This is the second installment of our series on the New Americanism. To read part one, click here.
The heresy of Americanism was condemned in Testem benevolentiae, Pope Leo XIII’s 1899 letter to James Cardinal Gibbons, then Archbishop of Baltimore. This heresy is sometimes hastily described as the American model of separation of Church and state. Pope Leo had much to say about Church-state relations, but not in Testem benevolentiae, the document that defines Americanism. This document, like so many other papal documents, seems to have been read with certain expectations, causing the deeper, more significant message present in the text to be overlooked. When Pope Leo defined the heresy, he wrote primarily about matters of the spiritual life and union with Rome. It is a spiritual text; therefore, a purely political interpretation will miss the mark.
Some have argued that Americanism belongs exclusively to progressives — even today, as if all Americanism funneled into the confusion that followed Vatican II. In reality, Americanism predates the council and was the common heritage of Americans who both embraced and rejected it. Today, Americanism exists in two distinct camps which closely match the two mainstream political parties in the United States, the Democrats and the Republicans. Americanism, however, remains a spiritual problem more than a political one.
Opposition to the teachings of Pope Francis is strongest in the U.S. precisely because of Americanism. Leaders of this opposing faction are largely Americans who have fused 19th century Americanism with 20th century Traditionalism to form 21st century American Traditionalism, which resists Pope Francis and could eventually break away from the Catholic Church. In order to understand this movement, it is necessary to explore certain aspects of Americanism as they relate to American Traditionalism.
In Testem benevolentiae, Pope Leo instructed:
The underlying principle of [Americanism] 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…even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of faith.
Pope Leo was addressing the Americanist tendency to water down doctrine for the sake of what is now known as ecumenism. Sacrificing doctrine is not what ecumenism calls for. Leo wrote that many in America were separated from the Catholic Church, “more by ignorance than by ill-will, who might perchance more easily be drawn to the one fold of Christ if this truth be set forth to them in a friendly and familiar way.” Nevertheless, some of the faithful in both Europe and America have unfortunately fostered a persistent understanding of ecumenism as the Protestantization of the Catholic Church.
In reaction, Traditionalists around the world self-described as defenders of doctrine and ancient severity, as the true Catholics who would permit neither concession nor compromise in the practice of the Faith as they understand it. At first glance, it would seem their motivations have nothing to do with Americanism. Yet Traditionalists share a common tendency with the original Americanists: they filter magisterial teaching to match their ideological beliefs.
In the U.S., liberal Catholics often resist Church teachings that go against the positions of the Democratic Party, while both conservative Catholics and American Traditionalists often dismiss magisterial teachings on issues that go against the stance of the Republican Party. As a result, neither side accepts the fullness of Catholic social teaching nor affirms a consistent ethic of life.
The resultant cafeteria-Catholicism is a bi-partisan phenomenon in America. Conservative American Catholics and American Traditionalists consistently dilute or ignore new developments in Church teaching, while many progressives often mitigate or ignore ancient definitions. Nevertheless, the spirit of filtering the Faith remains the same. By promoting some teachings while suppressing others and by filtering magisterial teachings to conform with political ideologies, be they from left or right, both sides attempt to shape the Faith to be, as Leo said, “more in accord with the spirit of the age.”
In light of recent discussions among the faithful on the possibility of an American schism from the Catholic Church, Leo’s warning to Americans rings true:
Let it be far from anyone’s mind to suppress for any reason any doctrine that has been handed down. Such a policy would tend rather to separate Catholics from the Church than to bring in those who differ.
Opponents of Pope Francis insist they are crusaders (and take this image seriously), defending the Faith against a pontiff who is vitiating doctrine. To defend their interpretation of Church teaching, however, they have had to suppress and dismiss doctrines regarding the authority of the living Magisterium, and “relax some of her ancient severity” in regards to obedience and docility. Moreover, these opponents refuse to recognize new developments as part of Catholic tradition. A striking irony has become apparent: by attempting to shape Church teaching in accordance with America’s conservative ideology, American Traditionalists, who present themselves as the enemies of Modernism, are actively engaged in the Americanist form of Modernism.
Evangelization and Assimilation
In evangelizing, the original Americanists, and now many Catholics in America, try, “in order to gain those who differ from [them], to omit certain points of [Church] teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.” The problem here is that simply omitting obstacles to Christian unity can mean denying truths taught by the Church. The root of the problem exposed by Pope Leo is that Americanists evangelize in their own way, often in disobedience, because they don’t trust the Church’s guidance in the matter of presenting the Faith. They decide for themselves how to evangelize, even if that means dismissing the directives of their bishop or of Rome. Concerning the censorship of doctrine, Pope Leo was clear: “In this matter the Church must be the judge, not private men who are often deceived by the appearance of right.”
In American Traditionalism, this manifests as the dismissal or belittling of the New Evangelization. American Traditionalists have shown far more enthusiasm for the Benedict Option, a “Noah’s ark” model that calls for hunkering down until the crisis is over, than they have shown for the call of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, which optimistically exhorts us to go and preach the Gospel to the whole world. Like the original Americanists, American Traditionalists evangelize — or don’t evangelize — according to their own wills.
Disobedience in evangelization, however, is not the whole picture. As quoted above, Pope Leo said Americanists censor teachings “in order to gain those who differ from [them].” In the original form of Americanism, there is a long history of reshaping doctrine to allow Catholics to better fit in with their Protestant neighbors. It’s unclear how much of this was really for the sake of evangelization and Christian unity, or whether the intention was to better assimilate into the overwhelmingly Protestant American culture. Catholics wanted to be part of the mainstream, which sometimes meant making concessions to Protestantism. Regardless of whether it was for unity or simply to belong, the result was the same — controversial Catholic doctrines on the Eucharist, the Mass, the Blessed Virgin, the saints, grace and merit, and the papacy were often watered down or swept under the rug. Today, American Catholics of all stripes have upheld, often unwittingly, many of these doctrinal concessions.
Many of America’s liberal Catholics have continued this tradition of assimilation by attempting to shape Church teaching to better conform with the political culture of American Liberalism and, especially, the Democratic Party. This updated form of progressive Americanism, heavily influenced by European secularism, tends toward disagreement with magisterial teachings such as those related to sexual ethics, contraception, the family, subsidiarity, abortion, and euthanasia. But, to their credit, liberal Catholics don’t usually pretend the Church agrees with them. They openly admit what the Church teaching is, but also how they think it should change.
In contrast, American Traditionalists have tried to rescue the fragile façade of a Catholic Church wholly compatible with the culture of American Conservatism and the Republican Party. Ironically, this aligns them with the Protestant Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who shaped the party. Unlike progressives, Traditionalists claim their view is the authentic teaching of the Church. This naturally demands censoring, dismissing and rejecting magisterial teachings on hot-button issues, such as the death penalty, the economy of inclusion, the dignity of migrants, and the environmental crisis.
As a result, American Traditionalists have attracted the support of many other American Catholics with a conservative bent. Horrified by what they saw on the left, especially the Democratic Party’s position on abortion, they gradually came to see the Republican Party as the party for the Church. This was encouraged in depictions of both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, suggesting they were far more compatible with American conservatism than they were by ignoring the fullness of their teachings on subjects such as the economy and the environment. Party membership on either side was never the problem, but there was a latent danger in equating an earthly political party with the culture of life.
In the 21st century, as political polarization intensifies with each election cycle, many Catholics have been swept up into the pervasive campaign culture, in which any compromise with “the other side” is seen as an endorsement of “the enemy.” Thanks to the influence of Americanism, many conservative Catholics were already inclined to choose the Republican Party over Rome, but it was the polarized climate which left them unprepared to receive the magisterium of Pope Francis. When he opposed some stances of the Republican Party, he was wrongly interpreted as endorsing leftist ideology and the Democratic Party, which, for many conservative Catholics, had already become synonymous with the culture of death.
Distressed and confused, conservative Catholics needed answers, and American Traditionalists seemed to have them: Francis must be resisted. Although many Catholic conservatives do not share zeal for the Latin Mass, many have united with Traditionalists in opposing Pope Francis, turning away from the Magisterium and ultimately siding with the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who have shaped conservative culture in America.
It is notable that Protestant factions influencing social doctrine of American Traditionalists today are heirs of the Protestants who influenced the original Americanists of the 19th century. The continuity of Americanism with American Traditionalism has everything to do with the American culture and subcultures in which they strive to belong. It’s American Catholics trying to keep up with the Joneses and losing their identity.
Against the Tide
In meditating on these factions, it is helpful to remember that these categories are useful in discussing new manifestations of Americanism, but they are not absolute. There are those who love the traditionalist style as an expression of faith, yet remain uncomfortable with opposing the pope. Likewise, there are many moderates and those on both the left and the right who do not embrace the entirety of the Democratic or the Republican platforms. Many love Jesus, the Church, and the pope more than they love their political parties. This must be seen as a grace: to resist the currents of Americanism which pervades American Catholic culture.
In the next two installments, we will continue to explore the Americanist roots of contemporary Catholicism in the U.S., especially in American Traditionalism and resistance to Pope Francis.
You can find part one here.
 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
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.