Sunday, April 10, 2011

Origins of Radical Catholicism XXIII: Americanism, fact or fiction?

Was there in fact such a thing as Americanism—a “heresy” within the Church that subverted key Catholic doctrines—or, was “Americanism” something that existed only in the mind of those Roman officials who had read Felix Klein’s book, La Vie du Pére Hecker, and found themselves panicked and angered by the values Klein promoted but attributed to Hecker and other American religious thinkers?
Liberals—the intellectual or political descendents of Ireland, Gibbons, O’Connell, Keane and others—tend to deny the charge and claim that they stand in a tradition going back to Bishop John Carroll and his vision for the Catholic Church in the new American Republic.  They claim that while the American and Americanist worldview differed from that of European churchmen, they were orthodox in matters of doctrine and faithful in matters of ecclesiastical discipline.  Conservatives on the other hand—not only the heirs of Corrigan and the Germans, but the Roman Church of the Latter-Day Saints who in these post-Vatican II day rally around such Apostles and Prophets as Raymond Arroyo, “Father Z.”, Joseph Fessio, the Hitchcocks, et al see their foes as a modern day reincarnation of the old American liberal troublemakers and pray that Timothy Dolan won’t go the way of Joseph Bernadin and Roger Mahoney and channel the shades of Cardinal Gibbons or John Ireland.  So who is right?  Were Gibbons and crowd within our without the pale of orthodoxy?    
In its historical context, there certainly was such a thing as “Americanism” though I hesitate to call it a heresy.  It certainly was perceived as a heresy—and I believe that given its place in time it was correctly perceived as one.  There was an ecumenical espirit that contradicted Catholic doctrine as it was held in the 19th century, although it would look pretty tame compared to official Church positions in this age of the Assisi Encounters and the post-conciliar popes welcoming religious leaders of every stripe at the Vatican.  The idea of the separation of Church and State—and indeed republicanism itself—was contrary to Catholic political theology of the late nineteenth century.  A third valid point (valid for the time and I think still valid today) is that America (whether Catholic or Protestant) then—and now—and always—has overvalued the active virtues and minimalized the interior or contemplative life.  I think too we did and still do place too much emphasis on individual inspiration rather than submission to the common faith and we permit individual inspiration to outweigh, not traditions, but Tradition.   On the other hand, I don’t think it bad—to the contrary I think it healthy—that America has some views that balance the Roman mentality.  I think the Catholic, i.e. universal, Church needs to draw its insights from the many sources of grace where the Spirit flows and not just from Rome’s tired old reservoir.  I think that perhaps what Rome fears from the American Church is that it does seem in these last few decades that a lot of people in Rome itself and around the Church are gradually succumbing to American ideas and values.  It wasn’t just that Paul VI got rid of the monarchical trappings of cardinal’s costumes with their long trains of scarlet silk (though some are trying to bring them back, most notably the American peacock, Raymond Burke) and it has been ages since some old bag with more money than God has been made a Papal Duchess, but that the Vatican has become a business with pricey gift-shops in the museums and a bank that hums with activity as nuns and abbots line up with librarians and bakers to make their deposits and withdrawals.  (If only someone would teach them about bank-cheques all our lives could be easier.)   Not everything American is good, but Americans are efficient and the Italians are not; I think the Church could stand some efficiency in administration.  The downside is that today’s Vatican is as secular as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the government of Belgium. Romans, Americans, the French, the Chinese, the Kenyans—we live in a modern world and the powers that be in the Church need to make peace with that fact.  I am not saying that modernization is good or it’s bad, only pointing out that there is a significant paradigm shift and the Church must accommodate itself to it. 
What the late nineteenth-century Americanists wanted the Church to do was—and it was one of the things condemned by Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors—was to make peace with the world in which it exists and not constantly bemoan the good old days when the world was run to suit the Church—and Churchmen.  That day is over and it won’t be coming back.  The Church needs to look for new models—paradigms of existence—that fit the reality of time and place.  Despite its somewhat whitewashed official histories, the Church was not always a Monarchy of Divine Right.  There even was a time, perhaps several times, when the Church understood it had come to serve the needs of sick, the poor, the disenfranchised—rather than to be served by rich and poor alike.   Maybe that time will come again.  I don’t think Gibbons necessarily saw the Church as a servant to the world, and Ireland, despite his liberal ideas, was as autocratic as any French King—but the Americanists did challenge the model of Church where all power came allegedly from God and then from those who were the Lord’s anointed down.  They pointed out that in addition to the Institution, the Church consisted of the poor and suffering who need the Church’s protection and help.  They refocused the vision—not the narcissistic vision of a Church that gazed in the mirror at its own bedazzling image—but the vision which Jesus outlined when he said he came to bring good news to the poor and to announce a year of God’s favour to all.  The Americans would not be the ones to get his message across to the contemporary world.  At Vatican II it would be the Europeans themselves who declaimed the fascination of the Church with clericalism, juridicism, and triumphalism.  But the Americans played a role in the late nineteenth century that would bear great fruit in the middle of the twentieth.    
The image today is the interior of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC

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