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Catholic ‘Americanism’
Mario, E. J., Nancy, Kathleen, and the return of the Americanist controversy.

Pope Leo XIII

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George Weigel

On January 22, 1899, Pope Leo XIII addressed an encyclical letter to Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore and, through him, to the entire Catholic hierarchy of the United States. Entitled Testem Benevolentiae (A Witness of Good Will), the letter raised cautions about attitudes and theories that some churchmen feared were corrupting the integrity of Catholic faith and weakening Catholic witness in the United States. The fretting churchmen in question were largely Europeans who bundled their concerns under the rubric “Americanism.”

Leo’s warnings came amidst a period of squabbling within the American hierarchy, and reactions to the papal letter fell along predictable party lines. Cardinal Gibbons and his party — which included the larger-than-life figure of John Ireland, archbishop of St. Paul, Minn. (and a former Union chaplain in the Civil War), and Bishop John J. Keane, first rector of the recently founded Catholic University of America — denied that any responsible churchman was teaching the dubious ideas of the “Americanism” against which Pope Leo warned. The opposition to Gibbons and his friends — led by Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York and the ever-contentious Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester — thanked the pope for saving the faith in America from a real and present danger. That bifurcated response to Testem Benevolentiae has been replicated in the subsequent writing of U.S. Catholic history, although the ideological positions of the debaters have reversed.

That Leo’s alleged “Americanism” was a “phantom heresy” — a reflection of squalid Church politics in Europe rather than an indictment of any views actually held by Catholics in the United States — was the line long maintained by classic historians of American Catholicism, including the modern dean of that guild, Father John Tracy Ellis (himself the principal biographer of Gibbons). Then came the Sixties and Seventies, and a revisionist school of U.S. Catholic historians began to argue that there were, in fact, adventurous currents at work in American Catholic intellectual and pastoral life in the late 19th century, advocating a rather different idea of the Church from that which prevailed in Roman circles at the time.

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As the revisionists understood the controversy, American Catholic leaders like Isaac Hecker (a former Brook Farm resident who converted to Catholicism and founded the Paulist Fathers) were exploring a more open, progressive Catholicism, better fitted to life in a robust democracy like the United States. That exploration, the revisionists continued, was cut short by Testem Benevolentiae and by what the revisionists regarded as the pusillanimous response to the encyclical by Gibbons, Ireland, and other leaders of the forward-looking wing of the Church in the United States. The revisionists didn’t believe that Hecker and his fellow Americanists were heretics, of course; rather, they saw in them the precursors of the kind of Catholicism the revisionists hoped would triumph after Vatican II. But in the revisionist view, the “phantom heresy” moniker that began with Gibbons’s response to Testem Benevolentiae, and that was defended by John Tracy Ellis and his school, was a clever piece of ecclesiastical bobbing and weaving that did scant justice to the Rome-challenging originality of Hecker and the Americanists.

It’s a fascinating argument, in which both sides have scored important and telling points. But what makes the 19th-century Americanist controversy intriguing today is its remarkable contemporaneity. Indeed, one can read the past half-year of debate among American Catholics initiated by the Obama administration’s HHS mandate as a new Americanist controversy — one in which dubious views are no longer phantoms but are quite real, and are at the very center of the internal Catholic dispute over the appropriate response to the mandate.

What did Leo XIII warn against in Testem Benevolentiae? Sifting through his baroque Latin (and the equally baroque English into which it is usually translated), one finds Pope Leo addressing several important theological questions:

He warned against the claim that the Holy Spirit was more active in the modern democratic age than in the past, such that the center of authority in the Church was shifting from the Church’s apostolic leaders — the bishops — to the consciences of individual Catholics.

He cautioned against stressing natural virtues over supernatural virtues, so that the Church’s active life in the world was taken to be of more consequence than its sacramental life. And he deplored what Hecker’s critics charged was an Americanist deprecation of such virtues as humility and obedience (the latter being considered somehow undemocratic and immature).



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