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The Pope Condemns a “Phantom Heresy”: January 22, 1899

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America. It continues a discussion of the struggle between “conservatives” and “progressives” in the Catholic Church in America in the late 19th century.

Father Isaac Hecker

But what brought the controversy between progressives and their opponents to a head was Abbé Felix Klein’s publication of a French translation of The Life of Father Hecker. A Paulist priest and close associate of Father Isaac Hecker, Walter Elliott, wrote the original English version of this work that first ran in installments in the Paulist periodical, The Catholic World, beginning in April 1890. The subject of the book, Isaac Hecker, had lived at Brook Farm and Fruitlands; but, having become disillusioned with Transcendentalism, he had converted to the Catholic Church. Ordained a Redemptorist priest, Hecker eventually founded his own religious congregation, the Paulists, dedicated to converting America to the Catholic faith. Paulists took no vows and engaged in the active apostolate, especially printing. Isaac Hecker died in 1888.

An inspiration to such men as [Archbishop John] Ireland and [Bishop John] Keane, Hecker loved America’s institutions and believed that his country had a quasi-messianic destiny to spread free government to the world. He thought that by permitting its citizens a large degree of freedom, the United States was ushering in a new era where the Holy Spirit would inspire and strengthen individuals as never before. The original English version of Elliott’s biography quoted the Paulist founder as saying that “the increased action of the Holy Spirit, with a more vigorous co-operation on the part of the faithful, which is in process of realization, will elevate the human personality to an intensity of force and grandeur productive of a new era to the Church and to society — an era difficult for the imagination to grasp, and still more difficult to describe in words, unless we have recourse to the prophetic language of the inspired Scriptures.” According to the Life, Hecker had said:

"The form of government of the United States is preferable to Catholics above all other forms. It is more favorable than others to the practice of those virtues which are the necessary conditions of the development of the religious life of man. This government leaves men a larger margin for liberty of action, and hence for co-operation with the guidance of the Holy Spirit than any other government under the sun. With these popular institutions men enjoy liberty in working out their true destiny. The Catholic Church will, therefore, flourish all the more in this republican country in proportion as her representatives keep, in their civil life, to the lines of their republicanism."

Bishop John Keane

Abbé Klein edited Elliott’s text and shortened it significantly for the French version, thus bringing to the fore certain of Hecker’s ideas. According to the French biography, Hecker asserted that the Church must adjust herself to modern civilization and should de-emphasize such “passive” supernatural virtues as humility and obedience and emphasize the “active” natural virtues, such as courage, prudence, and justice. Individuals, too, according to the French biography, had less need of external guidance from the Church than in former times, since the Holy Spirit had been poured out abundantly in the modern world. The Church, according to the biography, must grant greater freedom to individuals to follow the lead of their own minds and consciences — though it asserted that the external guidance of the Church remained necessary. In a preface to the French Hecker book, Abbé Klein compared the Paulist founder to Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and St. Theresa, and said he manifested the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race.

In an introduction that appeared in both the English and French versions of Hecker’s Life, Archbishop Ireland held Hecker up as an example of the reconciliation of the Church and the modern age. Hecker, wrote Ireland, “laid stress on the natural and social virtues.” The archbishop continued:

Archbishop John Ireland

"The American people hold these in the highest esteem . . . Truthfulness, honesty in business dealings, loyalty to law and social order, temperance, respect for the rights of others, and the like virtues are prescribed by reason before the voice of revelation is heard, and the absence of specifically supernatural virtues has led the non-Catholic to place paramount importance upon them . . .

"The Church is nowadays called upon to emphasize her power in the natural order. God forbid that I entertain, as some may be tempted to suspect me of doing, the slightest notion that vigilance may be turned off one single moment from the guard of the supernatural. For the sake of the supernatural I speak. And natural virtues, practised in the proper frame of mind and heart, become supernatural. Each century calls for its type of Christian perfection. At one time it was martyrdom; at another it was the humility of the cloister. To-day we need the Christian gentleman and the Christian citizen. An honest ballot and social decorum among Catholics will do more for God’s glory and the salvation of souls than midnight flagellations or Compostellan pilgrimages."

Abbé Charles Maignen

Conservatives, both in the United States and France, roundly condemned the French Hecker biography. Critics called Klein, Ireland, and Keane (who had become associated with the ideas set forth in the biography), “Americanists,” and their ideas, “Americanism.” La Pere Hecker est-il un Saint? (“Is Father Hecker a Saint?”), a pamphlet by the French Vincentian priest, Abbé Charles Maignen, attacked Ireland and the Americanists and received the imprimatur in Rome. The controversy over the Hecker book and Americanism grew so rhetorically violent that at last, the pope himself decided to look into it.

Pope Leo’s response to the crisis was to issue, on January 22, 1899, the encyclical, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature and Grace, With Regard to Americanism). Addressed to “Our Beloved Son, James Cardinal Gibbons,” the encyclical expressed the “good will” the pope felt toward the American episcopacy and “the whole American people . . .” Moreover, said Leo “we have often considered and admired the noble gifts of your nation which enable the American people to be alive to every good work which promotes the good of humanity and the splendor of civilization.” Still, Leo said, the purpose of his letter was not “to repeat the words of praise so often spoken,” but “to suppress certain contentions which have arisen lately among you to the detriment of the peace of many souls.”

Pope Leo XIII

The pope noted how the French Hecker book had “excited not a little controversy, on account of certain opinions brought forward concerning the way of leading a Christian life.” Leo then assailed Americanism. He said he disapproved of any attempt to de-emphasize any Catholic doctrine in order more easily to reconcile the Church with the modern age. “Let it be far from anyone’s mind,” wrote Leo, “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.” Leo said it was false to say that the Church’s “supervision and watchfulness” should be “in some sense lessened,” allowing the faithful “each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity.” On the contrary — the “confounding of license with liberty” in the modern world, said Leo, “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, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church’s teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty.”

The pope dismissed the distinction between “active” and “passive” virtues; all virtues are active, he said. The “disregard” of supernatural virtues in favor of natural ones was, the pope said, a short step “to a contempt of the religious life which has in some degree taken hold of minds.” One may not hold that religious “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; that so far from making for human perfection and the good of human organization, that they are hurtful to both.”

James Cardinal Gibbons

Towards the end of the encyclical, Pope Leo wrote that he did not object to the name Americanism “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.” But if the name “be so understood that the doctrines which have been adverted to above are not only indicated, but exalted,” said the pope, “there can be no manner of doubt that our venerable brethren, the bishops of America, would be the first to repudiate and condemn it as being most injurious to themselves and to their country. For it would give rise to the suspicion that there are among you some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.”

Testem Benevolentiae effectively killed Americanism, at least for a time. American bishops were quick to repudiate the doctrine. In March 1899, Cardinal Gibbons, writing to the pope, said he knew of no one — at least, among educated American Catholics in the United States — who held to Americanism. Archbishop Ireland, too, published his acceptance of Testem Benevolentiae but later denied that anyone held to the condemned doctrines; the pope’s letter, he said, was a blessing in that it freed Americanists from a heresy to which they had never adhered. Abbé Klein also accepted the pope’s letter and removed the French Hecker biography (against Ireland’s objections) from publication.

Other American Catholics followed Ireland’s and Gibbons’ lead. They denied the very existence of Americanism — at least in the United States — and using Abbé Klein’s phrase, called it a “phantom heresy.” This was not the opinion, however, of two archbishops — Michael Corrigan of New York and Frederick Xavier Katzer of Milwaukee. Both prelates thanked the pope for killing the Americanist heresy in the shell. In Rome, Civilta Cattolica not only insisted on the existence of the Americanist heresy but accused American bishops of hiding their approval of the condemned doctrines.

Music from France and America . . .

… in the final year of the Americanist controversy. The first, Pavane por une Infante Defunte (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”), was composed in 1899 (for piano) by the French composer, Maurice Ravel. The same year, in the United States, the duo of Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson wrote the popular song, “Hello, Ma Baby.” It is here sung (in a very old recording) by Arthur Collins.

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