Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Origins of Radical Catholicism XVIII: American Fuel on a French Fire, part 2

The proverbial spit hit the fan in 1897 when the Abbé Felix Klein published (at the urging of the Count de Chambrol, the leader of France’s néo-chrétien movement) a French translation of an American book, The Life of Father Hecker by Father Walter Elliott of the Congregation of Saint Paul the Apostle, commonly known as the Paulists.  The Paulists are a congregation of priests founded by Issac Thomas Hecker.  Hecker was born and raised Protestant in New York City and he converted to Catholicism at age 25.  He entered the Redemptorist Order—at that time a predominately German society that had established itself in the United States to serve the German immigrant communities and to evangelize Protestants in an effort to convert them to Catholicism.  Among the early American Redemptorists, indeed the superior of the Redemptorists in America when Hecker was ordained, was Czech-born Saint John Neumann.   Neumann is a saint, but Hecker and other American Redemptorists found their congregation’s methods too “old school,” that is European, and so they withdrew (not without some underhanded opposition) and with the permission of the Holy See established a new congregation, The Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle. 
The issues that drove them to establish this new society were several, but two of them are particularly worth noting.  The first is that they had a significantly different approach to Protestantism than the Redemptorists (of the time) and other European Catholics.  Instead of seeing Protestants as being in blind error and heresy, they believed that the various denominations and sects that directly or indirectly dated back to the Reformation had in fact preserved much Catholic Truth and were Catholicism to be presented to Protestant audiences as a fulfilment of what they already believed and treasured many Protestants would become Catholics.  Indeed, the (comparatively) vast numbers of Protestants—Anglican/Episcopalians in particular—who had become Catholics during the Oxford Movement and Romantic Revival of the nineteenth century bore this out. Many of these converts saw themselves recovering their own ancient heritage rather than renouncing heresies.  Unfortunately this positivist approach did not correspond to the Roman view of Reformation history.  An Italian priest, the Canon Salvatore di Bartolo had written The Criterions of Catholic Truth making just this point that Catholicism and Protestantism shared much common tradition and faith.  DiBartolo’s book was condemned by the Holy Office of Roman Inquisition in 1891.   At the time of Hecker and the Paulists, however, Rome was not giving what was happening in America much consideration.  Di Bartolo and his ideas had to be condemned; Hecker and his ideas—well America and its Catholicism were more of a phantasm for the Roman Curia than a nation, a culture, and a Church to be taken seriously. That would soon change however and Rome would sound the fire alarm about American style Catholicism. 
 The second point was, strictly speaking, not a matter of doctrine but of discipline—though with doctrinal overtones (as we shall see).  Hecker and his fellow Paulists did not choose to have their congregation take the traditional vows of religion.   Their society was more interested in its mission than its structure: structure was to serve mission.  But the Church was not prepared for this innovation.  Again, Hecker and his followers were in America and little of what happened in America preoccupied the Roman officials (o for those golden halcyon days  to return!) but should those ideas come to Europe...  Well, then they would have to be stamped out.
Well, those ideas did come to Europe and it rang the Vatican fire-bell for the American Church.    In 1897 a French translation of Elliott’s Life of Father Hecker was published and the French translation proved to be every bit more popular than the original had been in America.  Part of this was the French edition  was, like the upcoming liturgical revisions, not an honest translation.  No translation ever is.  Tradure est tradere.  To translate is to betray.  Klein and his buddies were of the French Liberal tradition that supported the Third French Republic and Republicanism in particular.  They believed that the Church should adapt itself to the modern world and La Vie du Pére Hecker was a medium for their message.  Here we have a rapprochement with Protestantism and the incipient ecumenicalism that implies; we see that religious vows are passé, the mission of the Church demands an activism—the contemplative life and virtues are out of step.  We have Republicanism and the idealization of the Democratic.  And we have Roman officials having apoplectic seizures all over the corridors of the Apostolic Palace.  
Americans are no good at languages.  (Those who speak three languages are tri-lingual; two languages are bi-lingual; one Language, American.)  The Italians, on the other hand, are marvellous at every language but one—English.  Most Italians are polyglots—they might speak Chinese, Arabic, and Swahili, but few ever get English.  (This is in part the problem with this new liturgical translation that is coming out for our use this autumn.  Most of the Roman officials lack the ability to know what a faithful English translation is and confuse literalism for accuracy.  Dio mio!)  The Hecker biography drew no attention until it was published in a language the Curia could read—Klein’s French edition.  But that French edition was not a faithful translation of the English original—it was deliberately skewed to support the bias of the French liberals.  Yet there is nothing like a good fire drill and the Klein translation had everybody from the pope on down the lowliest housemaid-nun running up the scala santa through the Vatican corridors and down the scala regia screaming fuoco! fuoco!  (yes, I know the scala santa is not in the Vatican but over near San Giovanni in Laterano, but let’s just pretend for the sake of the imagery.)   Of course the idea wasn’t to put out a fire but to start one—for burning the Americans at the stake. 
The image today is Father Hecker, founder of the Paulists, the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, 
There probably won"t be an entry tommorow.  Lent is a time that i seem to be up to my neck in lectures and workshops--but i will do my best to have an entry for you on Monday    Buona Dominica a tutti. 

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