Americanism, Quietism, and Catholicism

The escalating crisis in the Church is lately having the sad effect of fostering enmities between those who ought to be, or who once were, allies. Aided by a social media that lets us too easily forget our good manners and those things that manners are there to guard, Christian virtues, Catholics who are beset on all sides in the culture wars of Church and State are too quickly condemning one another over trivial or entirely personal issues. This is sad to watch.

One recent altercation I saw — and I should mention that it was quite mild by comparison — was a public disagreement between two Catholics on the subject of what might be called “activism versus interiority.” One party argued that there is too much of an emphasis on activism in the orthodox Catholic camp and that we need to put a greater emphasis on prayer and the interior life; the other party asserted the genuine need for activism and seemed to judge the other’s position to be a copout — though he did not use that word.

From what I could tell, the two parties were arguing about questions of method and prudence, but the argument does touch upon the subject matter of two historical heresies and the Catholic responses thereto, the study of which can help us formulate answers to questions of prudence and method.

The more recent historical heresy, and one very “close to home” for Americans is the heresy that bears our own name, Americanism. One of the main features of this error, which summarily defined “American Catholicism” as something different from Old-World Catholicism, was that it detracted from such traditional Catholic things as monasticism, contemplation, asceticism, elaborate liturgical observance, and other expressions of Catholicity that emphasize Christian interiority — things pertaining to the so-called “passive virtues.” The Americanists favored, by contrast, the building up of institutions, preaching, and external works of mercy, which pertain to the so-called “active virtues.” In condemning this aspect of Americanism in Testem Benevolentiae, Leo XIII outright denies this distinction between “active” and “passive” virtue:

This over esteem of natural virtue finds a method of expression in assuming to divide all virtues in active and passive, and it is alleged that whereas passive virtues found better place in past times, our age is to be characterized by the active. That such a division and distinction cannot be maintained is patent-for there is not, nor can there be, merely passive virtue. “Virtue,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “designates the perfection of some faculty, but [the] end of such faculty is an act, and an act of virtue is naught else than the good use of free will,” acting, that is to say, under the grace of God if the act be one of supernatural virtue.

What is external activism without internal grace but naturalism? And if supernatural grace is the principle for meritorious virtuous activity, then ought we not join to any external living of the virtues a robust interior life that avails itself of all the traditional means of obtaining divine grace, including mental prayer?

Before the dawn of the modern welfare state, Americans were “can-do” people, a people who had enshrined self-reliance, independence, and rugged individualism in our collective psyche since colonial days. While some of these concepts can be baptized and incorporated into a life of Christian virtue others simply need to be corrected. The Americanists failed at this enterprise of Christianizing the American temperament. They chose instead to make a priority of Americanizing Catholicism before they would convert America with the new amalgam. Their enterprise did not convert America, but it did much to eviscerate Catholicism here.

It is evident that Leo XIII considered Americanism to have some tendencies of that Naturalism which had already been condemned by Bl. Pope Pius IX.

If there be a heresy that is the opposite of Americanism — at least on this particular point pertaining to the spiritual life and virtue — it is Quietism. This heresy, which owes its name to the Latin word quies, meaningrepose” or “inactivity,” downplayed, or, in its extreme forms, outright denied the necessity of human activity in the spiritual life. All is God; man must remain totally inactive and allow God alone to act in him. Historically, some form or other of quietism had existed among Christians for over a millennium before the Spanish priest, Miguel de Molinos gave us the modern heresy of Quietism. In Molinos’ system, man does not need to practice virtue at all, since God’s activity in the soul is all that matters. As a perverse result of his fundamental error, like the earlier group of Spanish false mystics known as the Alumbrados, Molinos excused vice in himself and in his numerous disciples as something of no account. The Church took very decisive action in condemning him and his heresy.

A milder form of the heresy of Quietism, called Semiquietism, was advocated by the French laywoman Madame Guyon and her spiritual-director (disciple, really), Archbishop François Fénelon. The former was infected with the errors by her previous spiritual director, a Barnabite priest, and she then influenced the brilliant young archbishop who became her new director. Fénelon, like Madame Guyon, avoided the gross moral errors of Molinos. Both accepted the necessity of keeping the commandments. Yet, they accepted the Quietist error of the “pure love of God,” which Fénelon explained in a very problematic way in this book, The Maxims of the Saints. After a long and acrimonious controversy involving the famous Bishop Bossuet as an adversary (who, coincidentally, had consecrated Fénelon to the episcopate and was formerly his friend) the book was condemned by the Holy See and, very humbly, Archbishop Fénelon unreservedly accepted the condemnation. His subsequent life appears to have been very edifying, and he gave every sign of being a very zealous successor of the Apostles as Archbishop of Cambrai (he never lost his position, even when condemned, as he completely and immediately accepted the condemnation). Archbishop Fénelon was also known to be very anti-Jansenist, which is a good thing.

The errors we have above mentioned have been beautifully and tersely contrasted with each other and with the Catholic truth in what has become my favorite book of spiritual reading (after Holy Scripture): The Interior Life Simplified and Reduced to Its Fundamental Principle, by the Carthusian, Dom François de Sales Pollien (1853-1936). He is not contrasting Quietism with Americanism, but, rather, with Naturalism; as we have pointed out, though, Americanism had certain naturalistic tendencies in its outlook on the virtues. The following passage comes in the midst of a commentary on Psalm 126, where he has come to the words, “rise ye after you have sitten” (Latin: Surgite postquam sederitis), which Dom François uses to illustrate the Catholic mean between Quietism and Naturalism:

Surgite postquam sederitis. — Here is the first word, the primary secret of piety: acceptance. Acceptance of the action of God’s good pleasure: this is the starting-point and beginning of everything, all depends upon this. Surgite postquam sederitis; we must be seated before we can rise up, and we must rise up after being seated. These three words perfectly characterize, at this point, both Christian truth, and the falsehood of the extremes which are opposed to it. Naturalism says: “Surgite, rise up”; and it takes away what follows. Quietism says: “Sederitis, sit still”; and it omits what goes before. Christianity says: “Surgite postquam sederitis, rise up after you have sat still”; and it neither omits nor takes away anything. Naturalism denies God’s action, Quietism gets rid of man’s action, Christianity demands the union and submission of man’s action to God’s. And a wonderful thing is this sitting down and this action, this repose of leaning upon God and this acting with God: they are ever allied and combined to form the divine life in me, which is essentially made up of repose and action. Is not all life action in repose?

Further, Naturalism and Quietism are not merely errors of the way, they are also mistaken as to the end, and as to the means. Here, a short parenthesis may perhaps not be wasted in describing in a general way these two errors which gather up the divergent tendencies of human fallacies. As to the end, Naturalism gets rid of, or tends to get rid of, God’s glory, leaving nothing but human pleasure behind. As to the way, it does away with, or tends to do away with, God’s action, reckoning almost entirely upon human action. As to the means, it destroys or tends to destroy grace, and puts all its hope in human expedients. God more or less banished from man’s life and work and instruments, such is Naturalism and such are all of its tendencies. Quietism, on the other hand, annuls, or tends to annul, man’s part in the hope of his salvation, leaving behind nothing but God’s glory as the end. It annihilates, or tends to annihilate, human activity, to leave behind nothing but God’s action, as the way. It suppresses, or tends to suppress, spiritual exercises and means, to allow nothing but grace to work as a means. Man lowered, and mutilated as to his end and activity and means, such is Quietism and such are all the tendencies that belong to it. The specific idea of Christianity is to be the union, unimpaired yet subordinate, of the human with the divine. Man’s salvation united with and subordinate to God’s glory, as the end; man’s action united with and subordinate to God’s action, as the way; man’s devotional exercises united with and subordinate to God’s grace, as the means — such is Christianity.

Strangely, both Quietism and Americanism have one point of agreement, and that is a downplay of the traditional approach to asceticism in the spiritual life. Notice here that both heretical extremes contradicted tradition; hence, a return to tradition is the remedy to both errors.

It may be objected that what I have written above, and what I have quoted from Dom François de Sales, pertains not to the realm of external activity at all, but to the spiritual life. But that objection reveals a deeper problem, as it neglects this fundamental truth: as Catholics, our external life, our whole life, in fact, is to be a life of virtue. Whether a man is attending Sunday Mass or plying his trade or recreating with his family, he is a Christian and is to approach all these things as a Christian. If we have any external apostolate, whether we are clerics, religious, or layfolk, we are obliged to approach that apostolate as a Christian thing, as a series of virtuous activities or “good works.”

Michael Voris recently closed out an episode of the Vortex with words expressive of his own approach to the apostolate (in this instance, the pro-life struggle against “Bullying from the Left”). He said, “Pray and fight; faith and good works.” Either the Catholic “fight” is a meritorious good work done in grace with the aid of prayer, or it is nothing — or worse than nothing, it is sin. To employ a concept I wrote about last time, our grace-aided activity in this world is our “tropology,” the way we work out our salvation.

In the words of Saint Paul: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31).