‘Americanism’: Phantom Heresy or Fact?


On Jan. 22, 1899, Pope Leo XIII sent Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, leader of the American hierarchy, a document in the form of a letter whose opening words in Latin were Testem Benevolentiae (In Witness to Good Will). “It is clear, our beloved son,” Pope Leo wrote, “that those opinions that, taken as a whole, some designate as ‘Americanism’ cannot have our approval.”

Appalled, Cardinal Gibbons held up the document’s release in the United States for a week, until the publication of excerpts originating overseas forced his hand and moved him to give it to The Baltimore Sun. In a letter to a friend, the cardinal called it “very discouraging … that the American Church is not understood abroad.”

But the bishops of the Milwaukee province, a center of German-American Catholicism, said the errors condemned by Pope Leo were real.

The story of the condemnation of “Americanism” is notably tangled. Even today, accounts of this crucial episode in Church history are often incomplete and biased. As the Americanization of U.S. Catholics becomes a matter of increasing contemporary concern, we need to get this story right.

Troubling reports drifted to Rome from the United States during the 1890s, and concern grew at the Vatican regarding conditions in the Church in America as well as American Catholicism’s influence on Catholics in Europe, especially in France. As the 19th century was drawing to a close, this anxiety hardened into suspicion of the Americanists and their French admirers.

In January 1895, Leo XIII fired a warning shot across the Americanist bow in the form of a letter to the Church in America. Lavishing praise on America and American Catholicism, the Pope nevertheless cautioned against things like divorce and secret societies and against presenting American-style separation of church and state as the ideal arrangement everywhere. The message to Americanists: Don’t push too hard.

Infighting intensified in the next several years. So did the Pope’s concern.

The immediate occasion for Testem Benevolentiae appears to have been the publication in 1896 of a French translation of a shortened version of a biography of Father Isaac Hecker, the American founder of the Paulist order, who had died in 1888. The book carried a long, provocative preface by a liberal French priest named Felix Klein. It went through six printings in a matter of months and touched off heated controversy.

Hailing Father Hecker as a world-class innovator, Father Klein ranked him among history’s “great religious figures” while setting out his thinking with what a later biographer calls “considerable exaggeration.” That included the notion that individuals could count on having the direct, personal inspiration of the Holy Spirit and spiritual directors should encourage them to do so. Father Klein called it an “American idea … God’s will for all civilized people of our time.”

It’s an interesting question whether the views singled out for criticism in Testem Benevolentiae were those of Father Hecker, his biographer, Father Klein or all three. Taking them together, Pope Leo called them “Americanism,” and he condemned them.

Much later, Father Klein declared Americanism a “phantom heresy.” Nevertheless, the French version of the Father Hecker biography was quickly withdrawn, and that, for the most part, was the end of “theological” Americanism in Europe. It lived on — some would say, lives on still — in the United States.

Taking their lead from Father Klein, historians sympathetic to Americanism dismiss both the “phantom heresy” and Leo XIII’s condemnation of it. In an 80-page chapter titled “Americanism” in his massive, influential biography of Cardinal Gibbons, the late Msgr. John Tracy Ellis gives the Pope’s letter to Cardinal Gibbons less than a page and a half. Msgr. Ellis’ summary might charitably be called superficial.

But Leo XIII’s critique is more substantial than apologists for Americanism care to admit. Much of it, in fact, is pertinent to conditions in American Catholicism today.

One set of condemned ideas concerns ranking natural virtues above supernatural ones, along with a division of virtues into “passive” and “active” that gives preference to the latter as more suited to modern times. The Pope says this fosters “contempt … for the religious life” and the disparagement of religious vows. Here, one might say, is a Victorian anticipation of the crisis that has afflicted religious life in the United States over the last half century.

Turning to the origins of Americanism, Leo XIII says it reflects a desire to attract to the Church “those who dissent.” Central to it, he adds, is the idea that the Church — “relaxing its old severity” — must “show indulgence” to new opinions, including even those that downplay “the doctrines in which the deposit of faith is contained.”

Leo XIII’s reply is that how flexible the Church can and should be is not up to individuals but rests with “the judgment of the Church.” Opposing this orthodox view, he notes, is the modern error that everyone could decide for himself, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit today gives individuals “more and richer gifts than in times past” — no less than “a kind of hidden instinct” in religious matters.

All this and more was the Americanism condemned by the Pope.

On March 17, 1899, Cardinal Gibbons sent Leo XIII a letter thanking him for his document but insisting that no one in America held the views it condemned.

In truth, it is unlikely that men like the cardinal of Baltimore, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., and other prominent Americanists had much interest in such ideas. These men were builders and doers, not theorists, and they wanted to be loyal to the Church and to the Pope.

But there’s more to the story than that. Better than Leo XIII or anyone else could have known at the time, the opinions condemned in the papal letter have turned out to be widely held among American Catholics today.

That is the case with the notion that each individual member of the Church can decide religious questions for himself or herself and that this remarkable ability comes directly to each one from the Holy Spirit. This opens the door to “cafeteria Catholicism” — a name given to the pick-and-choose selectivity regarding Church teaching on faith and morals now found among many Catholics.

All of which is simply to say it looks very much as if Pope Leo XIII wasn’t wrong to condemn Americanism — he was just ahead of his time.

Russell Shaw is a writer and journalist in Washington. This article is adapted from his book American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius Press).