Americanism: the Heresy, and Accidental Research

Anybody remember the Connections TV show? Somehow, by no conscious plan, I may be becoming the James Burke of American Catholic education history – not in any chest-pounding I’m the Man! way, just in the impulsive, accidental research ‘method’ I employ results, sometimes, in finding wild connections. To wit: Americanism: the Heresy.

The Jade Emperor, the Drunken Immortal and the Monkey King watch Jason Tripidikas go home through the Gate of No Gate, which is exactly how I get home through the Research Method of No Method. Well, sorta.

Followed a link to a Mike Flynn post from some years ago discussing the Hillbilly Thomists, wherein, in a jocular manner, he mentions that Americanism is a heresy. I follow that link, and read the Wikipedia article, which mention Isaac Thomas Hecker, founder of the Paulists. Hecker was acquainted, somehow, with his contemporary and fellow convert Orestes Brownson, and evidently shared with him ardent American patriotism and a faith that America was more than a nation among other nations, but was the work of the Almighty intended to draw men to God and His Church. Brownson, as mentioned here, believed that the future of the Church was American, insofar as the good parts of freedom and self government could only be supported upon a Catholic foundation. He expected America to convert, and then welcome into the Union the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Monroe Doctrine + Manifest Destiny squared = Divine Providence.

Brownson soft-pedals the criticism of European Catholicism inherent in this hyper-American view, but others did not. In particular, certain French priest, watching the Church lose influence in France while the hierarchy took the general Counter-Reformation tact of doubling down on tradition, discipline, and dogma, saw in their take on Hecker a mandate to engage with the modern world on its terms. In both Europe and America, this new approach triggered a backlash.

‘Americanism’ the heresy (as opposed to a simple name for those largely neutral or positive attributes characteristic of Americans) is a twist on Modernism that suggests the Church has to change into a version more compatible with American liberty and government. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII wrote an Apostolic Letter Testem benevolentiae nostrae to James Gibbons, Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore, expressing concerns. Wikipedia sums up the heretical aspects of Americanism as follows:

  1. undue insistence on interior initiative in the spiritual life, as leading to disobedience
  2. attacks on religious vows, and disparagement of the value of religious orders in the modern world
  3. minimizing Catholic doctrine
  4. minimizing the importance of spiritual direction

Pope Leo XIII did not accuse the American Church of these errors, exactly, but wrote to have them acknowledged as errors and get assurances that they would not be tolerated. He says about Americanism as used to promote the above positions:

“But if it is to be used not only to signify, but even to commend the above doctrines, there can be no doubt that our venerable brethren, the bishops of America, would be the first to repudiate and condemn it, as being especially unjust to them and to the entire nation as well. For it raises the suspicion that there are some among you who conceive and desire a Church in America different from that which is in the rest of the world.”

Here’s where it gets interesting: The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912 edition, concludes their article thus:

This Letter put an end to a bitter controversy which had been agitated for nearly ten years, particularly in the Catholic press. In expressing their adhesion to the Holy See and their unqualified acceptance of the teachings set forth in the Letter, the bishops of the United States made it clear that whatever departures from the same might have occurred in this country they had not been either widespread or systematic as they had been made to appear by the interpretation put upon the “Life of Father Hecker” in the preface to the French translation.

So, in their view, this whole Americanism thing was nothing but a tempest in a teapot – maybe a few crackpots in the Catholic press had stirred things up, but the Church as a whole embraced the authority and discipline of the Church. Nothing to see here, move along. This view, that ‘Americanism’ is a pseudo heresy that nobody much ever fell into but is rather evidence of European or even papal paranoia and jealousy, seems to have become the accepted wisdom. “Many historians of American Catholicism describe this as a “phantom heresy” that had few or no supporters in the United States.” (source).

Except for a couple things: First, we have the case of Archbishop John Ireland, discussed here on this blog. As Wikipedia puts it:

John Ireland, archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota and a foremost modernizer, had to walk on eggshells to avoid condemnation for his views. Ireland sought to adapt the social and religious values of the Catholic Church to American political and cultural, especially religious liberty, separation of church and state, cooperation with non-Catholics, and lay participation in ecclesiastical decision-making. Many of his ideas were implicitly condemned by Pope Leo XIII’s Testem benevolentiae (1899) as a heresy and Americanism. Nevertheless, Ireland continued to promote his views. When similar European views were condemned by Pope Saint Pius X’s ‘Pascendi Dominici Gregis’ (1907), Ireland actively campaigned against what the pope declared the heresy of modernism. This apparently inconsistent behavior stemmed from Ireland’s concept of a “golden mean” between “ultraconservatism”, rendering the Church irrelevant, and “ultraliberalism,” discarding the Church’s message.

This is the same Ireland who caused an uproar among many of the American bishops by suggesting the American public schools should be embraced. But if the public schools were OK for Catholics, all that sacrifice and work by largely impoverished immigrants to build them was for nothing! But Leo XIII, this same pope, in the Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae just 9 years earlier (1890) said the following:

This is a suitable moment for us to exhort especially heads of families to govern their households according to these precepts, and to be solicitous without failing for the right training of their children. The family may be regarded as the cradle of civil society, and it is in great measure within the circle of family life that the destiny of the States is fostered. Whence it is that they who would break away from Christian discipline are working to corrupt family life, and to destroy it utterly, root and branch. From such an unholy purpose they allow not themselves to be turned aside by the reflection that it cannot, even in any degree, be carried out without inflicting cruel outrage on the parents. These hold from nature their right of training the children to whom they have given birth, with the obligation super-added of shaping and directing the education of their little ones to the end for which God vouchsafed the privilege of transmitting the gift of life. It is, then, incumbent on parents to strain every nerve to ward off such an outrage, and to strive manfully to have and to hold exclusive authority to direct the education of their offspring, as is fitting, in a Christian manner, and first and foremost to keep them away from schools where there is risk of their drinking in the poison of impiety. Where the right education of youth is concerned, no amount of trouble or labor can be undertaken, how greatsoever, but that even greater still may not be called for. In this regard,indeed, there are to be found in many countries Catholics worthy of general admiration, who incur considerable outlay and bestow much zeal in founding schools for the education of youth. It is highly desirable that such noble example may be generously followed, where time and circumstances demand, yet all should be intimately persuaded that the minds of children are most influenced by the training they receive at home. If in their early years they find within the walls of their homes the rule of an upright life and the discipline of Christian virtues, the future welfare of society willin great measure be guaranteed.

Sapientiae Christianae(1890), article 42

In a number of places, Pope Leo XIII makes clear his affection and approval of the work of the religious orders in America, specifically all the religious who made great sacrifices to found the parochial schools; here he praise the parents who make great sacrifices to see that their children are NOT educated in schools bent on the destruction of the family and Church.

So, yes, eggshells.

But even more interesting for the purposes of this blog are who, exactly, were the editors of the 1912 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia. One of them was Edward A. Pace, Professor of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He, along with his star student Thomas Shields, founded the Catholic Educational Review,  and championed the professionalization and modernization (insofar as those two things are different) of Catholic education. They wanted science, in the form of the nascent pseudo-science of Psychology of which Pace was the founding professor at CUA, to inform Catholic education, not ignorant and ill-trained sisters from the old country. Shields, putting his views into practice by working around the bishops, was the main publisher of textbooks used in Catholic schools for decades.

Might Pace have had an interest in having the Americanism heresy just go away? He seems to have largely succeeded, if that were his desire, except, in of all places, Wikipedia! Utterly fascinating that John Ireland – lionized by sophisticated, liberal Catholics – spent the rest of his life on eggshells, alternately promoting his modernism and making elaborate shows of orthodoxy, all in pursuit of a middle way.

So today, it’s clear Pace and Hecker (as interpreted by the French, at least) have won. On the education front, parochial schools are nothing better than kinder, gentler public schools, producing kids with no more knowledge of Catholicism than of, oh, science, say. This is not hearsay – I’ve spent hours and days with dozens of the prime products of out elite local Catholic high schools, who don’t know the words to the Our Father, rarely see the inside of Catholic Church, and couldn’t give a coherent explanation of a single point of Catholic teaching to save their lives. I hear similar stories from others all the time.

This is the real-world result of John Ireland’s triumph, of Americanism and Modernism being embraced by and then consuming the Church. That it isn’t likely exactly what he meant to achieve is irrelevant. Logic has its own gravity and inertia. This is where his ideas end up, temporarily, on their way to what hell we can only imagine.

Anyway, like everything else on this blog, these are more or less first impressions that need more work. But it makes a fellah think….

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

6 thoughts on “Americanism: the Heresy, and Accidental Research”

  1. But if the public schools were OK for Catholics, all that sacrifice and work by largely impoverished immigrants to build them was for nothing!

    The middle ground of “it’s OK, not great, but OK” is kind of lost, isn’t it?

    *muses on the sad state where she’d sooner send the kids to public school than a Catholic school, just to avoid driving them out of the faith*

    1. Homeschooling is your better option. We have been doing it for over 20 years with about 10 more to go. Great results from a “socialisation, family, faith and education perspective.

      1. Oh, agreed, especially since our kids…well, take after their parents. (The year after I had to teach the math class in high school because the teacher insisted it wasn’t his job to teach us, I got up and walked out when that jerk walked in to teach something I KNEW I didn’t yet know. I’d only signed up because they swore he wouldn’t be teaching it. 3/4 of the class failed.)

        Especially with all the help available online, it’s MUCH easier to deal with my kids when they can finish their lessons and then go outside or go read or whatever.
        (even if it is funny to find yourself grumbling the five year old only wants to read)

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