Skip to comments.Americanism, Then and Now: Our Pet Heresy (encyclical of Pope Leo XIII)
Posted on 06/13/2007 5:55:00 AM PDT by NYer
On January 22, 1899, Pope Leo XIII addressed an encyclical (Testem benevolentiae nostrae) to James Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, intended to suppress certain contentions that had arisen in America to the detriment of the peace of many souls. In essence, Leo feared that some American Catholic intellectuals, including a number of bishops, were finding canonical and theological lessons for the Church where they should not be looking for them: in the American cultural and political experience of democracy and individualism.
The underlying principle of these new opinions, wrote Leo,
is that, in order to more easily [sic] attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.
Leo named this heresy Americanism, after the country that had spawned it. Debate continues to this day over what, exactly, the elements of the heresy are, and some question whether those whom Leo addressed in his encyclical were guilty of any doctrinal error. One priest at the center of the controversy as it played out in Europe, Abbé Felix Klein, called Americanism the phantom heresy, and Cardinal Gibbons assured the Holy Father that he and his brother bishops were prepared to defend and promote the Catholic Faithall of itin America. Nonetheless, Leos concerns were not without warrant. He knew well the end of a soul encouraged to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and where the assumed right to hold whatever opinion one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world would leadeven though he did not use the word blog. Indeed, 70 years after the promulgation of Testem benevolentiae nostrae, progressives would celebrate as the great glory of the Second Vatican Council a revolutionary idea that nowhere appears in the Councils not inconsiderable documents: freedom of conscience.
For dissident Catholic priests and theologians, this high-sounding phrase became the reason to reject centuries of Church teachings, particularly those pertaining to sexual morality. Charles Curran, Daniel McGuire, Michael Novak, and other celebrity dissenters promoted artificial contraception to an all too easily manipulated faithful. Divorce and abortion followed. Today, not a few Catholic politicians defend abortion and think that cohabiting homosexuals should have the right to get married.
Americanism, doubtless more virulent in our day than it was in Leos, combines a collective sense of Christian exceptionalism (America as the Shining City on a Hill) with the hubristic conviction that America can draw up her own moral codeor, rather, a limitless number of moral codes, arising from each individuals conscience. Acknowledging the heresy and its internal contradictions helps us understand why Americans today can insist that we are a Christian nation while indulging in all manner of public and private behavior that is decidedly not Christian, from delighting in degenerate diversions, to sanctioning the murder of children, to supporting and prosecuting an unjust war. Although the heresy began as a Catholic controversy, it is hardly less manifest in American Protestant denominations where far too many are eager to cooperate with the spirit of the age, using freedom of conscience as an excuse to relax some of their own severity.
If the chief Catholic scandal that finds its origin in Americanism is the widespread flouting of the Churchs immutable teaching on contraception, the chief Protestant scandal is the high divorce rate found even among regular churchgoers. For some time, of course, many Protestant denominations have permitted divorce (and subsequent remarriage) in cases of adultery or abandonment. However, in, for example, the United Methodist Church, these terms have been relaxed. As the self-proclaimed church with open hearts, open minds, open doors, the UMC, in its Book of Discipline, declares that,
Gods plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. . . . However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness . . . [D]ivorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists. . . . Divorce does not preclude a new marriage.
To put a friendly face on this mush, a divorced Methodist man shares his experience on the UMCs website:
Both my ex-wife and I were pleasantly surprised by how easily things went after the first few times in church as a separated couple. In fact, the reactions and support of the people there helped make this very difficult time somewhat less trying. They not only demonstrated how to be nonjudgmental with us, but we were able to carry that into our divorce proceedings and were nonjudgmental with one another most of the time, too. . . . And although my ex-wife and I will never again be married, we have been able to find a depth of Christian love for each other that was completely unexpected. What a blessing!
Divorce rates are even higher among those American denominations, such as the Baptists, in which the promptings of individual conscience are afforded even greater authority. This would come as no surprise to Leo, who rejected out of hand the idea that the teaching Church is outmoded because the Holy Spirit now speaks directly to souls, the contention being that the Holy Spirit pours richer and more abundant graces than formerly upon the souls of the faithful, so that without human intervention He teaches and guides them by some hidden instinct of His own. To Leo, it was a sign of no small overconfidence to desire to measure and determine the mode of the Divine communication to mankind.
Today, in the absence of objective rules and standards, ready divorce is, according to one study conducted by well-known evangelical researcher George Barna, no less a part of evangelical culture, in particular, than it is of American culture, in general. In fact, Barnas data indicates that born-again Christians divorce at a higher rate than self-professed agnostics and atheists. Roughly 25 percent of the general population is now or has been divorced. Barnas study puts the figure at 34 percent for nondenominational Christians, 29 percent for Baptists, 28 percent for Presbyterians, and 26 percent for Methodists. Only Roman Catholics and Lutherans have divorce rates below the national average.
Where sexual morality is concerned, the Episcopal Churcha thoroughly American institutionis a piece apart. As recently as 1998, Anglican bishops had, if somewhat tepidly, maintained much of traditional Christian teaching on marriage: [I]n view of the teaching of Scripture, [the Conference] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage. Nonetheless, the Episcopal Church has ordained a lesbian bishop and permitted the blessing of same-sex unions. In March, when asked by the Anglican primates to renounce what amounted to the approval of homosexual acts, the Episcopalian bishops refused to submit to correction. Nonetheless, they stated their desire to remain part of the Anglican Communion because, in their words, membership in the Church of England gives them the great privilege and unique opportunity of sharing in the familys work of alleviating human suffering in all parts of the world.
What of proclaiming the Gospel? Well, the Episcopalian bishops proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all Gods children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christs Church, and they proclaim a Gospel that welcomes diversity of thought and encourages free and open theological debate as a way of seeking Gods truth.
As Leo XIII predicted, this Americanized Christianity has led to a mess of contradictions. Remarkably, bishops of the Episcopal Church are bold enough to declare the reprimand from the Anglican primates to be spiritually unsound, as it points out that their
pastoral scheme encourages one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them and be instruments of reconciliation. The real cultural phenomenon that threatens the spiritual life of our people, including marriage and family life, is the ease with which we choose to break our relationships and the vows that established them rather than seek the transformative power of the Gospel in them.
And this from a House of Bishops that includes divorced men.
Is this advanced religious confusion and the moral decay it sires unique to America? Hardly. Pornography is more readily available on European television than on American television. With the possible exception of Las Vegas, there is not an American city that can compete with Amsterdam in the public approbation of moral rot. In Moscow, the average number of abortions per woman approaches four. In Prague, a city whose architecture testifies to the Faith, churches are empty on Sundays. In France, Italy, and Spain, the descendents of crusaders and conquistadors are contracepting themselves out of existence even as they invite the enemies of Our Lord inside their borders to make up the demographic difference. Unlike America, however, the nations of Europeexcepting, perhaps, the Poles, the Slovaks, and the Maltesehave long given up on insisting that they are Christian. Indeed, the European Union is determined to reject Europes Christian roots, and its subjects, by and large, are not protesting. The remnant in Europe know that they are a remnant.
Americans, on the other hand, ignoring the signs that indicate that we are on the same cultural path as Europe, continue to insist on the thinnest evidenceunder God in the Pledge of Allegiance, In God We Trust on our currencythat America is a Christian nation, whose material prosperity and political dominance are, like the atom bomb (as one famous professional conservative put it), signs of Gods favor. (If any country is permitted to make so astonishing a claim, it is France, to whom God did directly and obviously send a military advantageand a moral onein the person of Saint Joan of Arc.)
The American soul, if it is to be saved, will require more than a list of proscriptions to obey, no matter how energetically they are thundered from the nations pulpits. Fire and brimstone sermons do not stop Baptists and evangelicals from divorcing. Nor will a mere understanding, however widespread, of the social consequences of deviant behavior suffice. Men shackled by unnatural desires are intimately familiar with the physical toll their sins exact, yet far too few of them refuse to indulge themselves. That divorce harms children is universally acknowledged, but the rate of divorce has not slowed. By now, any honest abortion enthusiast knows that abortion takes a human life, but mothers still murder their children.
The churches in America have failed to hold the line on the fundamentals of morality, but their deeper fault lies in their failure to lead the transformation of the culture in Christ. American society is not one in which a person can cultivate the kind of piety that illuminates his understanding of his relationship to God. In such a culture, man can see the real value of his nature and struggle against Original Sin to live up to it.
There are some signs of hope among the American hierarchy. Bishop Robert W. Finn of the diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph recently issued a pastoral letter on pornography that is well worth reading. Noting that disciples of Jesus Christ are called to the happiness that comes from a clean and undivided heart, Finn condemns the steady increase of pornography in our culture, calling it a plague in our society, reaching epidemic proportions. Although Finn is clear in calling the [u]se of pornography . . . a serious sin against chastity [that] . . . robs us of sanctifying grace, and in insisting that sin is real and it is destructive, he takes care to explain that sin makes us less human and that only by living up to our nature as sons of God, made in His image and likeness, can we overcome the culture in which we live, one that is increasingly dark and death-dealing.
As Leo did a century before, Finn centers on the supernatural virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, which are the products of a sacramental life. Such a life, he explains, cultivates an awareness of the presence of Godthe surest antidote to the besetting sin of Americanism.
This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
VATICAN LINK - to his Encyclicals, Apostolic Letters, etc.
VATICAN LINK - to his Encyclicals, Apostolic Letters, etc.
What a wise man.
Bomb the Vatican!! Let's invade!! Nuke 'em!!
Hey Leo.........we got freedom, buddy. Take care of your altar boys, instead!!
**Standard Freeper "Macro" for replies to Catholic criticism of America. Available on request by Freepmail.
And that's also a summary of the "Americanism" heresy.
Great article and a great encyclical.
Good thing you added that last sentence. :)
D’accord, mon ami!
I wonder if the publishers of this magazine have the same solicitude for Catholic Mexican Mestizos that they do for moslem Arabs?
And lest anyone think that my criticisms make me an apologist for modernism, please allow me to say that the implication of the remark about the "unjust war" hurts an otherwise worthy article that makes excellent points against the idea of the "true religion" constantly progressing and "improving" over time.
It is a depressing, traitorous "palaeoconservative" rag edited by the most pompous ass in American journalism.
Thomas Fleming's only competition on the egometer is that wanker who used to run Harper's - Lewis Lapham.
And, not surprisingly, their politics have converged over the years.
The Catholicism that makes its pages from time to time savors of schism: one of the people at the top of Chronicles' enemies list is Richard John Neuhaus of First Things.
So Americanism is just ignoring/disobeying certain parts of official Church teaching based on personal preferences and motivated by a mistaken idea of liberty? Americanism can be any heresy as long as it is professed to be motivated by liberty?
Individualism is killing America
Socialism is killing Europe
Islam is killing everything
I think one of the difficulties in defining or combatting heresy was the point you just made, “Americanism can be any heresy.” Most heresies have a leader (the heresiarch) and a formulated statement, but Americanism was more a tendency than anything else, and hence very difficult to either identify or combat.
Some people, such as Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, were unfairly tagged “Americanists” simply for wanting to do things that they thought would bring the Gospel to Americans in a way that standard European approaches could not. The Paulists were very devoted to street preaching, for example. Once upon a time, Catholic preachers had roamed Europe, but in 19th century European Catholicism, this was unheard of.
So I would say yes, that if you had to define the essence of Americanism, it is a belief in some sort of totally unbound, unattached “individual conscience” that is free to decide upon moral laws depending on whether the individual finds the following of those laws to be to his taste and convenience or not. Americanism is much less a theological heresy, such as Arianism, for example, or some heresy dealing with the Trinity, and instead is a sort of “practical heresy” relating to the moral field. But it is still difficult to define because it has no leading proponent. (Of course, nowadays, after Vatican II, which in some ways paved the way for the full flowering of Americanism throughout the Church, it’s probably harder to find someone who ISN’T an Americanist!)
Well it seems to me that lots of heresies had this idea at their root way before Catholics were in America. All men had/have liberty as an inalienable right, whether their gubberments recognized this or not — and it seems like it was a shame that the first nation to really get behind this idea was singled out to be the name of a heresy that can basically be boiled down to something as simple as meaning the sin of someone disobeying official Church teaching because they feel like it.
I might be taking this too harshly, and I’m definitely no expert in Church doctrine. It would just hit me the wrong way if sombody said “John Kerry!! What a heretic—he’s such an American.” I mean come on!!
And apparantly a Grade A crank who should read the Encyclical on which he wishes to comment - and base his comments solely on quotations from it.
The Encyclical in question condemns watering down doctrine to make it acceptable to converts. It does NOT deal with forms of government as the usual pinheads always attempt to assert.
To make my point, here are excerpts from another Encyclical by Pope Leo XIII:
ON CATHOLICITY IN THE UNITED STATES
ENCYCLICAL OF HIS HOLINESS POPE LEO XIII, JANUARY 6, 1895
4. Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure -- a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion. She, by her very nature, guards and defends all the principles on which duties are founded, and setting before us the motives most powerful to influence us, commands us to live virtuously, and forbids us to transgress. Now what is the Church other than a legitimate society, founded bv the will and ordinance of Jesus Christ for the preservation of morality and the defence of religion? For this reason have We repeatedly endeavored, from the summit of the pontifical dignity, to inculcate that the Church, whilst directly and immediately aiming at the salvation of souls and the beatitude which is to be attained in heaven, is yet, even in the order of temporal things, the fountain of blessings so numerous and great that they could not have been greater or more numerous had the original purpose of her institution been the pursuit of happiness during the life which is spent on earth.
5. That your Republic is progressing and developing by giant strides is patent to all; and this holds good in religious matters also. For even as your cities. in the course of one century, have made a marvelous increase in wealth and power, so do we behold the Church, from scant and slender beginnings, grown with rapidity to be great and exceedingly flourishing. Now if, on the one hand, the increased riches and resources of your cities are justly attributed to the talents and active industry of the American people, on the other hand, the prosperous condition of Catholicity must be ascribed, first indeed, to the virtue, the ability, and the prudence of the bishops and clergy; but in so slight measure also, to the faith and generosity of the Catholic laity.
CONCERNING NEW OPINIONS, VIRTUE, NATURE AND GRACE, WITH REGARD TO AMERICANISM
Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII promulgated on January 22, 1899.
"Finally, not to delay too long, it is stated that the way and method hitherto in use among Catholics for bringing back those who have fallen away from the Church should be left aside and another one chosen, in which matter it will suffice to note that it is not the part of prudence to neglect that which antiquity in its long experience has approved and which is also taught by apostolic authority. The scriptures teach us that it is the duty of all to be solicitous for the salvation of one's neighbor, according to the power and position of each. The faithful do this by religiously discharging the duties of their state of life, by the uprightness of their conduct, by their works of Christian charity and by earnest and continuous prayer to God. On the other hand, those who belong to the clergy should do this by an enlightened fulfillment of their preaching ministry, by the pomp and splendor of ceremonies especially by setting forth that sound form of doctrine which Saint Paul inculcated upon Titus and Timothy. But if, among the different ways of preaching the word of God that one sometimes seems to be preferable, which directed to non-Catholics, not in churches, but in some suitable place, in such wise that controversy is not sought, but friendly conference, such a method is certainly without fault. But let those who undertake such ministry be set apart by the authority of the bishops and let them be men whose science and virtue has been previously ascertained. For we think that there are many in your country who are separated from Catholic truth more by ignorance than by ill-will, who might perchance more easily be drawn to the one fold of Christ if this truth be set forth to them in a friendly and familiar way."
"From the foregoing it is manifest, beloved son, that we are not able to give approval to those views which, in their collective sense, are called by some "Americanism." But if by this name are to be understood certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and if, moreover, by it is designated your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed, there is no reason to take exception to the name. But if this is to be so understood that the doctrines which have been adverted to above are not only indicated, but exalted, there can be no manner of doubt that our venerable brethren, the bishops of America, would be the first to repudiate and condemn it as being most injurious to themselves and to their country. For it would give rise to the suspicion that there are among you some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world."
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