|The Tomb of Pope Leo XIII in the|
Basilica of Saint John Lateran
The collision was to be a long time in coming however. In a world without modern communications the American Republic was no more than a vague idea to the Papal Court. Until the final decades of the nineteenth century, basically until people began to accustom themselves to the transatlantic cable, the American Church in its day to day operations was all but independent from Rome. John Carroll had deliberately held communications with the Holy See to a minimum and his successors in the American episcopacy followed suite. It was pointless to involve Rome in local decisions—before steamships for a letter to go to Rome, be considered by a congregation, and come back was at least a six month process and could easily take twice that long. Whatever decision was needed was long past its time before the Holy See could respond. And frankly, European bishops were no more inclined to surrender decision making to the Roman Curia were jealous of their own authority in their own dioceses. That only began to change with the collapse of the Papal States in 1870 when the popes needed to consolidate their religious authority to compensate the diminution of prestige at the loss of the Papal States. It was after Vatican I—and the fall of Rome to the Italian Monarchy that same year—that Rome really began to take note of the American Church and it was startled to see how “American” (i.e. non-Roman) it was. This came to a bit of a head with Leo XIII’s 1895 Encyclical Latter, Longinqua Oceani, in which the pope declared that the Church “ would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.” Such favor and patronage, of course, is in direct contradiction to the United States Constitution which declares in its first amendment that “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion…” Leo further admonished the American Church that while it might have to live with the idea of separation of Church and State at least until a Catholic majority could correct the situation, it “would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.” In other words, the American situation of the separation of Church and State is not an ideal but an anomaly.
It could have been worse. Leo was, unlike his predecessors, not opposed to Republics per se. To the rage of conservatives he encouraged French Catholics to give their support to the Third Republic which replaced the Second Empire after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Conservative Catholics in France wanted to restore the Bourbon monarchy and while Leo wold have preferred that, he conceded that the Republic was acceptable. Catholicism had always seen monarchy as the ideal, the thought being that civil government should be along the lines of Divine Government and so just as God governs the world, a monarch should govern the people. Forget this Vox Dei Vox Populi idea—it is dangerous to Church and State alike. (Vox Dei Vox Populi is Latin for The Voice of God [is found in] the voice of the people. You can see why Popes who consider themselves the Vox Dei don’t like that idea.)
Fortunately it took a long time to bring this pot to a boil, but to a boil it was to come. An American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, was teaching at the Catholic University in Washington DC. The experience of Christians of various faiths cooperating against the Third Reich in the years before and during World War II convinced Father Murray that the traditional anti-ecumenical policies of Catholicism and the resultant Catholic isolationism was an obsolete and a dangerous policy in a world haunted by totalitarianism. He further came to believe that, despite the admonition of Leo XIII in Longinqua Oceani, religious freedom as outlined in the First Amendment to the American Constitution was an ideal that should be embraced in the twentieth century. In these ideas he was far ahead of his time—too far ahead of his time for many of his fellow Catholics who saw the ethnic and religious ghettos into which the Catholics of the early twentieth century had retreated as essential to preserve the faith. Teaching with Father Murray at Catholic University was Monsignor Joseph Clifford Fenton, one of the most arrogant and acrimonious junior grade prelates the Church has known in its long history of arrogant and acrimonious prelates. Monsignor Fenton was editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review. Fenton despised Religious. Fenton despised anyone who he considered beneath him and his monsignoral dignity him which more or less included the human race as a collective. He was probably also a bit jealous of Murray and his popularity. Fenton reported Murray to the appropriate Roman dicasteries and the redoubtable Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, who silenced Murray and prohibited him from speaking or writing on the topic of Church/State relations. These were the final years of the papacy of Pius XII who that year had suffered from a hiatal hernia requiring surgery and whose health went into a steady decline during which more and more of the papal prerogatives were assumed by curial officials such as Ottaviani. Pius’s successor, John XXIII convoked an Ecumenical Council with the express purpose of opening the Catholic Church up to the ecumenical movement which had long been prohibited it by Popes such as Pius XI whose encyclical Mortalium Animos condemned ecumenism as undermining Catholic doctrinal hegemony. Ottaviani insured that Fenton would be on the various commissions that were preparing the Conciliar agenda and it was planned by Ottaviani that no serious doctrinal shift, especially as regards ecumenism or freedom of conscience would be submitted to the bishops. When the bishops assembled in the autumn of 1962 for the first session of the Council, however, they would not accept the conservative agenda, however and demanded that the schemata for the council prepared by Fenton and others be abandoned and a new agenda drawn up. It was at this point that Francis Spellman, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, rescued John Courtney Murray from the obscurity to which Fenton’s accusations had reduced him and brought him to the Council as Spellman’s personal theologian. Here Murray had his revenge on his reactionary foes as the Council in its decree on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, enshrined the basic principles of freedom of conscience and the very doctrine that Leo XIII had said should not be spread from America to the rest of the world became a universally recognized principle in Catholic teaching. Eternal Rest to Joseph Fenton, Alfredo Ottaviani, and Leo XIII. One of those three, despite his fear of freedom of conscience, is probably a saint. It wouldn’t be Fenton or Ottaviani.