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Americanism and the Catholic Church


Americanism and the Catholic Church       Gerry OShea

The major conflict that rocked the Catholic community in the United States in the 1880s and 1890s was known as Americanism, and it resembles, in important ways, the current crisis in the church. The central issue in the 19th-century controversy dealt with the strained relationship between the Vatican and some top representatives of the Church in the United States—a conflict that also applies in our time.

Americanism is associated with Isaac Hecker, who was born in New York in 1819, the son of Protestant German immigrants. He converted to Catholicism and later trained for the priesthood with the Redemptorist order. A few years after ordination, with four other priests from the same group and with the pope’s approval, he founded a new religious order that became widely known and respected as Paulists, with headquarters, then and now, in Manhattan.

Hecker believed that the true Catholic ethos stressed the importance of community, enhancing the American emphasis on rugged individualism. He felt that the stress on democratic principles, freedom of religion, and the separation of church and state provided ideal building blocks for his vision of a mature Christian community.

A truly saintly man, he promoted the development of a distinctly American brand of religious sensitivity. A seeker throughout his life, Hecker’s spirituality emphasized the impact of the Holy Spirit in each person’s life experiences. He believed that the world would be transformed if people were more attentive to God’s spirit, and the Paulists focused on this approach to spiritual development.

Surely, such an emphasis would be applauded in all corners of the church. Not really!  In 1870 Pope Pius 1X, Pio Nono, declared that the pope was infallible in his pronouncements about faith and morals, which certainly minimized the importance of heavenly communications with anyone not occupying the chair of Peter.

 The message enunciated in every seminary and pulpit was summarized in the Latin dictum, Roma locuta est, causa finita est when Rome speaks on any religious subject, the case is closed.

This top-down method of exercising power fitted well with autocratic leaders in Europe, but America was experimenting with a more open approach to democratic decision-making. Archbishop John Ireland, head of the Diocese of St. Paul and a supporter of the Hecker approach to spiritual growth, wrote: “Let there be individual initiative, layman need not wait for priest, nor priest for bishop, nor bishop for pope.”

Needless to say, such ideas invited opposition among the traditionalists led by Archbishop Corrigan in New York and Bishop Bernard McQuaide in Rochester. For them, papal pronouncements should never be questioned, and any new church initiative must have the imprimatur of Rome.

Visiting France, Archbishop Ireland chided the local church for being too subservient to the Vatican. In highlighting the important wisdom emerging from democratic institutions, he declared that a major transition was already in progress, “The people are kings now.”

These views did not please the Roman curia, who were clear about where ecclesiastical power should reside. Shortly after the St. Paul leader returned from Paris, Francesco Satolli, an Italian archbishop, was appointed the first apostolic delegate to the United States with the clear mandate to stifle moves toward an American power center in the church.

 The U.S. hierarchy complained in vain that they weren’t even consulted about this appointment. They felt the sting of Italian supervision of their ecclesiastical work. Bishop James Ryan from Springfield, Illinois, described Satolli’s arrival as a “foreign intrusion.”

Hecker’s opinions about Catholicism as a religion of truth seekers conflicted with the majority European view, which promulgated that the Roman church was the sole repository of all religious truth.

The French bishops, strongly attached to traditional beliefs and practices at the time, condemned what they called Americanism, accused Fr. Hecker of flirting with heresy, and called on the pope, Leo X111, to restore proper order.

He responded with an encyclical affirming the traditionalists which bemoans the underlying American belief “that the Church should shape her teaching more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of the ancient severity and make concessions to new opinions.”

The bottom line was that Leo was stuck in narrow Eurocentrism. He couldn’t get his head around cultural differences to present the church as responding to the people’s needs all over the world. Rome still had little appreciation of the importance of the growing movement towards democratic government.

This debate provided a central theme of the Second Vatican Council, which Pope John XX111 called in the 1960s. The Council declared that the sensus fidelium, the beliefs of the people, should be central to understanding any theological question because the Spirit moves where it will and can never be limited by time or place. Isaac Hecker would unhesitatingly agree with this sentiment.

Today, there is real tension between the Vatican and the church in Europe for very different reasons than applied in Pope Leo’s time. Now, the churches in that continent, especially the Germans, call for radical modernizing changes, including, for instance, recognition of full rights for gay and transgender people, while the curia in the Vatican are still preaching about inherently evil sexual behavior based on outmoded scientific premises.

Francis’ Synodal Path, which, explicitly, draws on the wisdom of all church members and stresses the importance of the mysterious universal promptings of the Spirit, would certainly please Isaac Hecker, who was convinced that this was missing in his time when only papal insights were valued.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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