In his late nineteenth-century letter to Catholics in the United States, Testem benevolentiae, Pope Leo XIII condemned the heresy of Americanism. Although few American Catholics know about this heresy, many of those who have heard of Americanism believe it is consigned to the Left alone. They believe Americanism is liberalism, progressivism, modernism and–for some Traditionalists–the spirit of Vatican II. When Leo wrote the letter in 1899, he was indeed concerned about an American form of liberalism, and for many years no one had any reason to question whether Americanism exists in other areas. This changed, however, almost immediately after the white smoke rose for Pope Francis.

As resistance to Francis and his papacy increased, it became more and more apparent that the greatest pushback came from the U.S. — and mainly from American Traditionalists. One of the hallmarks of Americanism is a spirit of disobedience to Rome. As we learn in Testem benevolentiae, Americanism is not a political position, but rather a collection of tendencies in the interior life. Upon examination, these tendencies bear striking resemblance to certain proclivities among today’s American Traditionalists, because American Traditionalism is a new manifestation of Americanism.

Some argue that because Leo was writing about a form of political liberalism infiltrating the American Church, his diagnosis couldn’t possibly be applied to Traditionalists today. But Testem benevolentiae was written over a century ago, when liberalism was understood as a belief in “liberty [which] has its counterpart in the newly given civil freedom which is now the right and the foundation of almost every secular state.”[1] As American Catholics assimilated into the American culture, this classically liberal idea of liberty was embraced by most, despite their political leanings. Today, liberals, conservatives, and Traditionalists alike tend to assume the American right to freedom of speech gives them license to say whatever they feel about the pope, or anyone, and through any medium. In the American opposition to Pope Francis, this tendency of the Americanist heresy is on open display.

In Testem benevolentiae, Pope Leo expressed fears that Americanism had influenced the faithful to ignore obedience to Church teaching:

There is even a greater danger and a more manifest opposition to Catholic doctrine and discipline in that opinion of the lovers of novelty, according to which they hold such liberty should be allowed in the Church, that her supervision and watchfulness being in some sense lessened, allowance be granted the faithful, each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity.[2]

Pope Leo warned that this Americanist error would manifest as

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…[3] 

This description can clearly be applied to much of today’s resistance to Pope Francis – perhaps even more than it applied to the original 19th century Americanists. Mostly online, and through every medium–from published articles, tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube channels, cartoons, and exposés in book form–the faithful have witnessed a veritable deluge of rumors, speculations, accusations, mockery and outright conspiracy theories against Pope Francis.

Books that are now favorites among Traditionalists worldwide, such as American author Philip Lawler’s Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock; American podcaster and influencer Taylor Marshall’s Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within; and the book by English historian Henry Sire (under the pen name Marcantonio Colonna) entitled The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy, were all published by American publishing companies. This Americanist sense of license is precisely why Americans, particularly American Traditionalists, lead the opposition to Pope Francis.

It is true the faithful now enjoy greater freedom and greater media access to opine on matters of the faith than Catholics did in Leo’s era. The faithful are encouraged to share and defend the faith through our modern means of communication, especially for the New Evangelization. The pope’s opponents, however, especially those in America, use this opportunity to promote rhetoric that was once only used by anti-Catholics. The Americanist heresy, not Catholic teaching, blazed the trail the American Traditionalists now tread.

In contrast to an attitude of hostility, Pope Leo put forward the teachings of Vatican I:

All those things are to be believed with divine and catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed.[4]

Docility has always been the encouraged attitude. Nevertheless, many of Pope Francis’s Traditionalist opponents comb through whatever comes from Rome to determine for themselves what is magisterial and to what degree, and to declare what can be ignored or rejected. And it is almost always rejected. Many never read the documents of Francis at all.

In a language totally alien to the American understanding of liberty, Pope Leo, quoting Pius IV, condemned the notion “that the discipline made and approved by the Church should be submitted to examination, as if the Church could frame a code of laws useless or heavier than human liberty can bear.”[5] This is a far more forceful statement than would be expected from Rome today, but even in the springtime of synodality and the battle against clericalism–when the laity are encouraged to dialogue with the hierarchy–we are still called to humble and respectful submission to the Magisterium.

Submission to the Church and the unity of the Church are inseparable themes in Testem benevolentiae. The Americanists’ understanding of liberty, however, makes their thinking incompatible with a wholesale religious submission to what is handed down from Rome. This tension helped prepare many Americans to embrace Traditionalism and to engender the Traditionalist Americanism we see today.

Read Part four.

[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. (Quoting Const. de fide, Chapter iii.) Emphasis added.

[5] Ibid. (Quoting Pius VI in proposition lxxviii of the Synod of Pistoia.)


Image: By Heritage Auctions (image); U.S. Mint (coin) – Heritage Auctions Lot 30580, 23 June 2014, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38288771

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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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