The Relationship of Americanism to Modernism

It would be a gross oversimplification to put an equal sign between the words “Americanism” and “Modernism,” as if the former were merely the American embodiment of the latter. However, while we must avoid this facile identification of the two, so too must we appreciate the points of agreement between them. Not only were there Americanists who can rightly be called Modernists in the strict sense; but, more importantly, the progressivist nature of both movements gives them much of a common foundation, one steeped in some of the less desirable intellectual trends of modernity. It is no mere coincidence, then, that men like William Sullivan and John Slattery, figures on the Americanist scene, found themselves unable to accept the condemnation of Modernism and preferred to leave Holy Mother Church rather than submit their intellects to the teachings of Lamentabile Sane and Pascendi.

Since neither Modernism nor Americanism is a coherent dogmatic system[1] (much less a sect), their common foundation will be found, not in any organizational structures, but in the intellectual currents which influenced each. I shall focus on those currents and how they are embodied in each heresy.[2] Next, I will highlight some points of contrast between Americanism and Modernism. Finally, a few noteworthy American Modernists will be treated briefly.

At the most foundational level, both of these heresies are manifestations of theological progressivism. In Testem Benevolentiae, Pope Leo XIII impugned the Americanist approach to dogma: “certain topics of doctrine are passed over as of lesser importance, or are so softened that they do not retain the same sense as the Church has always held.”[3] For his part, St. Pius X bemoaned the Modernist contention that “the formulas which we call dogma must be subject to these vicissitudes [of varying human conditions], and are, therefore, liable to change. Thus the way is open to the intrinsic evolution of dogma.” He branded this “an immense structure of sophisms which ruin and wreck all religion.”[4] The resemblance is patent: The Modernist “vicissitudes” St. Pius mentions as subjecting dogma to change could easily be the American condition to which the Americanists wanted to accommodate doctrine in a “sense [other than that which] the Church has always held.”

In condemning the Americanist approach to evangelism, Leo XIII notes that, “the way and the plan which Catholics have thus far employed to bring back those who disagree with them are proclaimed to be abandoned and to be replaced by another for the future.” Now, in his book Catholicism and Modernity, Dr. Hitchcock argues that, whereas conservatives tend to make appeals to the past, liberals (and all progressivists in general) inevitably make the future their point of reference, even to the point of becoming more doctrinaire, rigid, and totalitarian than the most reactionary traditionalist in the pursuit of a more highly evolved society (or Church). The appeal to the future that Pope Leo saw in Americanism was also present in Modernism, for St. Pius X censured the Modernist contention that the Church “obstinately clings to immutable doctrines which cannot be reconciled with modern progress.” Thus both of the errors under discussion are impregnated with the same historicist, evolutionist, and futurist tendency.

The very central notion of Americanism was an accommodation of the faith to the American situation: “For it raises a suspicion that there are those among you who envision and desire a Church in America other than that which is in all the rest of the world.”[5] To the Americanists, in this fusion of Americana and Catholicism, it was the Church who was the winner, since according to Archbishop Ireland and Bishop Keane, America – with its democratic, enlightened, separation of Church and state – was superior to Europe. The very contention that the “New World” had a better system than the “Old World,” and that this system is something the Church must accommodate itself to, shows the Americanist to be biased in favor of novelty and a false idea of development.

In short, to Pope Leo, the Americanists were “insufficiently respectful of aspects of Catholicism which they dismissed as outmoded.”[6] Such an insufficiency also dominates Modernism.

Besides the general theme of progressivism, there were specific embodiments of it which the Americanists and Modernists had in common. Darwinian evolutionary theory, which fostered doubt concerning certain central Catholic beliefs, was enthusiastically embraced by partisans of each error. Perhaps more important was the so-called “Higher Criticism,” which emanated from liberal Protestantism. Votaries of both movements under consideration were given to this novelty as well.

Perhaps a direct connection over the Atlantic could be seen in the person of the French Modernist Lucien Laberthonnière, who “may have been influenced directly by American pragmatism.”[7] Certainly his notion of reducing the doctrines of the faith to a concrete set of moral norms, thus diminishing the supernatural, bore an affinity to the thoughts of the Americanists Sullivan and Slattery, as well as what Testem Benevolentiae condemned as an exultation of the natural over the supernatural virtues.

Though there are important points of comparison, the contrasts between Americanism and Modernism are great. In its conception of progress, the American error was very particular: it was American nationalism extending itself into the theological sphere. Therefore, the issues were more “American” than Modernism, which was continental in flavor. In this vein, I could instance Loisy’s distaste for Archbishop Ireland, who, when the two met, only wanted to discuss the separation of Church and state and did not seem to understand the “deeper” issues Loisy himself made his concern. Continental Europeans certainly did not care to make the Church more American.

Americanism was also less radical. This is one reason people debate on whether it should properly be called a “heresy.” Here we can draw something of a parallel between the French Revolution and the American War for Independence. Whereas the former was a conscious casting off of Christian social principles which had previously defined France, the American war was, at its best, an attempt on the part of colonists to preserve the rights of Englishmen. A visceral hatred for the old order of things was far more present in the war of 1789 than that of 1776. Going from a political parallel to an intrinsic difference between Americanism and Modernism, we note that St. Pius X’s condemnation pinpointed very deep-seated ideas within the Modernist agenda – ideas which radically contradicted the very notion of revealed religion, epistemological certitude in faith (a result of Kantianism), and a philosophy of history which employed the Hegelian dialectic.[8] The Americanists were not so deeply and fundamentally anti-Christian in their philosophy. If Pope Leo was concerned that, in American progressivism, “the way is open to the intrinsic evolution of dogma,” Pope Pius was able to show the radical evolutionism essential to Modernism.

A cynic may opine that Americanism’s less pernicious nature is an example of American superficiality at work, for its errors, while less deep-seated, very much agree with the tendency towards “practicality” and the gospel of efficiency which is part of our national fabric. Heirs to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of philosophical pragmatism, Americans tend to be more superficial, given to doing instead of thinking, action rather than contemplation.

This leads us to another contrast. As foundationally undermining of Catholicism as the tenets of Modernism were, there was not an attempt on the part of the Modernists to elevate the active over the contemplative, as in Americanismus. “The heresy of good works” which Dom Chautard rightly rebukes in his book, The Soul of the Apostolate, could certainly not be found in men like Baron von Hugel, who sought not so much to resolve the contradictions between Catholic tradition and his own modernist ideas, but to transcend them by emphasizing sanctity. For him, mysticism somehow agreed both with the Modernist conceptions of a developing “religious sense” implicit in all men and the traditions of Catholicism.[9] St. Catherine of Genoa, whose biography von Hugel wrote, would certainly not be considered the patron saint of the Americanists! She was not “practical,” or active enough. Her old school piety, with its emphasis on the so-called “passive” virtues, ran counter to the American emphasis on the external, the active, and the “practical.” Indeed, in Testem Benevolentiae, Pope Leo XIII treats this exultation of the natural virtues over the supernatural, and the active over the contemplative, at great length.

Two men who can be called real modernists, William Sullivan and John Slattery, have already been mentioned. Sullivan was a Paulist, therefore a member of the congregation founded by Isaac Hecker, arguably the father of all Americanists.[10] While Hecker sought to establish a congregation more American than the German-dominated Redemptorists he joined shortly after his conversion, Sullivan went considerably beyond his founder. Disturbed by the conclusions of liberal biblical criticism, he had doubts about his faith. He left the Church in 1908, that is, shortly after the condemnation of the modernists. He was awkward in his new role as a Unitarian minister and, while, as a priest, he would have reduced Catholicism to a vague set of moral norms, as a Unitarian, he sought to improve his lately-embraced American sect by introducing Catholicity into it by way of retreats, mystical prayer, etc.

In 1909, four more sons of Father Hecker would follow Sullivan’s path outside the Church, consciously leaving because of the condemnation of Modernism.

Father John R. Slattery was the American Superior of the Mill Hill Fathers (an English congregation), who, like Hecker, founded a more American community: the Josephites, whose work was (and still largely is) among Negroes in the South. Having been scandalized by racism among devout Catholics, Slattery came under the influence of higher biblical criticism and evolution. Like Sullivan, Slattery left the Church.

The incident of the Sulpician Fathers who taught at St. Joseph’s Seminary[11] in New York deserves mention, too. These priests published the New York Review, a modernist journal which broadcast current European ideas to an American readership. Francis Gigot, the biblical scholar whose interest was Jesus’ self-knowledge, was one of these professors. Having been rebuked by the Superior General of the Sulpicians, they left the community and continued to teach at the seminary as diocesan priests. John Cardinal Farley, the Archbishop of New York, incardinated them into his Archdiocese.

Another genuine modernist among the American clergy was Henry Poels, who was forced to resign from Catholic University for rejecting the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.


Hitchcock, James. Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation. Seabury Press, 1979.

Parente, Pietro; Piolanti, Antonio; and Garofalo, Salvatore. Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology. Translated by Emmanuel Doronzo, O.M.I., S.T.D., Ph.D. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1951.

St. Pius X. Pascendi Dominici Gregis = Feeding the Lord’s Flock Online, available at: [accessed July 21, 2006], 8 September, 1907.

St. Pius X. Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists, Online, available at: [accessed July 21, 2006], 3 July, 1907.

[1] The former is a hodgepodge of various heresies steeped in Kantianism and Historicism, while the latter is a set of erroneous tendencies intended to make Catholicism more “American.”

[2] Yes, many contend that Americanism is not a “heresy.” While the point it at least debatable (I hold that it is a heresy), I am using the word in a fairly wide sense here so as to avoid cumbersome circumlocutions.

[3] Denz. 1967, emphasis mine.

[4] St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis = Feeding the Lord’s Flock (Online, available at: [accessed July 21, 2006]) 8 September, 1907. No. 12.

[5] Denz. 1975.

[6] Notes from Lecture IX “Americanism,” (emphasis mine).

[7] DVD of Lecture Five, “American Modernist [sic.].”

[8] Vide No. 27 of Pascendi: “evolution is described as a resultant from the conflict of two forces, one of them tending towards progress, the other towards conservation.” ( ) This is a perfect example of Hegelianism.

[9] The work of Henri Bremond, who wrote a multi-volume work on the history of French Spirituality, and focused on sanctity, bore an affinity to von Hugel’s in this regard.

[10] It was Father Walter Elliot’s biography of Hecker, in French translation, that caught the attention of the Holy See in the matter of Americanism.

[11] Dunwoodie.