We have seen that Roman officials had become quite sour on the state of the Church in America. Actually, they had long ignored the American Church and their indifference had unintentionally morphed into a benign neglect. It was only about the time of the American Civil war or shortly thereafter that Rome took any active interest in what was happening in the Church in the United States (Gregory XVI’s condemnation of slavery and the slave trade with his Bull: In Supremo Apostolatus, had not been directed towards America in particular (though it met with mixed reaction by American Catholics) but towards the many nations that practiced slavery and/or were involved in the slave Trade. Communication between Europe and North America was revolutionized by the Atlantic cable, permitting almost instantaneous exchanges of messages that had, up to that point, taken approximately three months to go back and forth across the ocean. The revolution in ship building that substituted the steamship for the sailing vessel also cut the time for an actual letter to pass between Rome and the States by three quarters and even more. Also to be considered is that with steamships came commodious travel and the number of Americans travelling abroad or the ease with which official papal representatives and unofficial Roman scouts could visit the States all revolutionized the relationship which Europe in general and Rome in particular developed with the American Republic.
Rome was not ready for shock which its encounter with American religious culture sent through the Vatican curial oligarchy. Separation of Church and State violated Catholic political doctrine. Monks running schools and parishes rather than spending their days in choral prayer and theological study was a deep break in tradition. Nuns abandoning the cloister for the classroom or the hospital was even more revolutionary—and the battlefield nursing nuns were absolute scandal—who was watching over their virtue and enforcing their discipline? Catholic clergy associating with their Protestant counterparts was a serious violation not only of canon law but of Catholic doctrine. Clergy wearing anything other than their cassocks or religious habits smacked of Protestant, or even secularist, influence. The Americans just were not doing things the way that they were to be done!
La Vie du Pére Hecker put the final nail in the American coffin. Few, if any, Roman officials had read The Life of Father Hecker by Walter Elliott, a book in which Elliott wrote the biography of Issac Hecker, founder of the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, popularly known as the Paulists. But a French translation by the Abbé Felix Klein sent Rome into a full-scale panic attack. Klein had translated Elliott’s work with a bias towards the liberal ideology that was tearing the French Church into a liberal and conservative faction. This French book set off a reaction in Rome that ended in January 1899 with Pope Leo XIII writing an encyclical to the American Church entitled Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae: A Witness to Our Good Will. It had a positive name—affirming the Pope’s good will to the Church in the United States—but it was more a severe admonishing of the American Church—or at least the American Church as seen by the Abbé Klein. This is one of the questions that historians ask: Did “Americanism” exist anywhere except in the mind of those who read a French book? Was Leo’s concern valid?
What was it that Leo condemned? Here are the principle points.
1. American particularism: Leo was concerned that the American Church saw itself as an unique situation that freed it from traditional Catholic doctrine and practice
2. American individualism: Leo saw the Americans as being too inclined to think individually rather than to submit to the corporate wisdom. In other words, the Pope thought Americans saw the supremacy of the individual conscience over the faith of the community (which he would have expressed as “The Teaching of the Church.”
3. American selectivism: That the authority of the Church is not limited to its infallible pronouncements but must be accepted in toto.
4. American Ecumenism: Leo thought that the American Catholics were not sufficiently distant from their Protestant neighbors and rejected the ideas of collaboration with non-Catholics, maintaining the idea that while individual Protestants may be in error but in good faith, Protestantism itself was inherently erroneous and has nothing to offer the Catholic Church.
5. American secularism libertarianism: Leo saw the fundamental American principle of the Separation of Church and State as contrary to Catholic Doctrine which at that time held that the State had the obligation to support the Catholic Church and its worship while suppressing all other religious bodies under the claim “error has no rights.”
6. American indifferentism: Freedom of the Press: the Catholic Church (which had an “Index of Forbidden Books” did not believe that books expressing erroneous ideas should be freely distributed.
7. American activism: Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae also thought that the Americans stressed the active virtues over the deeper spiritual virtues, not only leading to a stress on the apostolic life to the detriment and ignoring of the contemplative life, but also motivating laity and clergy alike to an activism that isn’t rooted in prayer.
The story of Testem Benevolentiae is even a bit more complex however and there are a few things yet that we should look at as they are missing pieces of the puzzle. One is American-Vatican tensions over the Spanish American War and the other is growing concern in the Vatican about Modernism. We will look at those issues and also both consider whether Leo’s evaluation of the American Church was sound or not and to ask ourselves how much, if any, Americanism has survived.