Related to the problem of liberty, noted Pope Leo XIII, is the Americanist view that “all external guidance [that] is set aside for those souls who are striving after Christian perfection as being superfluous or, indeed, not useful in any sense…”[1]  Americanism resists trustful docility to the guidance of spiritual directors and the authority of the Church. America is, after all, a nation born of the Declaration of Independence. Although Americans boast a great pioneering spirit that took us West, into the air, and even to the moon, Americans also tend to maintain a deeply rooted individualism. When Catholics assimilated into American culture, they embraced this notion. On one hand, the few canonized saints from the U.S. displayed an enterprising spirit in their pursuit of justice. On the other hand, American Catholics, like Americans in general, tend to have  problems with authority — and that translates into problems with obedience to Rome.

A Problem with Authority

For nineteenth-century Americanists, the need for external authority was not recognized, because they believed (as Pope Leo observed) 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.”[2] Today, many American Catholics display a similar attitude — that one’s personal relationship with God is not entirely compatible with complete submission to the Church, and that there is no real need for spiritual direction or guidance from Church authority. This is, said Leo, “the sign of no small overconfidence…”[3]

Traditionalists in America are not known for emphasizing the movement of the Holy Spirit or personal relationships with Jesus. American Traditionalists instead claim to be following the will of God through objective and infallible guides, what they call the “perennial magisterium” or believe to be the unchanging Tradition of the Church. But the effect is the same: their guide is an abstract idea of doctrine disembodied from the living authority of the Church. Whereas the original Americanists felt they lived in an optimistic time in which the Holy Spirit spoke more directly to the individual than in times past — and they therefore needed not adhere to any visible authority — today’s Traditionalists pessimistically claim a current doctrinal crisis in the Church to justify their reliance on personal guides in matters of the faith.

While their interior guides and the assumed circumstances are different, the notion is the same. Both factions act as if interior guides grant them license to ignore the Pope, the Magisterium,  Church Councils, and, as quoted before, “to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world…”[4] People under the influence of Americanism become their own popes, creating their own magisteriums, and are moved by their own interior guides which they claim to have discerned properly. During the pontificate of Pope Francis, this is precisely what has happened in much of Traditionalism and Conservative Catholicism. It has flourished in the U.S. because the roots of Americanism were already established.

Americanists do not err because they are guided interiorly. Pope Leo was careful to say that “the Holy Spirit does work by a secret descent into the souls of the just and that He stirs them alike by warnings and impulses…”[5] Rather, they err when their interior voice opposes the Catholic Church. “Experience shows,” wrote Leo, “these monitions and impulses of the Holy Spirit are for the most part felt through the medium of the aid and light of an external teaching authority.”[6] Yet the original Americanists held the Holy Spirit responsible for their rejection and filtration of Church teachings in the same way American Traditionalists do today, in their own way.

Leo’s warning is as relevant today as ever:

Nor can we leave out of consideration the truth that those who are striving after perfection, since by that fact they walk in no beaten or well-known path, are the most liable to stray, and hence have greater need than others of a teacher and guide. Such guidance has ever obtained in the Church; it has been the universal teaching of those who throughout the ages have been eminent for wisdom and sanctity-and hence to reject it would be to commit oneself to a belief at once rash and dangerous.[7]

When it comes to Pope Francis, Traditionalists are openly opposed to accepting his teachings and do not respect the guidance that he provides from his legitimate teaching authority. They instead turn to their interior guides to lead them. Confusingly, Traditionalists are nevertheless very enthusiastic about the topic of obedience. They value spiritual direction and admonitions given in confession and homilies, and they cling to the words of the bishops and cardinals they accept. However, Traditionalists do not view the Magisterium as reliable, so they pick and choose the persons whom they will obey, among Traditionalist sources, naturally. Many Traditionalists avoid some parishes to attend a Traditionalist parish. They take spiritual direction from Traditionalist priests and adhere to the teachings of Traditionalist bishops and cardinals. They already behave as though they were a separate body.

The Traditionalist response was to be expected, because many liturgies, homilies, instructions given in confession, and the words and actions of certain bishops and priests have truly scandalized many American Catholics for decades. Here, I refer not only to the abuse crisis, but also to ordinary parish life. However, the Traditionalists’ reaction is not automatically commendable simply because it is fueled by understandable frustrations. They have not reacted by becoming more united to the ecclesial community founded on Peter, but by separating themselves and vetting all that comes from Rome. The result is the Americanist tendency to pick and choose and to rebel against authority. Traditionalists have decided which conditions must be met before they will obey, and they are not above casting aside the Pope himself.

Contempt for Submission

Pope Leo wrote that Americanists harbor a “contempt of the religious life which has in some degree taken hold of minds.”[8] This Americanist tendency seems superficially to have little or nothing to do with Traditionalism, for Traditionalists place great emphasis on religious vocations, especially to orders with rigorous discipline and who wear traditional habits. Americanists and Traditionalists are alike, though, because the root of Americanists’ contempt for religious life also derives from their misunderstanding of liberty.

According to Leo, Americanists “say vows are alien to the spirit of our times, in that they limit the bounds of human liberty; that they are more suitable to weak than to strong minds.”[9]  This means Americanists have contempt for the vocation of those who place themselves under the guidance of superiors in a hierarchical structure. It’s a rejection of submission. In contemporary terms, Americanists view those who submit and obey as unquestioning sheep who don’t think for themselves.

Traditionalists share this same contempt, but aim for a new target. Instead of directing it toward those who profess religious vows, they point to those who practice religious submission. According to Lumen Gentium:

This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.[10]

This is the teaching of the Church. Lumen Gentium is a document from an Ecumenical Council, it is the dogmatic constitution on the Church, yet those who practice such religious submission today can expect an onslaught of genuine contempt from Traditionalists. One significant difference between the original Americanists and the Traditionalists is that while the former are only said to have a contempt for the submission itself, the latter displays contempt for both the submission and those who submit. The very term “religious submission,” in relation to Pope Francis, has become one of contention, particularly on social media. The contempt may be very subtle, such as expressing pity for those who naïvely follow the Holy Father, but this scorn can grow hostile.

Though both liberal and conservative American Catholics have expressed similar misgivings about submission, nothing could have prepared the Catholic world for the behavior of Traditionalists during the Francis era. The magnitude of hostility towards the pope found on social media and even in mainstream Catholic publications was unimaginable during the pontificate of St. John Paul II. Even for Benedict XVI, who was generally disliked by liberal Catholics, the animosity did not have such an impact. For Catholics, religious submission to Pope Francis has become a controversy that has divided families and ended friendships — a good sign that Pope Francis is truly preaching the Gospel. (See Matthew 10:34-35.) In gnostic fashion, opponents of Pope Francis accuse those who practice religious submission to this pontiff of being mindless sheep who cannot understand the truth, conspiracy, hearsay or rumors. The contempt held by the original Americanists for religious vows is the same contempt now held by Traditionalists for religious submission.

This phenomenon appears in other nations, but each nation has its own history and philosophical climate that could predispose its culture to either obedience or disobedience. It could be argued that in places such as England and Germany, the roots go as far back as ancient resistance to the Roman Empire. In the U.S., however, it is Americanist tendencies that predispose many Catholics to value self-reliance over obedience to the pope.[11]

To counter these attitudes, we can apply what Pope Leo said to Americans about religious vows directly to the topic of religious submission: “Those who so bind themselves by the vows of religion, far from having suffered a loss of liberty, enjoy that fuller and freer kind, that liberty, namely, by which Christ hath made us free.”[12]

Read Part Five Next

[1] Pope Leo XIII, Letter Testem benevolentiae (January 22, 1899) At Holy See. https://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo13/l13teste.htm.

The original Latin can be found here: http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/la/letters/documents/hf_l-xiii_let_18990122_testem-benevolentiae.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. (Quoted in pt. 3)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (November 21, 1964), at Holy See http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html

[11] American hostility to Rome is not unconnected from the hostilities found in Europe. Many U.S. Catholics are descended from these same peoples.

[12] Pope Leo XIII, Testem benevolentiae.


Photo: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Image attribition: Bobindrums / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0); via Wikimedia Commons.

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Patrick is a layman who lives in North Carolina with his wife and children. He holds a bachelor’s degree in theology from Belmont Abbey College and a master’s degree in theology and Christian ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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