In the nineteenth century Catholics in the United States suffered from a double sense of inferiority with respect to the larger culture. Alienated from some of the most characteristic features of modernity itself, such as materialism, they were also alienated from the predominantly Protestant culture of their own country. The great majority of Catholics were immigrants, often accused of disloyalty to their adopted country and told in effect that they could live in America only if they adapted to the prevailing Protestantism.
Most Catholics experienced no conflict between their religion and their country, and eventually many of those tensions were resolved. However, in the last two decades of the century some American Catholic leaders made strenuous attempts to develop an American kind of Catholicism which they thought would be suited to the New World.
The exact nature of this "Americanism" remained elusive. A few people advocated a vernacular liturgy, or that nuns abandon their distinctive habits, but those ideas were insignificant at the time. More substantial was an encouragement to what would later be called ecumenism -- entering into dialogue with Protestants in a respectful and attentive way, without compromising one's own beliefs.
Less clearly, albeit intended to be most important, some Americanizers urged an adaptation of Catholicism to the "spirit" of America, which included, for example, an emphasis on the active virtues over the contemplative life and a celebration of American democracy, especially separation of church and state.
The Americanist leaders were mainly bishops, notably Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria (Ill.), and Bishop John J. Keane of Richmond and of the Catholic University of America. In their speeches and writings they articulated this view of the Church and often gave the impression that they regarded the Catholicism of Europe as itself flawed and inferior, because it did not conform to the American model.
The first American religious community for men were the Paulists, founded by a convert named Isaac Hecker. One of his priests wrote Hecker's biography, and a French translation of the book claimed to identify the salient progressive features of American Catholicism. This prompted an investigation by the Vatican, which had already received certain disquieting reports from the United States. In 1899, Leo XIII issued Testem Benevolentiae ("Witness of Good Will"), an encyclical diplomatically warning American Catholics not to fall into the trap of exalting their own culture at the expense of the universal Church, and affirming things (contemplative religious life) which the pope thought had been slighted in America. He also warned that, although the American political system was valid for the United States, it should not be taken as a system which had to be emulated everywhere.
Americanism has been called "the phantom heresy," on the grounds that the things condemned by Leo XIII scarcely existed. Certainly it was in no sense a real heresy, not least because it never rose to the level of formal doctrine. But the pope had noticed certain ways in which the Americanist leaders were uncritically enthusiastic about their country and insufficiently respectful of aspects of Catholicism which they dismissed as outmoded. (At the new Catholic University, for example, Bishop Keane insisted that little emphasis be placed on the study of the Middle Ages.)
Although Archbishop Ireland once offered Alfred Loisy a professorship in the St. Paul seminary, the Americanist leaders had little knowledge of the doctrinal issues at stake in Modernism. When several of them visited France in 1905, Loisy was disappointed that they did not seem interested in the deep issues which exercised him.
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