Sorry that there was no entry yesterday—those days do happen when it is just impossible to find the time to do everything and those days are going to happen a couple of times a week, at least, on this blog. But today I want to look at a heresy. It is questionable whether “Americanism” existed (or exists) except in the mind of those who read La Vie du Pére Hecker. It is not questionable that there was a group of thinkers at odds with the Roman authority in what is called “Modernism.”
There was an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries called The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment presumed that everything that had come before was somehow benighted and the rising intellectual climate of their own time, thanks to their own infallible intelligence, brought the world back to the light it had known in the classical era. Intellectual arrogance is perennial and every generation thinks it knows so much more than the preceding—this is nothing new. Of course, the era between the classical era (Greece and Rome) and the 17th century was the Christian—and specifically Catholic—era. “Enlightened” minds were contemptuous of the medieval ages—the “Gothic” (synonym for barbarian) period. One example of this bias is Edward Gibbon, author of the famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who had seen Christianity weakening the vibrancy of the old Roman world. Again, we all have our biases—for and against—and Gibbon just happened to see Christianity (and the Catholic Church in particular) as the bête noire of civilization. America had its enlightenment voices—strong among our Founding Fathers—Franklin and Jefferson being two prominent voices, but certainly most of the founders of our Republic, including Washington, were admirers of Enlightenment thought. Indeed one can even see traces of Enlightenment influence among the Carrolls and other colonial Catholics. The Enlightenment wasn’t all wrong by any means. We can talk about that in a future entry.
The Enlightenment critique that the “objective” sciences can be used to critique religious faith or other “subjective” institutions and movements passed into rational Protestantism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. Religion in general and biblical scholarship in particular began to be looked at from knowledge of history, linguistics, anthropology, and other established disciplines. Today we would call this interdisciplinary studies and not (or at least for the most part not) have a problem with it. But in the nineteenth century liberal Protestantism began to shake the tree of Christian doctrine. If Moses wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) as tradition has maintained, how can it include the story of his death? Why is the story of the Virgin Birth in Luke like so many stories in classical pagan mythology? Why does the Gospel of Mark have two endings, one leaving the empty tomb more a mystery—or even a question—than an article of faith? People began questioning biblical inerrancy and then biblical doctrines. The arguments boiled over from scripture into Philosophical theology—what does it mean when we say Jesus is Divine? The work of Immanuel Kant in the Enlightenment had shaken confidence in the old philosophical traditions beneath both Catholicism and Protestantism and Protestant theologians began doing some heavy duty reworking of Christian doctrines to bring them into accord with reason, but which also shook the faith of many. The tear in society between the religious and the secular began to be increasingly evident. Empowered by “Reason” many people began to turn away from religion as a relic of an earlier and superstitious age. And, of course, reason is the foundation (though a weak and mistaken one) on which democracy rests. Reason tells us that authority, if it comes from God, comes through the collective wisdom of the people and not directly to the rulers. (This sort of thinking is precisely what had led to the French Revolution—as well as the American Republic.)
Well this sort of liberal thinking might be allowed for in Prussia and the Protestant kingdoms of Northern Europe, the popes of the nineteenth century had long known that such ideas would spell only trouble—politically and religiously—for Rome. Gregory XVI went so far as to ban those new-fangled railroads from the Papal States. Pius IX issued my favourite warning, condemning as error the idea that : “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization” (In other words—just to be perfectly clear: The Roman Pontiff cannot, and ought not to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.) This would lay the groundwork for Leo XIII and Pius X to condemn these “modern” ideas that might undermine both authority and doctrine within the Church. more next blog. The image today is Gregory XVI, the pope who didn't like railroads.