Catholic Anti-Americanism


April 28, 2010


Inevitably, writing for a blog called The American Catholic will force you to think long and hard about the relationship between Catholic and American ideals. When I began blogging there a year ago, I held to certain prejudices found among Catholic traditionalists and progressives alike — prejudices that amounted to what I would describe as a romantic anti-Americanism: a belief that America, in conception and realization, is inherently incompatible with the Catholic Church.

According to this view, America’s intellectual roots in Enlightenment thought, Puritan jurisprudence, capitalism, and liberalism are responsible for a number of problems facing American Catholics, making us particularly vulnerable to anti-Catholic tendencies such as political and economic individualism or defiance of authority, including Church authority. As both a liturgical traditionalist and a recovering leftist, the appeal of a contrary, romantic anti-Americanism was strong.
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But a closer look at the Catholic experience in the United States, as seen from the perspective of both American Catholics and the papacy, challenges that world view. As it turns out, this kind of anti-Americanism, whether it comes from “throne and altar” traditionalism or the anti-capitalist Left, has no basis in either. It is a failed hypothesis for many reasons; here I will present three.
First of all, the concept of religious liberty that eventually crystallized in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights was actually imported to North America by British Catholics fleeing persecution. The Maryland Toleration Act, established in 1649, granted religious tolerance to all who professed belief in Christ some 40 years before John Locke wrote his Essay on Toleration, and well over a century before the American Revolution. Though the Catholics of Maryland were eventually outnumbered and later oppressed (by Puritan and Anglican colonists), this maltreatment did not prevent them from contributing to the colonies’ victory over Britain.
The friendship between American Catholics and the Founding Fathers was symbolized in the friendship between John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore, and George Washington — who forbade his troops to burn an effigy of the pope on Guy Fawkes Day. This friendship was significant not only to Pope Leo XIII in his writings on America, but also to Pius XII in his encyclical Sertum Laetitiae.
Secondly, the controversy over the heresy of “Americanism,” which is a specter frequently invoked in anti-American diatribes, has been somewhat misunderstood. The Americanism controversy was primarily over tendencies in the French clergy that were inspired by the ideas of an American priest, Rev. Isaac Hecker. In the encyclical that Leo XIII issued to address the problem of Americanism, Testem Benevolentia Nostrae, he wrote that Americanism consisted of three main ideas: 1) the notion that the Church must engage in theological and liturgical experimentation or opportunism to become amiable to people of other faiths; 2) the notion that the natural virtues should be elevated above the spiritual virtues of the saints, because they allow men to act with greater freedom and strength; and 3) the consequent notion that religious orders are less worthy of respect, cultivating as they do the spiritual virtues.
Leo clearly stated that these erroneous ideas were not inherently American. Not only that, he suggested that there are inherently American ideas that are redeemable and praiseworthy:
From the foregoing it is manifest . . . 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.
In the context of his positive account of the Church’s history in the United States given in another encyclical (Longinqua), it is evident that whatever tensions existed between Catholicism and America were never great enough to warrant papal condemnation. Indeed, both Leo and Pius XII recognized the vast growth of the Church in the United States and saw it, in the latter’s words, as “a proof that reverence for the Faith of Christ is a holy and established principle of the American people.”
So great, in fact, was the rate of growth of the American Church in the early 20th century, due to the influx of Catholic immigrants, that John Courtney Murray and others were actually concerned about the political obligations that would face a Catholic majority — specifically, whether or not to work for the establishment of a confessional state. If that were our primary concern today, our burdens would be light and our yoke sweet indeed.
Finally, and most recently, Pope Benedict XVI gave an interview upon his visit to the United States where he responded to questions about the American political system and what applications it might have in Europe:
Of course, in Europe we cannot simply copy the United States: we have our own history. But we must all learn from one another. What I find fascinating in the United States is that . . . an intentionally secular new State was born; they were opposed to a State Church. But the State itself had to be secular precisely out of love for religion in its authenticity, which can only be lived freely. And thus, we find this situation of a State deliberately and decidedly secular but precisely through a religious will in order to give authenticity to religion.
My great-grandparents immigrated to this country from Lebanon roughly a century ago, along with millions of other Catholics from Europe. For them, and my grandparents, there was never a serious conflict between their faith and their American citizenship or patriotism. They were not dissuaded by any of the cultural, social, or ideological phantoms that are said to weigh upon American Catholics. Indeed, considering the wreckage many of them left behind — a continent torn apart by wars and marked by savage oppression of the Church by radical regimes (or in their case, the Ottoman Empire) — we can only imagine what a dream America must have seemed to them.
Without overlooking the real difficulties faced by Catholics here since colonial times, America’s conceptions of religious, political, and economic freedom nevertheless created an environment conducive to the growth of the Church. The problems the Church faces today are not inherent to America but to all technologically and economically advanced societies. Rather, it may be in the positive sense of “Americanism” that Leo spoke of where we find the means to address those problems.


  • Joe Hargrave

    Joe Hargrave is an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.

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