The Rebirth of Americanism

One hundred years ago, just before the turn of the last century, Pope Leo XIII addressed an apostolic letter to James Cardinal Gibbons and the American hierarchy condemning “the opinions which some comprise under the head of Americanism.” To this day, traditionalists proclaim and progressives lament the move as the papal suppression of a new liberal Catholicism in the United States. It is time to reconsider Americanism. Testem Benevolentiae (1899) and the controversy surrounding it turned out to be the prologue of a century of Catholic social thought leading up to Dignitatis Humanae (1965) and culminating in the papacy of John Paul II.

Not only is this misunderstood episode an important window into the Church’s continuing dialogue with America and its experiment in republican government, but placed in the context of Catholicism’s ongoing confrontation with liberalism, it marks the beginning of the Church’s mature understanding of democracy and its teachings concerning human rights, self-government, and religious liberty.


The Americanists were a small number of prominent American churchmen toward the end of the 19th century who were increasingly optimistic about the future of the Church in the United States. They were led by Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who to most minds of the day was the Catholic Church in the United States. His level-headed and careful leadership seemed a contrast to the enthusiastic idealism of John Ireland, the young archbishop of St. Paul, and the intellectual arguments of John J. Keane, the first rector of the Catholic University of America. Then there was Msgr. Denis J. O’Connell, the slightly eccentric rector of the American College in Rome, and the more theoretically minded Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria.

While they often disagreed on particular questions, the Americanists were united on the key issues of the day. They strongly supported the assimilation of immigrants (Gibbons considered it part of “the elevating influence of Christian civilization”) and opposed separatist calls for the establishment of distinct ethnic churches. And while they conceded the right of government to establish schools and require attendance, they advocated a parochial system to correct the secularism of the public system. Bishop Ireland went so far as to work out a cooperative arrangement to have local school boards lease Catholic schools to teach a public school curriculum during the school day and allow religion classes after hours. Such experiments were implemented in Minnesota—and received a decree of tolerari potest from the Church—but failed because of anti-Catholic opposition.

Although the Church was historically opposed to labor unions (they were usually anticlerical), Gibbons—encouraged by Ireland and Keane—convinced Rome not to condemn the Knights of Labor, the largest labor organization in the nation, which was recruiting Irish Catholics by the hundreds of thousands. By powerfully making their case, they contributed to the reorientation of Catholic social teachings embodied in Rerum Novarum (1891).

In general, they stressed a friendliness toward American institutions and were patriotic: “The duty of patriotism is a duty of justice and of gratitude,” Ireland wrote. “The country fosters our dearest interests; it protects our hearths and altars. Without it there is no safety for life and property, no opportunity for development and progress. We are wise of our country’s wisdom, rich of its opulence, strong of its fortitude, resplendent of its glory.”

A New Era

The Americanists were inspired by Fr. Isaac Hecker, the Catholic convert and founder of the Paulists, who saw in America a perfect setting for Catholicism and was the source of many of their ideas. Hecker insisted that Catholicism and American liberalism could be reconciled by linking the Catholic natural law tradition and the American understanding of God-given natural rights. Liberty allowed Catholicism the opportunity to provide the moral content that liberal democracy lacked on its own.

If there was a starting point for the Americanists, it was the observation that the world had entered a democratic age, dominated by individual rights, human liberty, and popular government. “This is the era of democracy, the day of absolute government is over,” Keane proclaimed. They argued that the Church must adjust to these new circumstances—not as a blind adaptation to the times but to capture the age for the Church. Ireland put it this way:

Her mission to the world is the same as it has been during nineteen hundred years; but the world has changed and is changing. With the new order have come new needs, new hopes and new aspirations. To conquer the world to Christ, the Church must herself be new, adapting herself in manner of life and in method of action to the conditions of the new order, thus proving herself, while ever ancient, to be ever new, as truth from heaven is and ever must be.

The Americanists saw the United States as a great opportunity for evangelization. Msgr. O’Connell described Americanism as “nothing else than that loyal devotion that Catholics in America bear to the principles on which their government is founded and their conscientious conviction that these principles afford Catholics favorable opportunities for promoting the glory of God, the growth of the Church and the salvation of souls in America.” Gibbons proclaimed “with a deep sense of pride and gratitude” that in America “the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection without interfering in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:’

Their objective was not to challenge the principles of civil and religious liberty on which the American government was founded—which would likely lead to hostility toward the Church and the weakening of religion—but to convert the hearts and minds of the people. “Americans in their hearts desire truth, and we have but to do for them what Paul did for the Athenians,” Gibbons wrote. “They are Catholics by instinct, let us make them Catholics in fact.”

Practical adaptations to the conditions of America were required, primarily having the Church more involved in the everyday lives of the faithful and the laity more involved in the life of the Church. “Seek out men; speak to them not in stilted phrase or seventeenth-century sermon style, but in the burning words that go to their hearts, as well as to their minds, and in accents that are familiar to their ears,” Ireland advised his fellow priests. Following Rerum Novarum, they called for clergy and laity alike to take an active interest in the social questions of the day. “Into the arena, priest and layman!” Ireland continued. “Seek out social evils, and lead in movements that tend to rectify them. Speak of vested rights, for this is necessary, but speak, too, of vested wrongs and strive, by word and example, by the enactment and enforcement of good laws, to correct them.”

Leo and America

The Americanists saw Pope Leo as an ally in their cause. In Immortale Dei (1885), the pontiff wrote that “[t]o exclude the Church, founded by God himself, from the business of life, from the power of making laws, from the training of youth, from domestic society, is a grave and fatal error.” Yet he did not make liberalism’s characteristic institutions and practices—namely the protection of modern liberties, including religious liberty—objects of intolerance. Instead, he announced, such freedoms would be tolerated as long as there was just cause and they were moderated to prevent license. The Americanists believed that was the case in the United States.

While the Church would not approve a liberty that generated contempt for the laws of God or cast off obedience to lawful authority, Leo argued, no form of government was condemned inasmuch as none contained anything contrary to doctrine and all were capable of ensuring the general welfare. And while it was wrong to make all religions equal, the Church did not, on that account, condemn those rulers who “allow patiently custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the state.” Gibbons saw this as an opening, as he made clear in 1887 when he first spoke at his titular church in Rome:

Our Holy Father, Leo XIII, in his luminous encyclical on the constitution of Christian States, declares that the Church is not committed to any particular form of civil government. She adapts to all; she leavens all with the sacred leaven of the Gospel. She has lived under absolute empires; she thrives under constitutional monarchies; she grows and expands under the free republic. She has often, indeed, been hampered in her divine mission and has had to struggle for a footing wherever despotism has cast its dark shadow…. But in the genial air of liberty she blossoms like the rose!

When it came to church and state, Gibbons argued that “while the union is ideally best, history assuredly does not prove that it is always practically best.” He concluded that the separation of church and state in America was “the natural, inevitable and best conceivable plan, the one that would work best among us, both for the good of religion and of the state.” Ireland went farther to assert that the American example had worldwide significance: “Even as I believe that God rules over men and nations, so do I believe that a divine mission has been assigned to the Republic of the United States. That mission is to prepare the world, by example and moral influence, for the universal reign of human liberty and human rights.”

While Leo would not go as far as Ireland, he seemed to be willing to entertain Gibbons’s position. In his 1895 encyclical to the American hierarchy, Longinqua Oceani, he cautioned that it would be “very erroneous” to conclude that the American structure is the universal ideal for the Church and pointed out that America would bring forth more abundant fruit if “in addition to liberty” the Church enjoyed the favor of its laws. Nevertheless, he noted that, fettered by no hostile legislation, the Church in America is “free to live and act without hindrance” and that the Church universal “owes a debt of gratitude to the justice of the laws under which America lives and to the whole character of a good constitutional commonwealth.”

Testem Benevolentiae

In 1898, a French translation of Walter Elliott’s biography of Isaac Hecker appeared in Europe. The little-noticed American edition received the imprimatur of conservative Archbishop James Corrigan of New York, but with a charitable translator’s pen and a new preface that presented Hecker as the ideal “modern” priest, the French edition raised concerns throughout the continent. The attention of the Vatican was assured when Charles Maignen (a canon lawyer previously dismissed from the Catholic University of America) wrote a highly critical book about Hecker and Americanism, tying it to the French modernist movement. As the controversy intensified in Europe, a Vatican commission recommended a papal condemnation and Leo issued Testem Benevolentiae.

In his letter, Leo was concerned with “certain contentions” about the manner of living a Christian life that had arisen with the foreign publication of the book. These contentions were “to be avoided and corrected.” He rejected the argument that the Church should adapt to the advance of civilization and, “relaxing her ancient vigor, show some indulgence to modern popular theories and methods” not only “with regard to the rule of life, but also to the doctrines in which the deposit of faith is contained.” Leo was not opposed to change but was keenly concerned that it occur in light of the doctrinal guidance of the Church:

The history of all past ages is witness that the Apostolic See, to which not only the office of teaching but also the supreme government of the whole Church was committed, has constantly adhered to the same doctrine, in the same sense and in the same mind: but it has always been accustomed to so modify the rule of life that, while keeping the divine right inviolate, it has never disregarded the manners and customs of the various nations it embraces. If required for the salvation of souls, who will doubt that it is ready to do so at the present time? But this is not to be determined by the will of private individuals, who are mostly deceived by the appearance of right, but ought to be left to the judgment of the Church.

The false argument for change, he argued, led one to reject external guidance in favor of the direct instruction of the Holy Spirit, overemphasize the active virtues in the modern work of the Church and ignore the virtues embodied in the vows of religious life, and abandon traditional methods of conversion in favor of example, charity, and prayer. In short, to set aside the authority and wisdom of the Church and follow instead the spirit of modern liberty.

If Americanism were used to signify or commend these errors, then it must be repudiated and condemned. But if, on the other hand, Americanism means “the characteristic qualities that reflect honor on the people of America” or “implies the condition of your commonwealths, or the laws and customs which prevail in them, there is surely no reason why we should deem that it ought to be discarded.” Thus, Leo could not approve “the opinions which some comprise under the head of Americanism.”

Our AmericanIsm?

On certain political questions, the American churchmen were quite progressive: They supported equal rights for blacks, the formal education of women, and (to the chagrin of German and Irish Catholics) the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. But outside of the Chicago Parliament of Religions—a massive ecumenical convention disapproved by the Vatican—their innovations were limited to minor violations of canonical customs (such as an active priesthood and public speaking outside of church), the failure to adequately enforce decrees concerning secret societies, and joint meetings with Protestant clergy. Their arguments seem to be driven more by the practical conditions they faced in the United States than any theological disputations with Rome.

The Americanists distinguished between the permanent elements of the Faith—the “eternal principles” of truth—and the accidental, or contingent, elements of faith, which could change according to the circumstances. “The Church in America must be, of course, as Catholic as in Jerusalem or Rome; but as far as her garments may be colored to suit the environment, she must be American,” Ireland wrote. “We should distinguish accidentals from essentials; we should be ready, while jealously guarding the essentials, to abandon the accidentals as circumstances of time and place demand.” While they praised American conditions and the freedom it provided the Church and argued that the Church should adapt to those conditions, the Americanists did not advocate freedom from ecclesiastical authority and religious dogma or suggest departures from traditional doctrine.

But this distinction did not hold in Europe, where a different set of ideas was developing under the guise of Americanism. Liberal Catholic groups in Italy, Germany, and France emphasized certain aspects of Americanism, both real and perceived, as a justification for what they wished to see adopted in their own nations. But while the American argument was almost exclusively social and political, the European argument expanded to include theology and Church doctrine. Although it was prepared by Vatican critics of America, Leo had toned down the conclusions of Testem Benevolentiae such that it did not affirm that the condemned opinions were in fact held in the United States. If anything, the document seems to have been directed primarily at the European debate; Leo was reported to have said that it applied to “a few dioceses in France.”

Cardinal Gibbons thanked the pontiff for his apostolic letter, although he doubted that “a single priest or bishop or even a well-instructed layman” could be found in the whole country who had ever made such an argument. “This extravagant and absurd doctrine as I would willingly call it, this Americanism as they have chosen to call it, has nothing to do with the views, the aspirations, the doctrines and conduct of Americans,” Gibbons wrote. “No, this is not and never has been and never will be our Americanism.”

Leo’s Liberalism

Leo XIII, like his predecessors, exhibited a profound suspicion of liberal democracy. His view was defined by the irreligious secularism of Europe, where man was thought to be an atomistic individual, liberty was synonymous with unbridled license, and the separation of church and state meant completely rejecting God in favor of an unlimited atheistic state.

But Pope Leo in Immortale Dei made a significant break with his predecessors when he reemphasized the ancient distinction between the two realms of divine power and human power (sacredotium and imperium), each with its own excellencies and distinct orders of the law, each differing in origin and purpose. Cardinal Gibbons called this distinction “one of the greatest contributions of the Catholic Church to civilization.” John Courtney Murray, a keen student of Leo XIII, returned to this “dualism” to make the case for religious liberty.

The result of this distinction was a set of political guidelines that provided the ground for what Leo called an “honorable liberty” worthy of human beings. That regime, which tended to “uphold the honor, manhood and equal rights of individuals within the state,” he proclaimed, would have the everlasting support of the Church. Leo not only tolerated but invited the possibility of a decent regime that is liberal in form (meaning a limited government that protects individual rights) but allows for the freedom of the Church and remains grounded in moral truth.

Testem Benevolentiae (which can roughly be translated to mean “friendly advice”) must be understood in this context. It was a shot across the bow. Rather than suggesting that the American constitutional order was in error, it warned of tendencies of liberalism to be avoided in America. By assembling the pieces of Leo’s overall argument—the critique of secular liberalism along with the defense of an “honorable liberty” and the critique of “certain tendencies” in Americanism along with the praise of the American constitutional form—one sees that he was defining the parameters of a true Americanism. While not fully embracing the ways of the young republic, Pope Leo XIII opened the door to the American experiment in ordered liberty as a model for Christian constitutionalism.

Liberty Without License

What the Americanists brought to the attention of Rome was a liberal tradition that fell within those parameters, resulting in decent constitutionalism rather than the violent excesses of Jacobinism. In the French Revolution, God was replaced by reason and the Church was rejected in favor of the secular state. They “recognized no liberty but their own license,” Gibbons noted, “no law but their own wanton and capricious humor, no conscience but their own insatiate malice, no justice but the guillotine.” In the American Revolution, however, natural rights were protected as a gift of God, government was fundamentally limited within constitutional boundaries, and religion was kept at the center of their politics:

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most solemn and memorable professions of political faith that ever emanated from the leading minds of any country…. A devout recognition of God and of His overruling providence pervades that momentous document from beginning to end. God’s holy name greets us in the opening paragraph, and is piously invoked in the last sentence of the Declaration; and thus it is at the same time the cornerstone and the keystone of this great monument to freedom.

In this sense, America was unique, combining the moral truths of “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” an understanding of individual rights that had been “endowed by their Creator” and an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of [their] Intentions.” When the American founders separated church and state authority, they weren’t removing religion from political life but liberating it from state subjugation to create a vast realm of freedom for religion and religious believers. The result is that American liberty, rather than signifying the reign of moral license and the rejection of God, has, as Pope Leo told Cardinal Gibbons, “confessedly promoted the astonishing growth of religion in the past and will, we trust, enable it in the future to be of the highest advantage to the civil order as well.”

Religious liberty, grounded in the American theory of natural rights, made the American experience of liberalism compatible with Catholic social thought in a way that continental liberalism never could. The understanding of the profound differences of these two liberalisms—and Leo’s invitation to define an honorable liberty—is what sparked the revival of Catholic political thought, ultimately leading to Dignitatis Humanae. And it is precisely on the issue of religious liberty that the American tradition has most clearly influenced Catholic thinking.

One hundred years later, the continuing and complementary influence of Leo XIII and the Americanists can be seen in the current papacy. Not only has John Paul II revived Leo’s social teachings—witness his monumental encyclical Centesimus Annus—but he has become perhaps the most prominent defender of the liberalism of the American founding, calling this nation back to its first principles to bring about “a new birth of freedom, grounded in moral truth.”


  • Matthew Spalding

    Matthew Spalding is the Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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