In But Not of America (part one)

Not every nation has a heresy named for them, but when Leo XIII issued Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), he identified Americanism as a heresy. It is a heresy that Roman Catholics today rarely contemplate, probably because they don’t know about it. But the same pope who “started” Rome’s social teaching, also condemned Americanism. Why TBN never makes lists of papal social teaching is a mystery that ranks up there with Jason and the Callers’ avoidance of other delicate subjects.

One of the stranger aspects of contemporary Roman Catholicism in the U.S. is the ways in which church pundits, academics, and bishops all engage in a form of Americanism, hence the liberal-conservative divide among Roman Catholics. One place to see these debates is here.

Several items recently came my way that further underscore the seriously divided state of Roman Catholics on the American question. I plan to mention several of these in the days ahead. But before that happens, some understanding of Americanism as a heresy might be in order. One useful sources is an older article by Russell Shaw. Here’s how he described Americanism:

For a long time, the tendency among Church historians was to pooh-pooh this view of the matter. Thomas T. McAvoy, CSC, in The Great Crisis in American Catholic History 1895-1900, shows an instance of this tendency. His argument was that, in the United States at least, Americanism either hardly existed or, if it did exist was nothing to cause concern. As far as the Church in this country was concerned, Pope Leo needn’t have worried.

More recently, however, the pendulum of historical opinion has swung back the other way, so that American Catholic “Americanism” has come to be seen as something both real and serious. Father Conley, for example, identifies four central Americanist tenets:

* that the world was in an era of radical change (as indeed it was then, and still is today);

* that America was at the cutting edge of change-indeed, was the very embodiment of the future (which was also true, and very likely still is true, although no one can say how long it will remain the case);

* that the Catholic Church was obliged to change with the times (a proposition which may be either true or false, depending on what specific content one gives to that statement); and

* that the Church in America-or, as is now often said, the “American Church”-had a divine mission to point the way to the Church everywhere else, and particularly to “Rome” (which contains an element of truth, but suffers from a fatal arrogance as well as from a failure to comprehend the divine constitution of the Church).

A corollary, perhaps, can be glimpsed in the exasperation seething just below the surface in a writer like Brownson at the thought that support for the pope’s embattled temporal claims to the Papal States was a relevant test of Catholic loyalty in the United States.

There is, however, a central fifth tenet fundamental to the Americanist point of view: a belief in the intrinsic compatibility between Catholicism and American culture. Archbishop Ireland expressed the idea in beguilingly simplistic terms in 1884: “The choicest field which providence offers in the world today to the occupancy of the Church is this republic, and she welcomes with delight the signs of the times that indicate a glorious future for her beneath the starry banner.” And in a remarkable address to a French audience in 1892, seven years before the promulgation of Testem Benevolentiae, Ireland declared:

The future of the Catholic Church in America is bright and encouraging. To people of other countries, American Catholicism presents features which seem unusual; these features are the result of the freedom which our civil and political institutions give us; but in devotion to Catholic principles, and in loyalty to the successor of Peter, American Catholics yield to none…. Besides, those who differ from us in faith have no distrust of Catholic bishops and priests. Why should they? By word and act we prove that we are patriots of patriots. Our hearts always beat with love for the republic. Our tongues are always eloquent in celebrating her praises. Our hands are always uplifted to bless her banners and her soldiers.

This is as naive as it is sincere. In the middle years of this century, by contrast, John Courtney Murray, SJ, polished the Americanizers’ intuitions to a sophisticated high gloss. The Catholic Church, he argued, was not simply comfortable in America; properly understood, the American tradition and the Catholic tradition were very nearly one and the same. In his celebrated and enormously influential book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960), Murray wrote of the “evident coincidence of the principles which inspired the American Republic with the principles which are structural to the Western Christian political tradition”-principles which, he contended, find their fullest expression in the Catholic natural-law tradition.

Let me be clear that this is not a form of tarring Roman Catholics with the brush of anti-Americanism. Plenty of Protestants, especially Presbyterians, have let the nation or the city set the agenda for Christianity in ways that confessional Presbyterians find to be idolatrous if not heretical. So I have great sympathy for Roman Catholic traditionalists who want the church to be the church since the tendency in American Christianity is to make the church into a servant of the nation (or the city, hello followers of Tim Keller).

But in many ways, the tensions in contemporary Roman Catholicism, both between the left and the right, and between Rome and the U.S., don’t make sense without the Americanist heresy as a backdrop.


6 thoughts on “In But Not of America (part one)

  1. It’s difficult to not look over your shoulder in a Country founded by people who thought you were in league with Lucifer and whose not-very-Catholic King granted you territory at a time when no RC would have reciprocated with such serene and good will. Ultramontanism is in the blood.

    But RCs succeeded in planting their churches, funding their schools and becoming Americans.

    It’s not possible to force a wedge between the American religion and the Christian faith. You can make the former servant to the latter but it can only be accomplished with love.

    “My Country, tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, to thee I sing,” that ain’t no joke. And no Pope, cardinal, arch-bishop, priest or ungratefully wretched and superficially egalitarian congregation(s) can stand against it.

    Francis doesn’t seem to be either pro or anti-American but I don’t think he can leave his time in Peronville behind. And even though he may not be an Ultramontanist he has 2,000 years of history riding on shoulders and back that I’m sure he doesn’t take lightly. He recently prayed the mass in Latin. It might have been a sop to the trads he basically nominated without Christ in his encyclical but it’s no less a part of the faith and its history is both beautiful and terrible and impossible to leave behind.

    And his encyclical on the joy of the Gospel doesn’t even really mention what the Gospel is. Way back when, Sasse said he was forced to admit that despite all of Rome’s illicit dogmatic dalliances, the Trinity remained stronger there than in the Lutheran and Protestant churches. And his writing on this dates back to the late 50s or early 60s.

    But America’s founding fathers were not Trinitarians, were they? And, IMO, the health and vigor of the Faith can’t be maintained without the ability to call on the Trinity, as you call out to the world.

    Christianity in the US is now a numbers game. IMS, Pew reported that Rome loses one-third of its Hispanics every five years.

    I don’t think Christianity in Persia ever acquired the sword and I think that what Christians are fundamentally up against is coming to know what if would have been like if Christianity had never acquired it. I can’t remember the name of Augustine’s aide de camp who bid him goodbye when he blessed the use of the sword but he was right and he was courageous.


  2. The subject of the post is close enough to 2K to post this sermon by my pastor yesterday on “Render Unto Caesar”, one of the best 2K sermons I’ve ever heard. Masterful.

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  3. Erik, encouraging to hear. Our licentiate church planter recent grad from Westminster west is also serving up some great stuff around here. I praise God for what I see going on in my immediate circumstances. Take care.


  4. Littlejohn reviewing Leithart’s book Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Theopolitical Visions)

    Perhaps equally strong are chapters 5-7, in which he offers a searing yet measured critique of “Americanism,” a heresy in which “the American nation takes the place of the church as the sacred community” (xii), justifying self-serving and oppressive uses of violence. Although much of this critique might seem old hat within more liberal circles, it is a fairly new and courageous move within Leithart’s own conservative evangelical context, and it is to be hoped that it will help open eyes that till now have remained blind to our national injustices. Perhaps most chilling is Leithart’s chronicle of the mass murder of civilians that was a crucial plank of America’s WWII and Vietnam aerial bombing strategy.

    Littlejohn: For Leithart, believers should fill the halls of power as well, even as “the church” continues to stand over against the state as “an independent polity or order of its own” (63). Do the lay Christians in power count as part of this polity, or is it defined, as in medieval papalism, in terms of the institutional structures of the clergy? Such a worry does not appear altogether unreasonable in light of Chapter 4’s nostalgic and romanticized portrait of medieval Christendom as a time when emperors deferred to “God’s imperium”, as well as Leithart’s lament that the church does not excommunicate wayward politicians enough (110).

    Littlejohn: Leithart would seem to prefer, as is fashionable in contemporary political theology, to find the political identity of the church not in institutional structures per se, but in the Eucharist, defining Christendom as “the civil order’s (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity” (63). But the phrase “quasi-civic order” is veiled in layers of ambiguity, and it is not always clear how Leithart understands the Eucharist to anchor this order. Indeed, we are puzzled to find him lamenting the Reformation as a time when “The church utterly lost its eucharistic center. No longer did the Eucharist function as a locus of union of all nations and peoples.”

    Littlejohn: After all, hadn’t the late medieval church already undermined the “eucharistic center” by its focus on private masses and exclusion of the laity (who only communed maybe once a year, and even then were excluded from the wine)? The influence of Radical Orthodoxy’s narrative of the Reformation is clear also in Leithart’s claim that in the sixteenth century, “The sacredness of the Eucharist was increasingly co-opted by the state, which demanded absolute, sacrificial loyalty. Kings were quick to seize on the relatively new ideology of holy war” (66). In fact, “holy war” was centuries-old by this time (as Leithart’s own narrative has already revealed).

    Littlejohn:. America, we have learned, is a mostly baleful Babel, one which often consorts with bestial nations like Saudi Arabia. As a witness to Christ’s rule, Leithart recommends that the church forsake the idolatry of Americanism, and seek “the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood” (152). All these are undoubtedly salutary prescriptions. However, we are treated also to darker hints of an apocalyptic showdown in which “Christians must risk martyrdom and force Babel to the crux where it has to decide either to acknowledge Jesus as imperator and the church as God’s imperium….


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