Ethics & Public Policy Center

Catholic “Americanism”

Published in National Review Online on May 31, 2012



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.

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).

He was concerned that doctrine — what John Paul II a century later would call the Catholic “symphony of truth” — might be regarded in some quarters as an impediment to evangelization and witness. And he took aim at what he called the confusion of liberty with license, as if willfulness were at the center of human freedom.

He was, in other words, warning against confusions and distortions that are manifestly in play in certain Catholic quarters today, whether or not they were widespread in Catholic circles in late-19th-century America.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has displayed many of these tendencies throughout her years in the national spotlight. Most recently, the House minority leader said that her Catholic faith “compels” her to “be against discrimination of any kind,” which is why she, as a Catholic, supports so-called “gay marriage.” That the teaching authority of the Church has made unmistakably clear on numerous occasions that there is and can be no such thing as “gay marriage” evidently makes not the slightest difference to Mrs. Pelosi, whose personal judgments are the magisterium she obeys.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is another whose approach to faith, judgment, and public policy would seem to vindicate Leo XIII’s concerns. Despite the efforts of the archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, Joseph Naumann, to convince her otherwise, Sebelius, first as governor of the Sunflower State and now as chief health-care official in the Obama administration, has insisted on the most libertine possible abortion policy. She vetoed a bill prohibiting late-term abortions shortly before leaving the governor’s office in Topeka, and she has defended the HHS mandate’s diktat that religious institutions must provide coverage including abortifacient drugs as part of “preventive health services.” That several popes and the entire Catholic hierarchy of the United States have, on numerous occasions, declared such actions beyond the bounds of moral reason — not just the bounds of Catholic doctrine, but the bounds of moral reason itself — makes no discernible difference to Secretary Sebelius. Like Representative Pelosi, she is her own magisterium.

Leo’s concerns about confusions over the natural and supernatural virtues seem prescient when one looks around the U.S. Catholic scene today. E. J. Dionne Jr. regularly praises the Church for its social-service networks (as well he should). But amidst his many attempts to bolster the fading cause of Catholic progressivism, has Dionne ever written about the absolute centrality of the sacraments to Catholic identity and mission, linking the Church’s liturgical life to its work for justice, as the leaders of the mid-20th-century Liturgical Movement always did? I don’t doubt that Dionne believes that the celebration of the Eucharist is a stronger expression of the essence of Catholicism than what any bishop says about the Ryan budget; still, no one would learn that from any of his columns since January. And in this, of course, Dionne maintains his role as chief cheerleader for the Obama administration. For it was President Obama who, at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement, defined social-service Catholicism of a certain ideological hue
as the real Catholicism — a theme to which Obama has returned in recent weeks, reminiscing about the halcyon days of his community organizing in Chicago.

Then there is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of sisters the Vatican is attempting to reform. That Vatican intervention took place not because many of these sisters supported Obamacare (pace E. J. Dionne), but because their approach to religious life embodies many of the difficulties against which Leo XIII cautioned: conscience understood as personal willfulness and set against ecclesial authority; religious obedience juxtaposed to human maturity; humility discarded for the sake of pride (in this case feminist pride). Many of the LCWR’s leaders seem to agree with Dionne that what really counts in the life of American sisters is their social service, not the vowed witness of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the midst of a culture dominated by the imperial autonomous Self. Leo XIII would have disagreed, and his prediction that any such secularist reduction of consecrated religious life would lead to its implosion has been borne out by the sad fact that the LCWR orders are dying from lack of new members.

Then there is Mario Cuomo, who in 1984 gave a distinctively Americanist speech, in Leo XIII’s sense of the term, at Notre Dame: a speech that paved the way for the national careers of Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, and Joe Biden, and that would have defined the curious Catholicism of the John Kerry administration, had things gone the other way in 2004. Cuomo recently told Maureen Dowd that “if the Church were my religion, I’d have given it up a long time ago. . . . All the terrible things the Church has done. Christ is my religion, the Church is not.” Yet the Church and its teachings, as Leo XIII wrote to Cardinal Gibbons in his ornate style, come to us “from the same Author and Master, ‘the Only Begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father’ [John 1:18].”

Maureen Dowd’s anti-Church rants on the New York Times op-ed page would have brought an embarrassed blush to the face of a great man (and a devoted churchman) like Isaac Hecker. But in this instance, Dowd’s invitation gave Cuomo the opportunity to articulate with precision one facet of the down-market theology that shapes the new Americanism: the theology that sets Jesus (heavily edited down to a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount) against the Church. And when Jesus is juxtaposed to the Church rather them embraced as the Lord of the Church that is His Body in the world, the rest readily follows: Private judgment trumps authoritative Catholic teaching; the Church of social service is severed from, and then trumps, the Church of the sacraments; freedom is purely a matter of following conscience (no matter how ill-formed or erroneous that conscience may be); doctrine is an obstacle to witness; and Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic cabinet officer who has declared her administration at “war” with the Catholic Church, addresses a commencement ceremony at Georgetown University, a hub of the new Americanism and its distortion of Catholic identity and Catholic social doctrine.

This new form of Catholicism Lite, a not-so-phantom hash of ideas that poses real problems for the integrity of the Church and its evangelical mission, breathes deeply of two winds that have long blown through American Christianity: the ancient Pelagian wind, with its emphasis on the righteousness of our works and how they will win our salvation; and the Congregationalist wind, with its deep suspicion that Catholic authority is incompatible with American democracy. As for the older Americanist controversy, I think the classic historiographers of U.S. Catholicism were largely right: The “Americanism” of which Leo XIII warned in Testem Benevolentiae was far more a phantom concocted by fevered, ancien-régime European minds than a heresy that threatened Catholic faith in the United States. But the problems that Leo flagged are very much with us over a century later. They are at the root of the internal Catholic culture war that has intensified as religious freedom has come under concerted assault, and as the new Americanists, who form a coherent party in a way that Isaac Hecker and his friends never did, have either denied that assault — or abetted it.

- George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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