In an effort to counter the anti-Catholicism of nativists in the 19th century, the Church hierarchy in the United States made great efforts to assimilate waves of Catholic immigrants into the culture. Organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Daughters of the Americas showcased the positive union of American and Catholic heritage. Through displays of patriotism and public charity, a Christian denomination once associated with immigrant ghettos gradually entered the mainstream.[1]

The Church in the U.S. is Americanized. According to Pew Research, Catholics today are assimilated to such a degree that the percentage who vote either Democrat or Republican is almost identical to Americans in general:

When it comes to a number of specific issues — including some on which Catholic teachings leave little room for doubt — Catholic partisans often express opinions that are much more in line with the positions of their political parties than with the teachings of their church.[2]

This situation is far from new. Rome expressed concern about an Americanist trend as early as the 1890s. To be clear, the Church has never condemned being a patriotic American.  Popes have had great things to say about America and her people. Some Americans have been canonized as saints. The Church even inculturated Thanksgiving, adding it to the U.S. liturgical calendar. Bringing in what is good from American culture is not the problem. Rather, the problem is that aspects of the culture which are incompatible with Catholicism have been incorporated into American Catholic life.

In 1899, Pope Leo XIII wrote Testem benevolentiae (“in witness to goodwill”), addressed to the Archbishop of Baltimore, James Cardinal Gibbons, “to call attention to some things to be avoided and corrected” in the American Church.[3] Although it wasn’t the first letter of warning the Pope had sent the cardinal, it was certainly the most forceful. Likely written in response to a theological controversy stirred by a biography of Rev. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, the letter arrived with an explicit order that it be published for all U.S. Catholics to see. It stated that Rome was “not able to give approval to those views which, in their collective sense, are called by some Americanism.”[4] With that, Americanism became the name of a heresy defined and condemned by the Church.


Americanism exudes a spirit of independence from authority and reliance upon individual judgments and initiatives. Americanists, therefore, decide when, whether and how they will obey the Magisterium or embrace Church teaching. “Cafeteria-Catholicism” and “watered-down theology” are contemporary terms for the problem Pope Leo described. A form of Modernism, Americanism extends a peculiarly American, perhaps Puritanical, emphasis on self-reliance and resourcefulness, valuing these attributes over dependence on God’s grace. Activity then becomes more esteemed than contemplation.

Americanism is all around Catholics in the U.S., but it remains largely unacknowledged. As an American, it seems to me that most Catholics in the U.S. are unaware of the existence of such a thing as the heresy of Americanism. With few exceptions, the faithful receive no warnings about this heresy from the pulpit, in catechesis and RCIA, or in any forum of note in American Catholic culture.

American Catholics do not seem overly concerned about this heresy that bears our name, but it might be because Pope Leo’s warnings have never been taken seriously. Cardinal Gibbons denied the existence of this heresy and tried to delay publication of the Pope’s letter.[5] “[I]t is very discouraging to us,” Gibbons wrote, “that the American Church is not understood abroad, and that its enemies are listened to, and that they can lie with impunity.”[6] Americanism was deemed a “phantom heresy” and dismissed — by Americans. Ironically, determining for oneself whether the Pope’s words must be heeded is one of the major concerns described in Testem benevolentiae. We were not off to a good start.

The cardinal’s reaction — claiming that America is not in error, but sadly misunderstood by Rome — represents a persistent attitude that reemerges time and again whenever tensions erupt between the U.S. Church hierarchy and the Vatican. Nevertheless, the more we explore what Pope Leo said, the more we must concede that Americanism is not only real, but actually dominates American Catholic life. Americanism is the filter through which the Catholic faith is presented, so much so that Catholicism without the influence of Americanism can seem strange and alien.

Testem benevolentiae points undeniably to progressive Catholicism, but in the century since Pope Leo issued the letter, a new, conservative form of Americanism has taken shape.  Today’s Americanism manifests in two distinct branches that neatly coincide with the nation’s two major political parties. Most Catholics in America who are politically liberal are aligned with the Democratic Party and also tend toward liberality in ecclesial matters of doctrine and liturgy. Most Catholics in America who are politically conservative generally align with the Republican Party; however, this group isn’t necessarily “conservative” in ecclesial matters. For example, being a Republican doesn’t necessarily mean you have any affection for the Latin Mass.  Despite partisan divides, both liberal and conservative Catholics in America are alike in placing political parties above the teachings of the Magisterium. This is all the more relevant in the 21st century, because the greatest resistance to the current pontiff emanates from the U.S. — not from liberal Catholics but from conservative Catholics and, most of all, American Traditionalists.

American Traditionalism

Although Traditionalism originated in Europe as a rejection of Vatican II, it found fertile ground in the U.S., where the hallmark independence and self-reliance of Americanism, not to mention strong partisan ties, primed many conservative American Catholics to embrace it and oppose the Vatican. This fusion gave rise to American Traditionalism and has since spread its influence abroad. Opposition to Pope Francis propelled American Traditionalism to the forefront of the global Traditionalist movement. This could be seen as the fulfillment of the Americanist belief in “a God-given duty to show the rest of the Church, and especially her leadership in Rome, the way to the future as that path…marked out in the United States.”[7]

The definition of “Traditionalist” has been mercurial, attributed to anything from a Friday fish-eater to a full-fledged Sedevacantist. The term once served as an adjective associated with a style. As an adjective, it could describe a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices. However, “Traditionalist” is now a proper noun.

Traditionalists are defined by their reaction to the reforms of Vatican II, and that they actively seek to restore pre-conciliar Catholicism. Like Protestantism, Traditionalism has already experienced many breaks, each over dissonant visions and beliefs. Some are Sedevacantist, but most are not. What unites Traditionalists is an ism, complete with a Traditionalist approach to theology, ecclesiology, prayer, liturgy, homiletics, social justice, sense of mission, and an understanding of history and the signs of the times which departs from the interpretation of the Magisterium. Distinctly Traditionalist approaches to Marian piety exist as well, informed by both approved and unapproved apparitions. The shift from adjective to proper noun and ism occurred because Traditionalists have, in fact, already separated themselves from mainstream Catholics, even if most are still, legally, in full communion with the Catholic Church. Opposition to Pope Francis has helped ossify Traditionalists into a distinct faction and gather support from many Catholics who are merely conservatives.

The Name of Traditionalism

The fact that Traditionalists have a name is important. It could be argued that Traditionalists are like other movements within the Church. It is not a problem that Focolare or Charismatics have names, so why not Traditionalists? The problem is that authentically Catholic movements, which have been approved by the Holy See, claim unity under a charism or mission within the Church, whereas Traditionalists believe Traditionalism is the true form of Catholicism. This assertion makes Traditionalism distinct not only from the great Catholic movements but also, possibly, from Catholicism itself.

Throughout the history of the Church, dissensions and divisions have erupted, but the name Catholic has always remained with those in union with the Pope. Historically, the other side has taken a new name. That Traditionalists have already named themselves begs serious questions: at what point do we begin to refer to Traditionalists on the one hand and Catholics on the other? Likewise, how long will it be until we openly say one parish is Traditionalist while another is Catholic?

In recent years, outspoken opposition to Pope Francis led American Traditionalists to become the world’s torchbearers of Traditionalism, leaving little (if any) difference between American Traditionalism and Traditionalism in general. To understand the close ties of American Traditionalism with Americanism, we must revisit Pope Leo XIII’s prophetic text, Testem benevolentiae. There, in the Pope’s words, Americanist errors become concrete and plain. In reading the admonishments of the Holy Father, it becomes clear how Americanism prepared some U.S. Catholics to embrace Traditionalism and how Traditionalism has since been infused with Americanism.

In the next installments of this series, we will explore Testem benevolentiae point by point to unearth ways Americanism presents itself, both in its original form and in American Traditionalism.



[1] Shaw, Russell. American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013. Ch. 1-2.

[2] Lipka, Michael, and Gregory A. Smith. “Like Americans Overall, U.S. Catholics Are Sharply Divided by Party.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, January 24, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/24/like-americans-overall-u-s-catholics-are-sharply-divided-by-party/.

[3] 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

[4] Ibid.

[5] Shaw, Russell. American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013. Pg. 44.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., Pg. 42.

Image: Cardinal James Gibbons. 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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