Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Heresy of Americanism

A Star-Spangled Heresy of Our Very Own

On the very eve of the 20th century, 1899, one of our great and far-seeing popes, Leo XIII, penned an encyclical he called Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. ("Witness to Our Good Will.") It was directed to James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, one of the most influential prelates in American history. (His Faith of Our Fathers is still good reading, and cheap for your Kindle app.) Pope Leo was concerned about a particular heresy: the heresy of Americanism.

Americanism? A heresy? How could Americans see anything wrong with good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity? Or the manifest destiny that conquered a vast continent, and linked its shores with railroads? Or the rugged individualism and habits of democracy that grew everywhere like the grass, where every man was free to speak his mind? Or with the traditions of compromise and tolerance that oiled a well-ordered society? If anything "Americanism" was a force for good! How could it be a heresy? Just who did this Pope think he was, anyway?

Pope Leo saw things differently. He feared that strong currents of democracy and individualism could sweep away the Church in America. 

The French Connection

Ironically, the proximate cause of his concern was not anything happening in America, but in France. American Fr. Isaac Thomas Hecker had founded the Paulist Fathers. Fr. Hecker was a tireless and effective Catholic evangelist who toured the country after the Civil War, speaking to tens of thousands of people, most of them Protestants, in a day when anti-Catholic bigotry was alive and well. (Historical note. Although it is difficult to believe, there was a time when the Catholic Church actually encouraged non-Catholics to convert. So the problem in those days was not with Fr. Hecker's proselytizing per se, but Rome's fears about his methods.) The publication of a biography of Fr. Hecker in France inspired an enthusiastic sort of "New Evangelization" among what were considered progressive elements in the French Church. That's what got Pope Leo's attention.

Burger King Catholicism: Have It Your Way

The background may be confusing -- and Fr. Hecker was probably not doing anything wrong -- but what it came down to was Pope Leo's insistence that, in the effort to gain converts, Church teachings on faith and morals must not be watered down. Pope Leo wrote:

The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily 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.

The Bear shall leave it to the reader to decide whether Pope Leo's concerns were valid, not only in America, but in Germany, and, yes, France, and ultimately even Rome. What Pope Leo was really addressing was a particular manifestation of a broader heresy that would be named "Modernism." (The first in the Bear's just-named "Heresies of Our Day" series.)

Pope Leo also anticipated the need for the Church's voice to be more clearly heard as opinions multiplied and new ways of broadcasting them were invented. Again, the reader may judge whether Pope Leo was prophetic:

These dangers, viz., the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church's teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty.

The Result

What set the Bear to reading this short encyclical again was his experience as an RCIA catechist, coupled with the results of that unfortunate Vatican survey. All around us, we find that Catholics treat with suspicion the teachings of the Church, and prefer to follow their own (hardly disinterested) opinions. But the Church, which Pope Leo fondly imagined would faithfully exercise her teaching office to counteract intellectual darkness, has done little to discourage full-blown Americanism, now a worldwide epidemic. 

From the confessional to the Vatican, the Church's teaching office is oddly silent. Or, rather, it teaches contrary to the historical Catholic consensus. All you have to do is read about Cardinal Kasper's attack on marriage to hear the pragmatism of Americanism proclaimed with a German accent. The people are going to get divorced anyway. So let's make it okay to get divorced, and remarried, too, and maybe keep more of them in the Church.

So when a Bear just lays out the straight non-rad-trad, Novus Ordo, Catechism of the Catholic Church, vanilla Catholic doctrine for RCIA candidates, little wonder they look at him like he's an escaped mental patient. (Being a Bear may not help, now that he thinks of it.) Didn't Pope Francis say, "Who am I to judge?" Didn't Father say Lutherans have the Real Presence in their Eucharist just like Catholics? Didn't he say Moslems don't need to be Christians because Islam is an Abrahamic religion? Didn't Cardinal Dolan say "Good for him?" Isn't that sexist? Aren't you a Bear? 

But, but Bear! These are teachable moments! No, they're not. They already "know" what it all means. And why should anyone listen to a Bear's tortured explanations when we know what we heard! And, by the way, Hell? Oddly, the farther people depart from orthodoxy, the more certain they become of their salvation. It's a waste of time to even talk to people about Hell anymore. Hilter is playing cribbage with the Devil in an empty Hell. What's that got to do with me? I hold all the correct opinions!

It's one thing to be a keyboard pope, anonymously hurling anathemas in some blog. It's another to see up close the devastation created by the Church's near-complete retreat from Western culture. Whenever the Church remembers herself, surely not in my lifetime, she is going to have to start all over again, and this time with the handicap of "had their chance once -- failed."


  1. When I was in RCIA, no one went near any of the hot-button topics. In fact, I think what used to be thought of as"hot-button topics" now might as well be referred to as "cold-button topics". We all just sat around vacantly, avoiding what felt like a really, really big Elephant In The Living Room. It quickly became clear that Father wasn't going to poke the elephant, and I uncharitably suspected that he was desperately hoping nobody else would. I didn't have the gonadal fortitude to throw out a cheery, "So, ok, what about contraception - any contraceptors here?". Lol. My objective at that point was to get into the fold, full stop - so making waves seemed imprudent.

  2. Still, the same, Jane, except everything has become a hot-button topic because of people's exaggerated devotion to making up their own minds on everything. Holy Trinity? I don't get it. Not sure I can buy into that. Hell? Give me a break. If it were real Father would be talking about it. Homosexuality? WAITJ right? And now I feel I'm just rewiting the entry.

    Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing anyone any favors by clearly teaching Church doctrine. In all likelihood, the Bear is their only source of orthodoxy -- scary thought. They can never use the excuse, "But no one ever TOLD me these things." Although I do like the image of ELEPHANT vs BEAR!!!

    It will be interesting to see how contraception is handled next week in the "marriage" class. (My mate sniffed and asked how long the presenter had been married, which I thought was a good observation. I think 'not" is the answer.) Something tells me it will come up :-)

  3. I am so blessed to have returned to Rome at a parish in Northern Va where IVF, contraception, abortion, advocating communion on the tongue and the like were heard from the pulpit on Sundays. Thank you Dear Lord God! I won't let this mealy mouthed diocese (I guess that's a strong broadbrush accusation, but I describe the general ethos here) take it away from me.

  4. God must have had his reasons for getting you off to such a good start. Mine wasn't so hot, until I discovered the joy of Bubble Catholicism and devoured book after book written before 1960. (I read some of them, too.) My poor formation and bad lturgy caused many problems in my life. Belleville itself seems really liberal to me. Some parishes aren't like that elsewhere in the Diocese. The Bishop seems solid, but nobody likes him, and he does not seem very proactive. BTW, is Fr. Roger Karban still destroying the faith of people in The Messenger? Online it seemed there were no recent articles.


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