On Making the United States Catholic — Reasons for Our Failure

From The Point, March 1958

Why is it that the Catholic Church in America, so replete with plant and apparatus, does not bring in enough converts each year to fill up the number of Catholics who leave?

Why is it that the Catholic Church in America still grows only through births and immigration — and not through conversions?

Where are the successors of the Apostles to preach on Main Street, America, the good news of the Gospel?

Where has our zeal for souls gone?

And how did it disappear?

These are questions which the full-grown, able-bodied American Catholic Church cannot ignore much longer. And to begin to answer them honestly, American Catholics will have to go back to certain events of one hundred years ago, where there starts a story which unfolds as follows.

Exactly one century ago this year, on July 7, 1858, Father Isaac Thomas Hecker founded the first natively-American religious congregation. Called the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle (more commonly, “the Paulists”), Father Hecker’s new order had as its avowed purpose the conversion of the United States to the Catholic Faith. It seemed a magnificent objective. But Isaac Thomas Hecker was a strange man, with a strange understanding of the term “conversion.”

Born of Protestant, German-speaking parents, Isaac Hecker spent his early years in New York’s lower East Side. As a young man he become converted to the fashionable tenets of Transcendentalism, then being evangelized by the Concord divines, Emerson and Thoreau. To demonstrate his fidelity to this new religion young Isaac moved out of the family’s Hester Street home and joined the experiments in communal living being conducted at Brook Farm and, later, at Fruitlands.

It was during this period that Isaac Hecker had his visions. The first of these, of “an angelic something I cannot describe,” so ravished the young seer that he fell desperately in love with it and resolved never to marry. Subsequent visions, Hecker noted in his diary, indicated the future course of his life.

In 1844, Isaac Hecker entered the Catholic Church, averring that “I had been a Catholic in heart all my life, and didn’t know it!” Convinced that he had been chosen as the special instrument of the Holy Ghost for converting America, Hecker applied for admission to the Redemptorists. He was received into the order and — though his seminary superiors were dismayed at his gross inability to grasp the principles of theology, or even to learn the simplest Latin prayers — he was eventually ordained.

Eight years later, the General of the Redemptorists summarily expelled Father Hecker from the order; whereupon the dogged reformer founded the Paulists, and set out in earnest to convert America.

Isaac Hecker never made any secret of what he was up to. He proclaimed boldly that America must not be preached to as Europe had been, but by a “new method.” Bringing America to the Faith would be accomplished not by changing America but by changing the Faith. He gleefully accepted and justified the title which his Paulist colleagues bestowed on his, “the apostle of reconciliation of the Church with the age.” With his help Americans would become Catholics “with no spiritual convulsions” (as the Paulists put it), without altering their ways or, substantially, their beliefs.

Father Hecker thought the Church should appear to Americans as a bustling, up-to-date business corporation; its priests, a staff of resourceful salesmen. “If we wish to attract Americans to the Church,” he asserted, “we must present Catholicism to them as affirming in super-abundance those qualities of character which are distinctively American.”

“Individual initiative” became the angelic virtue in Paulist theology, replacing such apparently outmoded, European virtues as humility, poverty, and obedience. Likewise, any Catholic dogmas that Father Hecker deemed too severe for the American temperament he conveniently ignored, or else tamed through “interpretation.”

Now if these doctrinal aberrations had been merely the brainstorms of Isaac Thomas Hecker, they would be of small importance in American Catholic history. What makes them of great, and tragic, significance is that they found support in a faction of powerful, liberal American Churchmen. These included Bishop John Keane, rector of Catholic University, who presided over Catholic participation in the notorious World Parliament of Religions; Archbishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, who had advocated sending all the Catholic children of America to public schools; James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, dean of the American hierarchy, who was known to have preached in Protestant churches, even in Masonic Lodges, and to have opposed steadfastly any papal condemnation of American Masonry. These, and others like them, hailed Father Hecker as their champion, “The ideal American priest,” Archbishop Ireland called him; while Cardinal Gibbons appointed him as his personal theologian at the Vatican Council (where Hecker was a leader of the forces opposed to the definition of papal infallibility).

Intoxicated with all this applause, Isaac Hecker got farther and farther from theological home-base. And the liberals watched anxiously to see just how far he would be allowed to go.

It was not until 1899, ten years after Isaac Hecker’s death that his theories were finally condemned. In an Apostolic Letter (Testem Benevolentiae ) addressed to Cardinal Gibbons and the American hierarchy, Pope Leo XIII systematically reproved the errors of Father Hecker. The Church, Pope Leo says, and not individual Catholics, should judge how the Faith is to be presented. “That sense of the sacred dogmas is to be faithfully kept which Holy Mother Church has once declared, and is not to be departed from under the specious pretext of a more profound understanding.” Nor are dogmas ever to be suppressed . . . “whosoever would do so would rather wish to alienate Catholics from the Church than to bring over to the Church those who dissent from it.”

The reaction of the Catholic liberals to Pope Leo XIII’s letter was (1) to try to prevent its publication; (2) to issue it in faulty translation; (3) to deny that such doctrines had ever been held by any responsible American Catholic; (4) to declare that the Pope was the victim of anti-American intriguers.

But there was also another, and gratifying, reaction to the papal message. It came from those American priests and bishops who were not liberals, who attested that the Hecker errors were indeed being taught in America, and who thanked the Pope for his letter of condemnation. These anti-Heckerites were men like Archbishop Corrigan of New York, Bishop McQuaid of Rochester, Bishop Messmer of Green Bay, and a host of others, in and out of hierarchy; for as one Catholic paper remarked, the liberals “in truth were never very numerous in the United States but being restless and noisy, they always professed to be the only true Americans and the only genuine representatives of the Church.”

Pope Leo XIII’s intervention should certainly have ended it all. The message of his letter was unequivocal. Civilta Cattolica , the Roman Jesuit journal which was the champion and comfort of the papacy through all the turbulence of nineteenth-century Masonic Italy, summarized Testem Benevolentiae in 1899: “The practical lesson which we must all draw from Leo XIII’s Apostolic Letter is that Catholic principles do not change, whether through the passing of years, or the changing of countries, or new discoveries, or motives of utility. They are always the principles that Christ taught, that the Church made known, that Popes and Councils defended, that the Saints loved, that the Doctors demonstrated. As they are, they must be taken or left. Whoever accepts them in their fullness and strictness is a Catholic; whoever hesitates, staggers, adapts himself to the times, makes compromises, may call himself by what name he will, but before God and the Church he is a rebel and a traitor.”

As the twentieth century succeeded upon the nineteenth, however, it became clear that the liberals had no fear of being called names, and no notion of mending their ways. Testem Benevolentiae was followed by Saint Pius X’s condemnation of Modernism. Again, liberal theologians were pointed out and reproved by the Holy See for ignoring the fact that “Catholic principles do not change”; again, the liberals assured their ever-increasing flock of friends that the Pope meant someone else, and continued blithely about their business.

By the 1930’s the shape of the liberal movement in America had changed considerably from the days of its Heckerite beginning. Still operating, the Paulists had branched out from their New York headquarters, establishing mission centers in several American diocese, and a novitiate and house of studies under the protective shadow of Bishop Keane’s Catholic University; their pamphlets filled the literature racks in many American parishes; but their comparatively small numbers (right now, about 200 priests) necessarily limited their activities.

Hecker’s order, however, had come to be almost superfluous as a means of spreading his spirit. The liberalism which he occasioned was settling into every corner of the American Church. The fact that no group of American prelates was now trying match the flashy teamwork of Keane-to-Ireland-to-Gibbons, worked even more in the favor of the liberal cause. Individual bishops and independent theologians, compromising bit by bit the Church’s beliefs and practices, putting aside their commission to be apostles in order to “get along” better in their own immediate circumstances; gave no appearance of a formidable movement of the sort which might call down anew the wrath of Rome.

But a ferment was working, and the result, as it faces us today, might startle even Father Hecker.

What gave Isaac Hecker’s undertaking such honorable status as he started off was that it professed to be a crusade to make Americans Catholics. The Church would never, initially, have suspected a program like that. Father Hecker, it turned out, did not care what Americans believed once he got them into the Church — but he did plead that they should enter.

On this most basic point, the evolved liberalism of the present moment has far out-Heckered Father Isaac. It has built up an elaborate system of seesaw theology which relieves Americans of any obligation to become Catholics. While assuring them in paragraph A that the Catholic Church still believes it is the only True One, our current liberal pats his American neighbors on the back in paragraph B with the more vigorous assurance that their getting into Heaven in no sense requires that they should also get out of bed and into a pew for Sunday morning Mass.

There is no problem here of veiling the Church’s doctrine on indulgences, or minimizing its devotion to Our Blessed Lady, because the present-day liberal, unlike Father Hecker, need not mention Catholic teaching at all. He merely tells non-Catholic Americans to go on as they are going, to be true to their ideals, to live up to their lights, and thus, mysteriously, invisibly, subjectively, implicitly, invincibly-ignorantly, they will wake up on the other side of the grave as full-fledged Roman Catholics, members of the One True Church, subjects of the Pope, and partakers of Eternal Beatitude.

Presented with the above salvational arrangement (which is a scrupulously fair digest of all the current liberal theories), it is not difficult to conclude where apostolic life in the American Church has gone. It has disappeared down the commodious drains of liberal theology. If non-Catholic Americans are as universally hell-bent for Heaven as the question-and-answer columns of the liberal Catholic press maintain, then it is small wonder that Reverend Father Junior Curate suppresses his missionary urges with multiple rounds of golf and frequent trips to the ballpark. Why should he risk offending the general community with his Romish proselytizing if the general community is sanctifying and saving itself quite nicely, thanks, without his priestly ministrations.

Were we to stop at this point, it would appear that the decline of apostolic spirit in the American Church has been a strictly intramural affair, with all the impetus coming from clerical compromisers who have sought to wear their Roman collars in liberal comfort, avoiding the tangles and thickets of an active, practical apostolate. Such an explanation might be convincing, but it would certainly be incomplete. For we could devote a dozen more issues to those outside pressures which have closed in on the apostolic mission of the Church.

These enemies from without are the numerous offspring (both men and movements) of the French Revolution — the progeny of that Masonic agitation which has been so fatal to the Church in every country. And the most successful of them, in terms of headway made against the Catholic apostolate, is assuredly the interfaith “Brotherhood” campaign.

Through the press, radio, television, motion pictures, through every public means of persuasion, Americans, and perforce American Catholics, have been bombarded with the Brotherhood propaganda. “It’s not his religion that counts” . . . “One belief is as good as another” . . . “We’re all headed in the same direction, anyway” . . . etc. Incessant talk like this puts the predatory Catholic convert-maker in practically a criminal class. And figures published in 1955 indicate that the Church’s should-be apostles are going right along with the Brotherhood act. A national poll showed that nearly eighty per cent of America’s Catholic bishops have authorized diocesan participation in the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the country’s chief Brotherhood promoters. We may be certain that the percentage has not lately decreased.

Consequently, we have the sad assurance that America, and the American Catholic Church with it, is fast being subjected to the interfaith religion of Brotherhood — the Christ-less naturalisms of Masons and non-Christians. And we are faced with the even sadder reality that Americans are still being denied the clear and salutary challenge of the Catholic Faith — a challenge which we know they can meet with a generosity and vitality which would bring new blessings to our country, and new saints to our Catholic altars.