography of Hecker (1819-1888) since Walter Elliott's admiring and ill-fated The Life of Father Hecker (1891). Vincent Holden's two biographical Hecker books, The Early Years of Isaac Thomas Hecker (1939) and The Yankee Paul (1958), while works of sound scholarship, fail to treat the last thirty years of Hecker's life and are limited by their defensive tone. Steering between hagiography and apologia, O'Brien brings to life a deeply contextualized Hecker who is both religiously compelling and humanly plausible.

In successive parts, O. traces Hecker's life up to his conversion in 1844 and his decision a year later to enter the Redemptorists, covers his Redemptorist years up until his expulsion in 1857 and the subsequent founding decade of the Paulists, locates Hecker with respect to late-19th-century Catholic anti-Modernism, and brings the story to its political and spiritual conclusions, reviewing the controversies over "Heckerism" during the 1890s.

Relying chiefly on Hecker's diary, O. follows his erratic pilgrimage between New York and New England and into the Catholic Church. O. renders the young Hecker and his precarious emotional states with an honesty lacking in previous treatments. O.'s attention to context lends credibility to Hecker's deep sense of God's presence, his urgent need to construct a self, and the paradigmatic nature of his oft-revised autobiography. This part could be read profitably with John Farina's 1988 edition of The Diary close at hand.

In Hecker's experience, religious liberty generated an evangelical imperative. Having introduced his interpretation of Hecker as an "evangelical Catholic" in his contribution to Hecker Studies (1983) and Public Catholicism (1989), O. places Hecker's dream of a converted America at the center of the present work's longest section and at the heart of Hecker's life. But as the century unfolded, this dream would conflict with the immigrant Church's commitment to parish work and Catholic missions. This tension between mission and maintenance is the key to O.'s interpretation of Hecker's significance as an American Catholic.

O. explores this tension in some detail. While Hecker was interpreting the definition of papal infallibility as a basis for evangelization, the Church at large was moving toward a logic of maintenance and resistance to the modern world. In Chapter 14, one of the book's best, Hecker and Orestes Brownson embody the two opposing 19th-century Catholic responses to Modernity. This contrast is captured in a remarkable set of images (258). Confronting head-on the issue of what Elliott had called Hecker's "long illness," O. relates it to the increasing conflict between Hecker's vision of evangelization and the actual work of Catholic maintenance which increasingly occupied the Paulists.

O.'s treatment of Hecker's last years dwells upon his ambivalence as an evangelical Catholic in Protestant America. While he embraced American voluntarism as the condition of evangelization, Hecker never accepted as permanent the resulting denominational pluralism. He was just as uncomfortable with the sectarian posture of the emerging subculture as he was with the decorous competition of the denominational mainstream. While O. identifies the expectation of a Catholic America and eventually a Catholic world as the "deepest conviction of Hecker's public career" (289), he begins and ends this biography with accounts of Hecker's interior life. Despite his portrayal of Hecker's numerous character flaws (self-pity, self-indulgence, insensitivity, blindness to social injustices, and a sometimes irresponsible flight from conflict), O. successfully conveys the religious depth and authenticity of Hecker's abiding passion for God.

After his death, Hecker would become "the most controversial figure in American Catholic history" (377). The final chapter assesses his posthumous role in the Americanist controversies. The Epilogue situates him between the two contending parties. While conservatives were building an immigrant subculture and liberals were advocating Catholic assimilation to the middle class, Hecker urged middle-class Catholics to go out and convert America. O.'s most timely contribution is his real appreciation for and careful articulation of Hecker's dream of America's conversion and broad understanding of evangelization (399-401), an understanding perhaps more widely shared (e.g. by John Keane or even John Ireland) than O. acknowledges.

Except for an occasional error with a name or a publication date, this modestly priced volume has been well served by the publisher. In addition to the impressive cover photo, it includes 24 photographs, 32 pages of notes (most of which refer to primary sources), and a ninepage index of names. A work of painstaking scholarship and deep contemporary Catholic sensibility, this book is a major contribution to American Catholic studies and the standard in Hecker studies. This reviewer has waited more than a decade to read this book. It was definitely worth the wait.
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Author:Portier, William L.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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