The Heresy of Americanism and the Spanish-American War

The heresy of Americanism, condemned in 1899 by Pope Leo XIII in his apostolic letter Testem benevolentiae, arose in France but got its name on account of it finding in the U.S. soil in which to take root and bishops to nurture it. After Pope Leo’s condemnation, the heresy was not trumpeted as loudly as it had been but remained a force in the life of the Church in the U.S. Often as not, and though unwittingly, it was what people were really talking about in the first half of the twentieth century when they spoke of “modernizing” the Church. In the 1960s it back-washed from here to Europe and elsewhere in the Catholic world at Vatican II and thus is far from dead today.

Heresies are like that. They never truly die. Five hundred years after the condemnation of Luther, think of how Protestantized today’s mainstream Church is, not simply in its worship but with countless persons thinking they are free to decide for themselves what to believe and yet remain Catholic. Protestantism is of course its own heresy, but its influence within the Church was abetted by Americanism’s characteristic obscuring or glossing over distinctively Catholic teachings and practices.

In his letter Pope Leo dealt with the heresy’s religious errors, perhaps the principal one being the exaltation of “active virtues” (good works) over “passive” ones (prayer and meditation). However, from its very emphasis of good works there developed a political dimension to the heresy that was manifest in different ways. One way was the adherence of the majority of U.S. Catholics for decades to the agenda of the Democratic Party — agitating for a graduated income tax, setting up a Social Security system, enacting federal welfare programs. Neither the bishops nor many others saw what should have been perfectly obvious: that the regulation of such programs to prevent fraud and abuse would lead to government intrusion into, and control of, intimate details of citizens’ lives. This result of Americanism does not interest us here.

What does interest us is that the U.S. bishops would also be supportive of U.S. intervention overseas, military and otherwise, in order to spread liberal democracy, an effort known in our day as nation-building (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq being examples). The beginning of this is usually associated with the intensely Anglophile President Woodrow Wilson leading the U.S. into fighting alongside England to “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I. That war culminated with Wilson demanding the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the last Catholic world power, as a condition for peace. However, the political dimension of the heresy of Americanism was also manifest in the bishops’ enthusiastic backing of the U.S. war against Spain, which began 120 years ago this month. (It can also be seen in the complete silence of the bishops on the immorality of U.S. bombers deliberately targeting residential neighborhoods of German and Japanese cities during World War II, but that also does not concern us now.)

All that is being said here is confirmed in a document, a private letter, that is quite programmatic in what it has to say. It was written by Bishop Denis O’Connell, a protégé of James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of the U.S. primatial see, Baltimore. Between 1885 and 1895 he was rector of the North American College in Rome, in which capacity he oversaw the formation of many future monsignors and bishops.

Why didn’t Rome detect a viper in her bosom? Some in the Vatican did, but traitors often aren’t stopped until their treason has done its damage. Besides, if the side to which they sold out prevails, they will be honored, not branded as traitors.

That would be the case with O’Connell, who has a Catholic high school named for him in Arlington, Virginia, and even more so the recipient of his letter, John Ireland, Archbishop of St. Paul and the Americanist leader at the time of Testem benevolentiae. Not merely is the boulevard running between the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Minnesota state capitol named for him, he has been eulogized repeatedly over the years for his advocacy of equal rights for African-Americans. (Eastern-Rite Catholics do not eulogize him. He sought to have all non-Latin rite priests expelled from the U.S. The joke in certain Uniate circles is that Bishop Ireland was the best bishop the Orthodox had, since he helped swell their ranks with former Eastern-Rite Catholics who fled thither to escape his abuse.)

Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., author of The Americanist Heresy in Roman Catholicism, 1895-1900, describes O’Connell’s letter to Archbishop Ireland, dated May 14, 1898, as “a very important contribution to a definition of Americanism as conceived by the Americanists.” The letter is too long to be quoted here in its entirety. Some of what will be seen from what is quoted: disdain for Europe and European Catholic culture, especially that of Latin Europe (Italy and Spain); fervent Anglophilia married to a view of America being more a sister than a child of the “mother country”; ambition that would seem extravagant except that it was eventually fulfilled to a large measure; a view of war as “often God’s way of moving things onward.” In all this it needs to be remembered that by 1898 the Church had been much occupied for a century in trying to extinguish a “fire in the minds of men,” as Dostoyevsky described the idea of revolution. Thwarting that effort, if not actually fanning the fire, is exactly what Americanism was about.

O’Connell begins his letter to Ireland by exhorting him to embrace his destiny: “I congratulate you and thank God for you. And now only one word more: all doubts and hesitations to the wind and on with the banner of Americanism which is the banner of God & humanity. Now realize all the dreams you ever dreamed, and force upon the Curia by the great triumph of Americanism that recognition of English speaking peoples that you know is needed.”

O’Connell turns now to the meat of his letter — what he has to say about the war against Spain on which the U.S. embarked the month before. “For me this is not simply a question of Cuba. If it were, it were no question or a poor question. Then let the ‘greasers’ eat one another up and save the lives of our dear boys. But for me it is a question of much more moment — it is the question of two civilizations. It is the question of all that is old & vile & mean & rotten & cruel & false in Europe against all that is free & noble & open & true & humane in America. When Spain is swept off the seas much of the meanness and narrowness of old Europe goes with it to be replaced by the freedom and openness of America. This is God’s way of developing the world. And all continental Europe feels the war is against itself, and that is why they are all against us, and Rome more than all because when the prestige of Spain & Italy will have passed away, and when the pivot of the world’s political action will no longer be confined within the limits of the continent, then the nonsense of trying to govern the universal church from a purely European standpoint — and according to exclusively Spanish and Italian methods, will be glaringly evident even to a child. ‘Now the axe is laid to the root of the tree.’ Let the wealth of Convents and Communities in Cuba & the Philippines go; it did nothing for the advancement of religion….

“At one time one nation in the world now another, took the lead, but now it seems to me that the old governments of Europe will lead no more and that neither Italy, nor Spain will ever furnish the principles of the civilization of the future. Now God passes the banner to the hands of America, to bear it — in the cause of humanity and it is your office to make its destiny known to America and become its grand chaplain. Over all America there is certainly a duty higher than the interests of the individual states — even of the national government. The duty to humanity is certainly a real duty, and America cannot certainly with honor, or fortune, evade its great share in it. Go to America and say, thus saith the Lord! Then you will live in history as God’s Apostle in modern times to Church & to Society. Hence I am a partisan of the Anglo-American alliance, together they are invincible and they will impose a new civilization. Now is your opportunity — and at the end of the war as the Vatican always goes after a strong man you will likewise become her intermediary….

“War is often God’s way of moving things onward. The whole realm of life of every kind lay under the operation of one law: struggle. In that way all the plans of nations are worked out and the name for struggle between nations is sometimes ‘war.’ The ‘horrors of war’ often a sentimental phrase is often better ‘the glories of war’ the triumph of Providence, see the war of secession & negro emancipation. The whole history of Providence is the history of war; survival of the fittest. There is no room in this little world for anything else and as bad as the world is today how much worse it would certainly be if by war & struggle the worse elements had not to go to the wall.

“Then build navies & give your men employment, enroll an army picking up for it as England does fellows fit for nothing else. Take the place God has destined for America and leave John Ireland’s name imperishable among those achievements. You are the only man in America lay or cleric who can properly take in and give the right initiative to this design.

“The history of every good nation has been a history of expansion, Rome, Greece, Venice, England.

“So build your navies and give employment to your laborers. Create your armies and like England enroll in its ranks all those idle fellows hanging ‘round the towns that are good for nothing else’. You will now have a work that will enlist all your strongest sympathies.”

Pope Leo addressed Testem benevolentiae to Cardinal Gibbons and sent copies to all other members of the hierarchy in the U.S. Ordinary laymen and most clergy knew nothing of it at the time. Obviously it was not in the interests of the Church to have news of the document publicized, and neither would the Americanists want it known that they were censured. If word of it did get out, the Pope offered the Americanists a disclaimer. At the conclusion of the encyclical he was careful to express confidence that “the bishops of America would be the first to repudiate and condemn” the false teachings discussed in the document. Otherwise “it would give rise to the suspicion that there are among you some who would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” O’Connell’s letter is proof that some did. Take a look at most of Catholicism today and ask, did they prevail or did the “rest”?