Friday, July 1, 2011

The heresy of Americanism

Happy 4th of July!
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.
 – Hebrews 13:8

Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls.
 – Hebrews 13:17
America. The land of the free and the home of the brave.

There is a spirit of independence that we celebrate at this time of year that distinguishes the United States of America from the rest of the world.

But there has always been a certain tension between the American spirit and the Christian spirit. The independence and freedom that we so revere are not always in keeping with the teachings of Jesus Christ who tells us that "blessed are the poor in spirit". (Matthew 5:3)

American "exceptionalism" says that what applies to other nations does not always apply to us. We consider our country to be unique; exceptional.

This "exceptionalism" has at times spilled over and created tensions with the Roman Catholic Church, which is a universal church. The tendency for the American Catholic Church to go its own way has been dubbed "Americanism". It is a heresy because if left unchecked it can lead to a schism in the Church, and result in the creation of a Catholic Church in America that is separate and distinct from the Catholic Church in the rest of the world.

Are we already seeing this? Is the Catholic Church of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Nancy Pelosi – and frankly thousands of others – the beginnings of a separate church? Do Catholics in America – including many priests and bishops – really believe in the teachings of the universal Catholic Church? And do American Catholics really believe in the authority of the Pope?

Similar questions have plagued the Catholic Church in America since at least the 1890s. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII sent an Apostolic Letter to the American Catholic Church "Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature And Grace, With Regard To Americanism". This letter is also known by its Latin name "Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae" which roughly translated means something like "in witness to our benevolence" or "an expression of our good will". (Some refer to this papal letter as an encyclical, but this is not correct.)

In the letter Pope Leo XIII is highly critical of certain reported practices in the American Catholic Church and the intent of the letter is clearly to put an end to these dissident practices. But the Pope is also careful to express that his criticisms are done in the spirit of "good will"; like a loving father correcting his errant son.

Some of the practices that the Pope criticizes in 1899 are eerily familiar.
The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.
The specific issues may have been different at that time, but the principles are the same. Should the Church relax its teaching on certain controversial issues "in order to more easily attract those who differ from her"? Isn't this the same thinking that some American Catholics employ today to suggest that the Church should relax its teachings on issues such as contraception, abortion and homosexuality?

The response of Pope Leo XIII to these "new opinions" in 1899 is the same one we should have today.
Let it be far from anyone's mind to suppress for any reason any doctrine that has been handed down. Such a policy would tend rather to separate Catholics from the Church than to bring in those who differ. There is nothing closer to our heart than to have those who are separated from the fold of Christ return to it, but in no other way than the way pointed out by Christ.
In other words, it would do more harm than good for the American Church to attempt to accommodate those who have strayed away from her. And in fact we have seen that the more the Church attempts to accommodate itself to secular opinions, the more she loses members of her flock. It is by remaining faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and Catholic tradition that the Church has remained strong throughout the ages.

The Pope makes it clear that he perceives a dark menace behind these seemingly benevolent "new opinions".
But, beloved son, in this present matter of which we are speaking, there is even a greater danger and a more manifest opposition to Catholic doctrine and discipline in that opinion of the lovers of novelty, according to which they hold such liberty should be allowed in the Church, that her supervision and watchfulness being in some sense lessened, allowance be granted the faithful, each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity.
Today, we see how this trend has been handed down to us, and the consequences of each one "freely [following] the leading of his own mind". There is no clearer example of the danger that Pope Leo XIII warned about than the passage of the bill on "homosexual marriage" that just took place in New York. A Catholic governor and some Catholic legislators decided that the teachings of the Church could be freely ignored, because they gave more importance to their own personal opinions shaped by the secular world.

And this mode of thinking is no longer confined just to America, but has spread throughout the world. See the following video from Ireland to see how some Irish Catholics freely interpret their faith. One wonders how much these views have been shaped by American secular culture that is spread internationally via movies, music, television shows and magazines.

Towards the end of this letter Pope Leo XIII defines what it means to be a "real Catholic".
Wherefore, if anybody wishes to be considered a real Catholic, he ought to be able to say from his heart the selfsame words which Jerome addressed to Pope Damasus: "I, acknowledging no other leader than Christ, am bound in fellowship with Your Holiness; that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that the church was built upon him as its rock, and that whosoever gathereth not with you, scattereth."
Are you listening Governor Cuomo? How about you Maureen Dowd?

1 comment:

  1. What a SAD state od affairs : People do not believe, they do not want to worship God and the don't even think it is a MORTAL sin to miss Holy Mass : God have mercy on us all!