Note: This post originally appeared on January 6, 2014 on the original Opus Publicum. It is being re-posted here with slight edits.
According to a certain stream of popular opinion, “Americanism,” like its not-so-distant cousin “Modernism,” was just a figment of the 19th C. conservative Catholic imagination. Though defined in a less-than-precise manner by Pope Leo XIII in Testem Benovelentiae Nostrae (1899), Americanism was seen as promoting, inter alia, subjectivism and individualism in the spiritual life at the expense of Church doctrine; the disparagement of religious vows and orders; a loose articulation of Catholic doctrine; and the minimization of spiritual direction. In an earlier encyclical, Longinqua Oceana (1895), Leo XIII reaffirmed, in opposition to what he saw as a dangerous opinion of the times, that the Church — even the American Church — “would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.” Setting aside for a moment the fact that the Constitution of the United States would not, under the dominant reading, allow for such a thing, it’s easy enough to see why Leo XIII took this strong stance. First, the ideology of Church/State separation had begun to erode the rights of the Church in Europe; the Pope did not want to see the “American model” being held up as more virtuous and pragmatically desirable than what Catholic doctrine had long confirmed concerning the unique place of the Catholic Church in civil and political life. Second, there was a genuine concern that American Catholics, made bold by the relative successes their church enjoyed during the 19th C. in a “Protestant land,” would begin to take their unique experience as more fundamental than what the Church had always taught. And last, if American Catholics could, on the basis of their socio-political position, argue against Church teaching on Church/State relations, where would the matter end? “American Catholic exceptionalism” could quickly metastasize into a cancer infecting the entire Body of Christ. Leo XIII was surely right to suppress these ideas, even if they would become the common marching orders of the Church following the Second Vatican Council.
Many American Catholics are uncomfortable with the label “Americanism”; they take it as a blow to their pride. For better or worse, they want to be seen as not just good Americans in a civil sense, but good Americans in a religious sense as well. That is, they want less distance between themselves and the Protestant circles which have become the lifeblood of American movement conservatism. They want to feel like they deserve a seat at the discussion table, too, even if that discussion is dominated by neoconservatives, Tea Party-types, libertarians, etc. The clear condemnations of the 19th C. are an embarrassment to them. Perhaps they do not want to be Americans first and Catholics second, so instead they try and rewrite history, apply selective analysis, and ignore inconvenient facts in order to promote the idea — the ideology, really — that to be a “good American” and a “good Catholic” are synonymous. The better argument is that to be a good Catholic is to be a good human being, and to be a good human being is to be a good citizen in a just, virtuous, and prosperous society. Whether the United States, or any other extant polity, holds fast to those attributes is another matter. To the intellectual-ideological heirs of Americanism, no Catholic ought to ask such questions. If there is some intellectual heavy lifting to be done, it should be in the service of manipulating the traditional teachings of the Church so as to fit contemporary and transient political postures.
When the Catholic Church first received and, after many centuries of struggle, was positioned to examine and utilize the inheritance of classical antiquity bequeathed by the pagan Greeks and Romans, she sought to perfect it. Indeed, St. Ambrose believed that one of (pagan) Rome’s virtues was its capacity for correction; its modes and orders could be reshaped in the light of the Gospel. For faithful Catholics living in America today, we should understand that there are many elements — even many classical elements — in American Republicanism which should be endorsed, lauded, and defended — but always in the light of the Gospel. The Church, “as the pillar and ground of the truth,” has provided us with the infallible instruction on faith and morals which can allow Catholics to properly work toward improving the American enterprise rather than merely accepting it at face value. For example, when faced with libertarians pushing for small government, we may be able to accept that — but only through the Church’s teachings on subsidiarity. When faced with Tea Party Catholics who are understandably vexed with “too big to fail,” government bailouts for corporations, and “crony capitalism,” we might very well accept their complaints and then work toward a solution shaped by Catholic social teaching on law and economics. Nothing must be carried out absent the Faith. No false marriages; no false compromises. That is responsible Catholic citizenship.