Exploring Americanism and the Catholic Counter-Culture

My recent essay on the Papacy’s historical attitude towards the Catholic Church in the United States prompted more than a few queries and arguments, most them of friendly I am happy to say, with some traditional Catholic friends and acquaintances of mine. They were determined to get me to understand, however, that whatever kind things the Papacy may have had to say about America were really overshadowed by its war against the heresy of Americanism.

A cursory glance at encyclopedic overviews of the controversy, including that of New Advent, which was written not long after the controversy actually occurred, did not convince me that it had any bearing on the arguments I had set forth in my own essay. Upon further examination, I realized that my initial impression was absolutely correct, and that my traditionalist friends have misunderstood the Americanism controversy.

Bear in mind that these traditionalists, one and all, believe that the critique of Americanism was tantamount to a rejection of the American political principle of religious liberty, which I demonstrated was originally imported to North America by Catholic refugees from Britain in 1649, and established as US law upon the ratification of the Bill of Rights over a century later.

There are also leftish Catholics who, along with traditionalists and when it suits them, will invoke and condemn “Americanism” as a set of values or ideas that is somehow inherent, or at least specially pronounced, in American culture: individualism, resistance to Church authority and ecclesiology, acquisitiveness, etc.

Before delving into Americanism, I wish to state once again that I do consider myself a liturgical traditionalist. I attend Latin Mass and I am disgusted and appalled by the “cultural revolution” initiated by subversive elements in the Church in the late 60s and early 70s. But I follow in the steps of Dietrich von Hildebrand, whom Pius XII dubbed a “20th century Doctor of the Church”, and not the schismatic Marcel Lefebvre, in my critical approach to these matters.

First, we must consider what Americanism was/is, and what it is not. According to Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, the encyclical written by Pope Leo XIII in 1899 to address Americanism (which, by the way, appears to have been a greater problem in France than in America herself, for reasons I will leave aside for now), it consists of three primary positions:

1. That the Church must engage in what amounts to theological and/or liturgical opportunism in order to win Protestant and other kinds of converts.

2. That the “natural virtues” should be cultivated at the expense of “supernatural virtues”, on the assumption that the former allowed men greater flexibility and action while the latter softened him.

3. That religious life, consequently, was something to be avoided and accorded less respect.

Though I should hope that it goes without saying, I will say it forthrightly: I reject these ideas. But Leo XIII was not content to identify these false notions alone with “Americanism.” He also allowed for a use of the word that both compliments my earlier post and undermines traditionalist and leftist complaints about America’s cultural or ideological or social heritage:

“From the foregoing it is manifest, beloved son, that we are not able to give approval to those views which, in their collective sense, are called by some “Americanism.” But if by this name are to be understood certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and if, moreover, by it is designated your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed, there is no reason to take exception to the name.”

Yikes. Political condition, laws and customs… all that appears to be kosher.

And why not? There appears to be a tendency among some Catholics to conflate different kinds of government, and to assume that all kinds are equally bound to the same specific set of rules. While all governments are obligated to protect and enable the Church in her divine mission, there is absolutely no obligation for non-Catholic states – that is, states which are established by non-Catholics and consist primarily of non-Catholics – to transform into confessional Catholic regimes similar to say, Spain or Portugal after WWII.

There is another tendency to conflate the immorality and corruption imposed upon Christian families today by the secular federal government, which is a recent phenomenon, with the entire historical legacy of America. At the least, many trads will argue that the seeds for this development were inherent in the American founding, just as were the seeds of the Civil War and every other crisis that the United States has passed through in 230 years.

Though logic, strictly speaking, does not demand an answer to this question, I think common sense does: if the Constitution was woefully inadequate, was there a different kind of document, a different kind of compromise, that could have been established at that time that would have prevented all of these problems? Are we to believe that the establishment of a Catholic state in 1788 – if we assume for a moment that such a thing could have had the remotest chance of occurring – would have lead to an eternal paradise of Catholicism in the Western Hemisphere? Or perhaps more modestly, would have prevented many of the problems that today’s trads and leftists blame on “American” (i.e. Protestant/Freemason) ideals, culture, values, etc.?

If we take reality as it was and is, and not as we wish it, we understand that Catholics were always in a minority in the United States, and that religious liberty was essential to their survival in a sea of militant, anti-Catholic branches of Protestantism.

This remains the case today, though now it is Christians of all stripes in a sea of secularism, offensive and hostile in both its indifference and militancy. Back in 1995, Russell Shaw penned his own appraisal of the Americanism controversy. He concludes with some thoughts on the continued assimilation of Catholics by the dominant secular culture:

For Catholics who regard this as a profoundly unhealthy state of affairs, there is an obvious conclusion. Roman Catholics in the United States must urgently explore the range of options open to them for practicing creative counter-culturalism…

Without panic, but in clear-eyed recognition of our parlous state, we need to begin talking about these things. If the Catholic Church in the United States means to survive, Americanism must finally, nearly a century after Testem Benevolentiae undertook to do the job, be laid to rest.  What comes next?

If Shaw meant “Americanism” in the bad sense of the word – associated with the three positions I outlined before – then I would argue that we are beyond it. Subversives in the Church made the first tenant of “Americanism” their modus operandi over four decades ago, and the damage has been done.

But there may be something yet to gain from the positive “Americanism”, our peculiar “endowments of mind”, our laws and customs, that Leo spoke of. For these laws and customs, if faithfully adhered to, structure an environment of religious liberty in which Catholicism may yet thrive again. It will involve, as Shaw suggested, “creative counter-culturalism”, a project that I have spent much time thinking about and will have much more to say in the future.

However, in the interests of going easy on my readers, I invite those who want to know my preliminary thoughts to read the extended version of this post on my personal blog. Just scroll down. Otherwise I thank you for your time!

2 Responses to Exploring Americanism and the Catholic Counter-Culture

  • Joe:

    How did those three items come to be called “Americanism” when, looking at them, I see nothing that Americans in general identify as being their core unifying traits or beliefs? …or even much of the cultural errors into which Americans in general drift from time to time?

    Instead they seem to be particular strategies of some, though not all, of the Catholic minority in America. And they seem to be stances into which said Catholics semi-consciously slid into rather than formally and thoughtfully adopting, let alone championing.

    So the moniker seems confusing to me: A bit like taking a few items from the website “Stuff Educated Latinos Like” and calling that “Americanism,” disregarding all the stuff every other group making up the bulk of Americans.

    In the past when I saw the VoxNova crowd and others making contemptuous references to “Americanism” I made guesses from context about how they defined that word. Those guesses, I now fear, were made in wholesale ignorance of its actual definition. But then I gather this is increasingly a word that gets thrown about by some Catholics as an all purpose term for “bad,” without much attention to its specific definition, along the lines of “fascist,” “Protestant,” and maybe “neocon?”

  • R.C.,

    Good to see you here again :)

    “How did those three items come to be called “Americanism””

    I don’t want to over-simplify, but it appears to me that the only reason they came to be known as “Americanism” is that the French Catholics who adopted them looked to an American priest for inspiration. Imagine that. So while the ideas originated in America, they were more of a problem in France than they ever were here.

    “Those guesses, I now fear, were made in wholesale ignorance of its actual definition.”

    They use it as a political swear word, so yes, when they use it, its no different than those other words.

    Leo made a distinction between these heretical or dubious beliefs, and “certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people” along with “the political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed.”

    So there is a sense, if it is applied to these latter things, in which “Americanism” is a good label, at least for the Papacy. This constant attempt to drive a wedge between America and Catholic tradition undertaken by both trads and leftists is a completely bankrupt endeavor.

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