Just a friendly reminder that “Americanism” is a heresy. Even today. (Happy 4th!)


paul-young-america-flagI’m really not trying to ruin anyone’s party. I promise. But I just wanted to remind everyone that in 1899 Pope Leo XIII declared “Americanism” a heresy in the Catholic Church.

(I have provided this picture of this post’s author in order to help soothe any anger over this reminder.)

Basically, in the middle of the 19th-century, there was a huge influx of Catholics into America from Europe. Being so far away from the “home base” of European Catholicism, these Catholic leaders started “softening” Catholicism in order to make it more palatable to the new context they found themselves in.

In short, they were taking their new and exciting cultural and political experiences, and filtering their faith through that, rather than the other way around. They took their cues from America’s obsession with democracy and individualism and applied it to their theology. Pope Leo’s concern was that what was left was not very Catholic. And so, he declared “Americanism” a heresy. This is how he described it in his encyclical:

The underlying principle of these new opinions… [are] 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.

Now, a few admissions, then back to offense. First, after the Pope declared this heresy, nearly all of the American Catholic leadership looked around and said, “that doesn’t really describe us at all.” In fact, one of the bishops famously called it a “Phantom” heresy.

Secondly, their was so much to this papal condemnation that was political and cultural, rather than legit theological (a the time, at least,but more on that soon). In this excellent history of the heresy, one could easily lose track of the story amidst all of the names, opinions, personalities, interpersonal conflicts, and slight manipulations of the papal office.

And thirdly, honestly, a lot of the precise theological specifics of the 1899 version of Americanism, I agree with: freedom of personal conscience, the benefit of having a theologically diverse and ecumenical church universal, and the freedom Christians have to broadcast their personal religious views in public, and not simply leave it to the Church to broadcast it for them.

And yet…

The wisdom of Leo’s words is not so much in how accurately he addressed the precise doctrinal views of American Catholics at that time, but rather in what he saw as the potential for what it could become. And indeed, I think the myth of America has long overshadowed the counter-cultural claims of the Christian faith for our time.

This post at Catholic Culture talks about how this is very much the case today. It’s admittedly written from an extremely-conservative, traditional, pre-Vatican II perspective that I wouldn’t agree with, but this was a money quote:

Americanism, doubtless more virulent in our day than it was in Leo’s, combines a collective sense of Christian exceptionalism (America as the “Shining City on a Hill”) with the hubristic conviction that America can draw up her own moral code—or, rather, a limitless number of moral codes, arising from each individual’s conscience. Acknowledging the heresy and its internal contradictions helps us understand why Americans today can insist that we are a Christian nation while indulging in all manner of public and private behavior that is decidedly not Christian, from delighting in degenerate diversions, to sanctioning the murder of children, to supporting and prosecuting an unjust war.

An obsession with American exceptionalism and the myth of its “Christian heritage” leads to perspectives that, while politically consistent, are entirely illogical and inconsistent with Christian faith. This leads to so many (as the writers say) “internal contradictions” in how Christians wear their politics:

  • Christians as a whole get far more worked up and emotionally involved in the “Easter” of America (today), more than the Easter for the Church.
  • “Pro-Life” individuals tend to support capital punishment, be rabid war-hawks, and advocate for shrinking Medicare and welfare spending.
  • Those in favor of supporting and protecting the “weakest of these” in society through social programs freely pursue the complete dissolution of any regulations or limits to protect those with literally no means of protecting or speaking for themselves.
  • A belief in Original Sin apparently only applies to Big Government and not Big Corporate.
  • The more religious tend not to support labor unions, although it was Catholics, and their distrust of power that led the charge for collective bargaining rights.
  • We can trust the government with infinite war-making and surveillance powers, but we can’t trust them with protecting the most vulnerable in society.
  • Speaking truth to power is no longer a virtue we admire, but “treason”.
  • If a budget is a reflection of one’s priorities, then our “Christian Nation” believes that the ability to make war is exponentially more important than any of its other functions.
  • Those that want to “protect traditional marriage” have higher divorce rates.
  • American Christians usually tend to put absolute trust in individual conscience over and above collective and societal conscience (the Democratically-elected government), thinking that the exercise of the latter is always to the detriment of the former.

Look, America is great. It is precisely because of the actions taken on July 4th that I am able to write this post in a coffee-shop and then go to a cookout while not at all fearing any negative repercussions beyond that which I will find in the comment section below and on Facebook (and perhaps an NSA file, haha).

But, at the end of the day, our actions and our affections show what our higher allegiances are, and it seems to me that Americanism is alive and well today. Jesus did not talk and teach and live in any way that promotes the majority of what the American dream and myth promotes.

I fully believe that the government has the freedom and perhaps even the responsibility to do the things it does, including make war. I fully believe that its priorities are–and should be–different from the Church’s.

But that also means that the priorities of the Church should be different than the government’s. And when it’s not, that’s a problem.

Even while the government makes war and abuses the powerless, Christians should proclaim and live in a light of a different Kingdom. So as you enjoy your cookouts and fireworks today, enjoy them deeply and fully, but not because this is your right and freedom as an American, but rather as a Child of God.

[ image credit: photo by the writer’s patriotic father]

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6 thoughts on “Just a friendly reminder that “Americanism” is a heresy. Even today. (Happy 4th!)

  1. I think it is all about priorities, just like you have spoken of. If you are obeying the Greatest Commandment and following the Great Commission, then I think there is plenty of room for the sentiment of American exceptionalism. Indeed, America is exceptional, a place where we have the freedom to follow God’s commandments without fear of persecution without the fear of beheadings. At least for now.

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    • I don’t mean to America-hate, but America isn’t even close to the first, only, or best example of “freedom” in the world ever or now. We didn’t create it, nor are we the safeguards of it. The main thing they makes us “exceptional”, in my opinion, is how obsessed we are with thinking we are. Every empire in history has been that way.

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  2. Pingback: Make Amazing Poetry on Google & Your Bookshelf [casual fri] | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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