Americanism: Then and Now

Author: Russell Shaw


The Vatican spoke out authoritatively almost a century ago, but the lessons drawn from the American experience remain crucial for the Church today.

by Russell Shaw

One hardly expects the 95th anniversary of a Church document to command a great deal of attention around the world-or even within the Church, for that matter-when almost no one reads the document in question these days. Still, when the 95th anniversary of rolled around early last year, it probably deserved better than the near total silence it received.

An apostolic letter addressed by Pope Leo XIII to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and dated January 22, 1899, is the papal document that condemned "Americanism." Today the Americanist impulse reigns supreme in American Catholicism. That is not a bad career record for what has been called a "phantom heresy."

To be fair, the Americanists of the 19th century-men like Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists; Orestes Brownson, the convert journalist and social critic who lies buried in the chapel crypt at the University of Notre Dame; and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota-had no inkling of what would happen. They dreamed of evangelizing American culture, even as they faced the challenge of defending their Church against the slur that Catholicism could only be an alien force in a democratic, pluralistic society.

As I write, I have before me a vivid illustration of the problem: a Thomas Nast cartoon from the February 19, 1870 . Now framed and hung in my office, it was given to me by a friend in return for one of my books; both-cartoon and book-are entitled "Church and State."

Nast was a brilliant cartoonist with a virulent antiCatholic streak, and this is a fine example of his work in that vein. The cartoon has two panels. In the upper panel, Pope Pius X sags disconsolately in the arms of mitred clerics while Liberty tears a scroll whose two halves bear the legends "Church" and "State." Looking on approvingly are the European political leaders of the day, such as Queen Victoria, Bismarck. In the lower panel, set in the US, a beaming Pius X blesses a crone who is busily stitching "Church" and "State" back together; Liberty in manacles glowers from a pillar emblazoned "Fraudulent Votes" while an ugly lout with Irish features mocks her plight. In the background a chubby priest gloats over a sack labeled "Public School Money."

No wonder the Americanists of those days, confronting anti-Catholic propagandizing like this, felt impelled to assert the compatibility of their faith and their citizenship. They had no way to anticipate the profoundly different problem Catholics in the United States would face by the latter years of the 20th century: not exclusion from the surrounding secular culture but radical absorption by it, so that the distinctively Catholic character of American Catholicism would be in danger of disappearing.

What is Americanism?

"There's not a dime's worth of difference between Catholics and their fellow Americans now in moral outlook or religious practice. We fornicate at the same rate. We divorce at the same rate. We abort our children at the same rate. We are materially rich and so, in true chauvinistic fashion, we claim favored-nation status before the Lord." That unflattering judgment appears in a recent article on Americanism by Father Rory Conley, a Washington, DC priest and student of Church history. Writing in (winter 1993), he calls what has happened "the triumph of Americanism over the Roman Catholic Church in this country."

One cannot lay all the blame at the door of Americanism, of course, but its contribution should not be ignored. It is worth taking a look back at the Americanist controversy for the light it sheds on how we arrived where we are. Begin, then, with Pope Leo's apostolic letter .

Most immediately, the papal document is concerned with certain currents of thought in the French Catholicism of its day, rather than with the United States. The occasion for issuing it was a French translation and condensation of an American Paulist priest's , especially the preface written by a lecturer at the Institut Catholique, Abbe Felix Klein. Published in 1896, the book went into six printings in a matter of months, and touched off heated controversy. Viewing Hecker as an exemplary priest for the times, Klein argued that the Church should play down some elements of the deposit of faith while adapting herself to the circumstances of an advanced civilization. Pope Leo, working from a report by a committee of cardinals, condemned these and other views without attributing them to anyone. In doing so, he made it clear that he was not criticizing "the characteristic qualities which reflect honor on the people of America."

Is that all there is to ? Indeed not. For years before 1899 a serious "Americanist" controversy had been underway among Catholics in the United States. It provided the background for the events in France, and for Pope Leo's authoritative response.

For a long time, the tendency among Church historians was to pooh-pooh this view of the matter. Thomas T. McAvoy, CSC, in The Great CYESSS in American Catholic History 1895-1900, shows an instance of this tendency. His argument was that, in the United States at least, Americanism either hardly existed or, if it did exist was nothing to cause concern. As far as the Church in this country was concerned, Pope Leo needn't have worried.

More recently, however, the pendulum of historical opinion has swung back the other way, so that American Catholic "Americanism" has come to be seen as something both real and serious. Father Conley, for example, identifies four central Americanist tenets:

* that the world was in an era of radical change (as indeed it was then, and still is today);

* that America was at the cutting edge of change-indeed, was the very embodiment of the future (which was also true, and very likely still is true, although no one can say how long it will remain the case);

* that the Catholic Church was obliged to change with the times (a proposition which may be either true or false, depending on what specific content one gives to that statement); and

* that the Church in America-or, as is now often said, the "American Church"-had a divine mission to point the way to the Church everywhere else, and particularly to "Rome" (which contains an element of truth, but suffers from a fatal arrogance as well as from a failure to comprehend the divine constitution of the Church).

A corollary, perhaps, can be glimpsed in the exasperation seething just below the surface in a writer like Brownson at the thought that support for the pope's embattled temporal claims to the Papal States was a relevant test of Catholic loyalty in the United States.

Catholicism and the American experience

There is, however, a central fifth tenet fundamental to the Americanist point of view: a belief in the intrinsic compatibility between Catholicism and American culture. Archbishop Ireland expressed the idea in beguilingly simplistic terms in 1884: "The choicest field which providence offers in the world today to the occupancy of the Church is this republic, and she welcomes with delight the signs of the times that indicate a glorious future for her beneath the starry banner." And in a remarkable address to a French audience in 1892, seven years before the promulgation of , Ireland declared:

The future of the Catholic Church in America is bright and encouraging. To people of other countries, American Catholicism presents features which seem unusual; these features are the result of the freedom which our civil and political institutions give us; but in devotion to Catholic principles, and in loyalty to the successor of Peter, American Catholics yield to none.... Besides, those who differ from us in faith have no distrust of Catholic bishops and priests. Why should they? By word and act we prove that we are patriots of patriots. Our hearts always beat with love for the republic. Our tongues are always eloquent in celebrating her praises. Our hands are always uplifted to bless her banners and her soldiers. This is as naive as it is sincere. In the middle years of this century, by contrast, John Courtney Murray, SJ, polished the Americanizers' intuitions to a sophisticated high gloss. The Catholic Church, he argued, was not simply comfortable in America; properly understood, the American tradition and the Catholic tradition were very nearly one and the same. In his celebrated and enormously influential book (1960), Murray wrote of the "evident coincidence of the principles which inspired the American Republic with the principles which are structural to the Western Christian political tradition"-principles which, he contended, find their fullest expression in the Catholic natural-law tradition.

John Courtney Murray died in 1967. He lived long enough to see the leading edge of the cultural revolution of that era, but not the full collapse into secularized barbarism that followed. That may have been his good fortune, but it raises unavoidable questions about his relevance today. Murray correctly argued the compatibility of Catholicism and the American system at a time when they were compatible. What of the nearly three decades since then? What of the situation now?

Kennedy in Houston

To Murray's credit, he anticipated the onset of the deluge and attempted to project his analysis into the radically changed cultural circumstances that only fully emerged after his death. In 1962 he wrote:

If this country is to be overthrown from within or without, I would suggest that it will not be overthrown by Communism. It will be overthrown because it will have made an impossible experiment. It will have undertaken to establish a technological order of most marvelous intricacy, which will have been constructed and will operate without relations to true political ends: and this technological order will hang, as it were, suspended over a moral confusion; and this moral confusion will itself be suspended over a spiritual vacuum.

For something written more than three decades ago, this is a remarkably apt description of America in 1995. The struggle now, as Murray foresaw, is for the very soul of America. Murray's intellectual heirs among contemporary Catholic neoconservatives continue to argue the fundamental compatibility in principle between the American system and the Catholic natural-law tradition. As a practical matter they are right to make that argument, for unless their position is correct and, even more to the point, unless it can be vindicated against powerful forces of post-modern disintegration, the likely future of the United States and its culturally assimilated Catholics is an increasingly deadly moral chaos.

Just as John Courtney Murray provided the definitive intellectual rationale for the Americanizers' vision of Catholic and American compatibility, so the election of John E. Kennedy as president in 1960 supplied the definitive affirmation of the same insight on the political and symbolic levels. That also is significant. Crucial to Kennedy's victory was his famous speech in Houston to an audience of suspicious Protestant ministers-a speech promising that he would not allow religious allegiance to override his duties as president and that, in the event of irresolvable conflict between the two, he would resign. Whatever Kennedy and his theological speech-writers (the Catholic journalist, later an Episcopalian priest, John Cogley, is said to have been the principal author) were thinking of, the door was thereby opened to a generation of Catholic politicians who soon would troop through proclaiming themselves "personally opposed" to abortion (as their religious affiliation required them to be) but no less opposed to "imposing their morality" on others by law and public policy.

Archbishops, theologians, and presidents are, in the nature of things, not your typical men in the street. So one might ask: Are the shifting currents of Americanism reflected in the everyday world of grassroots Catholicism? Have ordinary American Catholics wrestled-and do they now wrestle-with what it means to be both Catholic and American? Indeed they have, and indeed they do.

A case study

Consider the Knights of Columbus. Disclosure is required here. I work for the K of C. My purpose, however, is not to sing the praises of the organization, but to use the Knights to illustrate the tensions at work in this still-unfolding tale. Even within the Church the Knights of Columbus often are taken for granted, and that is a mistake bred of elitism. With 1.2 million members in the United States, this organization of American origin occupies a position of great importance in Catholic life. More than any other Church institution (with the possible exception of the parochial school), it is a distinctive expression of American Catholicism-one that tells much about the Church in this country. The Knights of Columbus were founded in 1882 in New Haven, Connecticut, by a young Irish-American priest, Father Michael J. McGivney, and a group of Irish-American laymen. Their choice of Columbus as patron was a true indicator of their intentions: a conscious symbolic affirmation of the compatibility of Catholicism and Americanism. Hadn't the Catholic Columbus arrived here in America first, well over a century before the (Protestant) Puritans reached Plymouth Rock? By putting the focus on the symbol of Columbus, argues historian Christopher J. Kauffman in his history of the K of C, Faith and Fraternalism, "this small group of New Haven Irish-American Catholics displayed their pride in America's Catholic heritage. The name Columbus evoked the aura of Catholicity and affirmed the discovery of America as a Catholic event."

In the years that followed, the Knights not only remained true to their original inspiration-the vision of their Church and their country forever linked-but the organization also functioned, practically speaking, as a powerful engine for the assimilation of several generations of Catholic immigrants into American culture. Irishmen, Germans, Poles, Italians, Slovaks-all became American as well as Catholic partly through the good offices of the K of C. Writes Kauffman:

From its origins to World War I, the Order's goals were most visibly expressed in its assertion of the social legitimacy and patriotic loyalty of Catholic immigrants [a striking instance of that is the Knights' "patriotic" Fourth Degree]. By accepting-indeed, extolling-the religious and ethnic pluralism of American society, by portraying Catholic citizenship as the highest form of American citizenship, by promoting American- Catholic culture...and by expressing a firm belief that the American Catholic experience has had a transforming effect upon Catholicism and upon American society, the Knights generally reflected the optimism characteristic of several ecclesiastical leaders associated with the "Americanist" posture in American Catholicism.

If the Knights' role in fostering the assimilation of Catholic immigrants diminished after the First World War, that was because Catholic immigration also diminished, thanks to changes in immigration law inspired (at least in part) by the nativist sentiment of the times. The basic affirmation-Catholicism and America are compatible- remained strong, so that in 1960 the Knights of Columbus took rich satisfaction from the fact that John E. Kennedy was a Fourth-Degree Knight.

A shift toward the counterculture

As the cultural revolution of the 1960s set in and progressed, however, the Knights' situation began to change. The change can be traced to-among other sources-the rhetoric of John W. McDevitt, Supreme Knight of the K of C in those years. McDevitt, who died last December at the age of 87, headed the organization from 1964 to 1977-by anyone's standards a stressful period in secular and ecclesiastical history. One measure of the times can be found in the increasingly negative tone of McDevitt's public comments about the Church's enemies within and without.

Responding in 1968 to the question, "Are the Knights progressive or conservative?" McDevitt argued that they were both: progressive on matters of social policy, "conservative in our reaction to those who lobby for causes which would rob our country of its ties to Judeo-Christian morality."

The inroads of secular humanism became a frequent McDevitt theme. In 1976, in one of his last major addresses as Supreme Knight, he lashed out at the Supreme Court as a source of much of the trouble. "Contrary to the original intent of a benign tolerance of all religions," he said, "the current court philosophy has forced government to take a position of negative neutrality on all religion." As a result, "we do have an established religion...the religion of irreligion-secular humanism, established and decreed by the courts." We have come a long way here from John Ireland's "glorious future... beneath the starry banner."

Whether one agrees or disagrees with McDevitt's analysis, no one familiar with the K of C doubts that it was widely shared at the time, and remains so today. As the secularization of American culture has proceeded in the last three decades, and as the assimilation of American Catholics into that increasingly secularized culture has not only continued but apparently speeded up, the Knights of Columbus-this grassroots, mainstream organization of ordinary American laymen-has grown more and more countercultural in principles and beliefs. While any given local council of the K of C may successfully avoid controversy, the organization's national leadership has taken an increasingly clear stand.

Illustrations abound: the organization's official, explicit, unapologetic, and repeated support for ; its endorsement of natural family planning, backed by annual subsidies for the NFP programs of the bishops in the United States and several other countries; its opposition to abortion and support for the pro-life movement, again backed up by heavy expenditures for its own programs as well as those of the bishops; its "Catholic Advertising" program aimed at winning converts to the Church in an era when the effort to win converts is sometimes viewed askance; its unblushing encouragement of traditional Catholic spirituality (the Rosary and other Marian devotions, the sacrament of penance); its continued emphasis on vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Especially noteworthy in the present context is the overtly Roman orientation of the Knights, which found its dual symbol in the 1980s when the K of C paid for the renovation of the facade of St. Peter's basilica.

The end of assimilation

Not all individual Knights of Columbus share the convictions and commitments of the organization's leadership; no group the size of the K of C enjoys uniformity like that. But these are the policies, the programs, and the principles of the Knights as a collective entity. Born in the late 19th century as a grassroots expression of the American Catholicism of that day, the K of C now is arguably the most strongly Roman Catholic institution of its size in the Church in the United States. Kauffman concludes his history with the observation: "Still grounded in a strong pride in the Catholic heritage of North America, Columbianism developed into a conscious cultivation of traditional Catholic loyalties to authority and of Catholic social and moral values in a society characterized by the decline of tradition." Having served for decades as a powerful force for cultural assimilation, the K of C now helps slow down what could otherwise be the terminal assimilation of American Catholics-their absorption to the vanishing point by the secular culture that surrounds and threatens to overwhelm them.

Plainly, the Knights of Columbus alone will not save the Catholic community in the United States from that fate. It remains to be seen whether anything will. Here and there, one sees signs of hope, especially in the increasing talk (if not yet action) regarding "Catholic identity." But the "American Church" is now dominant-so that, for example, the attenuated religious identity of those colleges that formerly called themselves "Catholic" and now tellingly call themselves colleges "in the Catholic tradition" occupies the mainstream albeit a mainstream in visible decline-of institutional Catholicism in the United States today.

For Catholics who regard this as a profoundly unhealthy state of affairs, there is an obvious conclusion. Roman Catholics in the United States must urgently explore the range of options open to them for practicing creative counterculturalism. Obvious models exist. These range from the Amish (separatism, flight-the deliberate effort to escape a corrupt and corrupting secular culture and raise walls against it) to the model of the Christian Coalition (aggressive engagement, in hopes of besting the adversary culture with political weapons). Does either model appeal to Roman Catholics of the United States? Is there some Catholic third way? Without panic, but in clear-eyed recognition of our parlous state, we need to begin talking about these things. If the Catholic Church in the United States means to survive, Americanism must finally- nearly a century after undertook to do the job be laid to rest. What comes next?

Russell Shaw, a veteran journalist, is director of public information for the Knights of Columbus, based in Washington, DC.

This article appeared in the May 1995 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061. Published monthly except bimonthly August/September at $39.95 per year.