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.