1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hecker, Isaac Thomas

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HECKER, ISAAC THOMAS (1819–1888), American Roman Catholic priest, the founder of the “Paulist Fathers,” was born in New York City, of German immigrant parents, on the 18th of December 1819. When barely twelve years of age, he had to go to work, and pushed a baker’s cart for his elder brothers, who had a bakery in Rutgers Street. But he studied at every possible opportunity, becoming immersed in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and while still a lad took part in certain politico-social movements which aimed at the elevation of the working man. It was at this juncture that he met Orestes Brownson, who exercised a marked influence over him. Isaac was deeply religious, a characteristic for which he gave much credit to his prayerful mother, and remained so amid all the reading and agitating in which he engaged. Having grown into young manhood, he joined the Brook Farm movement, and in that colony he tarried some six months. Shortly after leaving it (in 1844) he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church by Bishop McCloskey of New York. One year later he was entered in the novitiate of the Redemptorists in Belgium, and there he cultivated to a high degree the spirit of lofty mystical piety which marked him through life.

Ordained a priest in London by Wiseman in 1849, he returned to America, and worked until 1857 as a Redemptorist missionary. With all his mysticism, Isaac Hecker had the wide-awake mind of the typical American, and he perceived that the missionary activity of the Catholic Church in the United States must remain to a large extent ineffective unless it adopted methods suited to the country and the age. In this he had the sympathy of four fellow Redemptorists, who like himself were of American birth and converts from Protestantism. Acting as their agent, and with the consent of his local superiors, Hecker went to Rome to beg of the Rector Major of his Order that a Redemptorist novitiate might be opened in the United States, in order thus to attract American youths to the missionary life. In furtherance of this request, he took with him the strong approval of some members of the American hierarchy. The Rector Major, instead of listening to Father Hecker, expelled him from the Order for having made the journey to Rome without sufficient authorization. The outcome of the trouble was that Hecker and the other four American Redemptorists were permitted by Pius IX. in 1858 to form the separate religious community of the Paulists. Hecker trained and governed this community in spiritual exercises and mission-preaching until his death in New York City, after seventeen years of suffering, on the 22nd of December 1888. He founded and was the director of the Catholic Publication Society, was the founder, and from 1865 until his death the editor, of the Catholic World, and wrote Questions of the Soul (1855), Aspirations of Nature (1857), Catholicity in the United States (1879) and The Church and the Age (1888).

The name of Hecker is closely associated with that of “Americanism.” To understand this movement it is necessary to comprehend the tendency of events in Catholic Europe rather than in America itself. The steady decline in the power and influence of French Catholicism since shortly after 1870 is the most remarkable feature of the history of the Third Republic. Not only did the French State pass laws bearing more and more stringently on the Church, under each succeeding ministry, but the bulk of the people acquiesced in the policy of its legislators. The clergy, if not Catholicism, was rapidly losing its hold over the once Catholic nation. Observing this fact, and encouraged by the action of Leo XIII., who, in 1892 called on French Catholics loyally to accept the Republic, a body of vigorous young French priests set themselves to check the disaster. They studied the causes which produced it. These causes, they considered to be, first, the clergy’s predominant sympathy with the monarchists, and in its undisguised hostility to the Republic; secondly, the Church’s aloofness from modern men, methods and thought. The progressive party believed that there was too little cultivation of individual, independent character, while too much stress was laid upon what might be called the mechanical or routine side of religion. The party perceived, too, that Catholicism was making scarcely any use of modern aggressive modes of propaganda; that, for example, the Church took but an insignificant part in social movements, in the organization of clubs for social study, in the establishing of settlements and similar philanthropic endeavour. Lack of adaptability to modern needs expresses in short the deficiencies in Catholicism which these men endeavoured to correct. They began a domestic apostolate which had for one of its rallying cries, “Allons au peuple,”—“Let us go to the people.” They agitated for the inauguration of social works, for a more intimate mingling of priests with the people, and for general cultivation of personal initiative, both in clergy and in laity.

Not unnaturally, they looked for inspiration to America. There they saw a vigorous Church among a free people, with priests publicly respected, and with a note of aggressive zeal in every project of Catholic enterprise. From the American priesthood, Father Hecker stood out conspicuous for sturdy courage, deep interior piety, an assertive self-initiative and immense love of modern times and modern liberty. So they took Father Hecker for a kind of patron saint. His biography (New York, 1891), written in English by the Paulist Father Elliott, was translated into French (1897), and speedily became the book of the hour. Under the inspiration of Father Hecker’s life and character, the more spirited section of the French clergy undertook the task of persuading their fellow-priests loyally to accept the actual political establishment, and then, breaking out of their isolation, to put themselves in touch with the intellectual life of the country, and take an active part in the work of social amelioration.

In 1897 the movement received an impetus—and a warning—when Mgr O’Connell, former Rector of the American College in Rome, spoke on behalf of Father Hecker’s ideas at the Catholic Congress in Friburg. The conservatives took alarm at what they considered to be symptoms of pernicious modernism or “Liberalism.” Did not the watchword “Allons au peuple” savour of heresy? Did it not tend toward breaking down the divinely established distinction between the priest and the layman, and conceding something to the laity in the management of the Church? The insistence upon individual initiative was judged to be incompatible with the fundamental principle of Catholicism, obedience to authority. Moreover, the conservatives were, almost to a man, anti-republicans who distrusted and disliked the democratic abbés. Complaints were sent to Rome. A violent polemic against the new movement was launched in Abbé Maignan’s Le père Hecker, est-il un saint? (1898). Repugnance to American tendencies and influences had a strong representation in the Curia and in powerful circles in Rome. Leo XIII. was extremely reluctant to pronounce any strictures upon American Catholics, of whose loyalty to the Roman See, and to their faith, he had often spoken in terms of high approbation. But he yielded, in a measure, to the pressure brought to bear upon him, and, early in February 1899, addressed to Cardinal Gibbons the Brief Testem Benevolentiae. This document contained a condemnation of the following doctrines or tendencies: (a) undue insistence on interior initiative in the spiritual life, as leading to disobedience; (b) attacks on religious vows, and disparagement of the value in the present age, of religious orders; (c) minimizing Catholic doctrine; (d) minimizing the importance of spiritual direction. The brief did not assert that any unsound doctrine on the above points had been held by Hecker or existed among Americans. Its tenour was, that if such opinions did exist, the Pope called upon the hierarchy to eradicate the evil. Cardinal Gibbons and many other prelates replied to Rome. With all but unanimity, they declared that the incriminated opinions had no existence among American Catholics. It was well known that Hecker never had countenanced the slightest departure from Catholic principles in their fullest and most strict application. The disturbance caused by the condemnation was slight; almost the entire laity, and a considerable part of the clergy, never understood what the noise was about. The affair was soon forgotten, but the result was to strengthen the hands of the conservatives in France.  (J. J. F.)