Americanism refers to a group of related heresies which were defined as the endorsement of freedom of the press, liberalism, individualism, and complete separation of church and state. It was thought that these doctrines were held by and taught by many members of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States of America in the 1890s.

The Americanist heresy is characterized as an insistence upon individual initiative which the Vatican judged to be incompatible with what European conservatives considered to be a fundamental principle of Catholicism: obedience to authority. Moreover, the conservatives were anti-republicans who distrusted and disliked the democratic ideas that were dominant in America.[1]

This kind of pioneer-inspired reinvention alarmed Rome. Europeans began talking about an "Americanist" movement that had swept the nation's churches and would soon lead to the American Church claiming independence for itself. In spite of little if any evidence of such sentiments,Pope Leo XIII wrote against these ideas in his encyclical (Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae) to Cardinal James Gibbons. In 1898 Leo XIII lamented an America where church and state are "dissevered and divorced," and wrote of his preference for a closer relationship between the Catholic Church and the State, along European lines.


The Whitemarsh Constitutions in 1784 called for congregational election of pastors and lay control of parochial finances. Bishop John England in Charleston set up a Diocesan Constitution calling for popularly elected delegates in the dioceses.

The Irish Americans, although outnumbered by the German Americans, controlled most of the Catholic colleges and seminaries in America, and comprised most of the bishops, beginning in the 1840s. The bishops largely shared the view that freedom of religion is a nobler idea than simple religious tolerance. Catholics in America were much freer than in British-run Ireland which had an established an analogous Anglican church (the Church of Ireland).

Progressive Catholics in America advocated greater Catholic involvement in American culture, which some understood to mean that Roman Catholics should adapt its teachings to modern civilization.

This kind of pioneer-inspired reinvention alarmed Rome. Rumors spread among Europeans that an "Americanist" movement was sweeping the Catholic churches in the United States and would allegedly soon lead to the American Church claiming independence for itself.

Americanism in Europe

To understand the Americanist movement, it is necessary to comprehend the history of Catholic Europe rather than America itself.

During the French Third Republic (which began in 1879), the power and influence of French Catholicism steadily declined. The French government passed laws bearing more and more stringently on the Church, and the majority of French citizens did not object. Indeed, they began to look toward legislators and not to the clergy for guidance.[1]

Observing this, and encouraged by the action of Pope Leo XIII, who, in 1892 called on French Catholics loyally to accept the Republic, several young French priests set themselves to stop the decline in Church power. They determined that because the Church was predominantly sympathetic to the monarchists and hostile to the Republic, and because it held itself aloof from modern philosophies and practices, people had turned away from it. The progressive priests believed that the Church did too little to cultivate individual character, and put too much emphasis on the routine side of religious observance. They also noted that Catholicism was not making much use of modern means of propaganda, such as social movements, the organization of clubs, or the establishing of settlements. In short, the Church had not adapted to modern needs, and these priests endeavored to correct this. They began a domestic apostolate which had for one of its rallying cries, "Allons au peuple." ("Let us go to the people.") They agitated for social and philanthropic projects, for a closer relationship between priests and parishioners, and for general cultivation of personal initiative, both in clergy and in laity. Not unnaturally, they looked for inspiration to America. There they saw a vigorous Church among a free people, with priests publicly respected, and with a note of aggressive zeal in every project of Catholic enterprise.[1]

Isaac Hecker


In the 1890s this issue was brought forcefully to the attention of European Catholics by Comptesse de Ravilliax's translation of a biography of Isaac Thomas Hecker by Paulist father Walter Elliott, with the introduction by Abbé Felix Klein drawing the most ire from the Vatican. His biography, written in English by the Paulist Father Elliott in 1891, was translated into French six years later and proved an inspiration to the French.

Father Hecker had been dead for years at this point and had never been viewed by the Pope with disfavor. However this translation of Hecker's biography and Abbé Klein's introduction to the book made him appear to have been much more of a radical than he in fact was.

Hecker had sought to reach out to Protestant Americans by stressing certain points of Catholic teaching, but Leo understood this effort as a watering down of Catholic doctrine. Hecker also had used terms such as “natural virtue,” which to the pope suggested the Pelagian heresy. Because members of the Paulists took promises but not the vows of religious orders, many concluded that Hecker denied the need for external authority.

The French reformers particularly admired Father Hecker for his courage, piety, assertive self-initiative, and love of modern times and modern liberty. Indeed, they took him as a kind of patron saint. Inspired by Father Hecker's life and character, the activist French priests undertook the task of persuading their fellow-priests to accept the political system, and then to break out of their isolation, put themselves in touch with the intellectual life of the country, and take an active part in the work of social amelioration. In 1897 the movement received an impetus when Monsignor O'Connell, former Rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, spoke in behalf of Father Hecker's ideas at the Catholic Congress in Friburg.[1]

Opposition to Americanism

Conservative Catholics took alarm at what they considered to be symptoms of pernicious modernism or "Liberalism." They thought the "Allons au peuple" catchphrase had a ring of heresy, breaking down the divinely established distinction between the priest and the layman, and giving lay people too much power in Church affairs. The insistence upon individual initiative was judged to be incompatible with the obedience to the authority of the Church (due to the authority invested in the Bishops, and their successors, by Christ), that forms a fundamental principle of Catholicism. Moreover, the conservatives were, almost to a man, anti-republicans who distrusted and disliked the democratic abbés. They complained to the Pope, and in 1898, Abbé Maignan wrote an ardent polemic against the new movement called Le Père Hecker, est-il un saint? ("Is Father Hecker a Saint?").[1]

Many powerful Vatican authorities also detested the "Americanist" tendency, and whilst Pope Leo XIII was reluctant to chastise the American Catholics, whom he had often praised for their loyalty and faith, he eventually made concessions to the pressures upon him.

Suppression of Americanism


Pope Leo XIII

In the encyclical Longinqua oceani (1895; “Wide Expanse of the Ocean”), Leo indicated a generally positive view of the American Church, commenting mostly on the success of Catholicism in the US but also noting the view 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." Leo warned the American church hierarchy not to export their unique system of separation of church and state.

In 1898 Leo lamented an America where church and state are "dissevered and divorced," and wrote of his preference for a closer relationship between the Catholic Church and the State, along European lines.

Finally, in his pastoral letter Testem benevolentiae (January 22, 1899; “Witness to Our Benevolence”) addressed to James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, Leo condemned other forms of Americanism. Catholicism had long allowed nations to tolerate other religions, but the Church traditionally feels that the Catholic Church must be favored as the true faith when possible.

More relevant to this controversy, Pope Leo XIII expressed concerns about the liberalism of some American Catholics: he pointed out that the faithful could not decide doctrine for themselves (see Cafeteria Catholic). He also emphasized that Catholics should obey the magisterial teaching authority of the Church, which, according to Catholic doctrine, is infallible in matters of faith and morals. In general, he deemed exposing children to public schools as something to be avoided when possible. The Pope derided the idea that all opinions should be aired publicly, as he felt certain speech could harm general morality. He condemned the biography of Hecker and Americanism.

This document condemned the following doctrines or tendencies:

  1. undue insistence on interior initiative in the spiritual life, as leading to disobedience
  2. attacks on religious vows, and disparagement of the value of religious orders in the modern world
  3. minimizing Catholic doctrine
  4. minimizing the importance of spiritual direction

The brief did not assert that Hecker and the Americans had held any unsound doctrine on the above points. Instead, it merely stated that if such opinions did exist, the Pope called upon the hierarchy to eradicate them.

The American response


James Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore

In response to Testem benevolentiae, Cardinal Gibbons and many other American prelates replied to Rome with a near-unanimous voice, denying that American Catholics held any of the condemned views. They asserted that Hecker had never countenanced the slightest departure from Catholic principles in their fullest and most strict application.

The disturbance caused by the condemnation was slight; almost the entire laity and a considerable part of the clergy were unaware of this affair. However, the pope's brief did end up strengthening the position of the conservatives in France.[1] Leo's pronouncements effectively ended the Americanist movement and curtailed the activities of American progressive Catholics.


Further reading

  • Murray, John Courtney. Religious liberty: Catholic struggles with pluralism‎ (1993) 278 pages excerpts and text search
  • Smith, Elwyn A. "The Fundamental Church-State Tradition of the Catholic Church in the United States." Church History 1969 38(4): 486-505. in JSTOR
  • McAvoy, Thomas T. The Americanist Heresy in Roman Catholicism 1895-1900 (1963) University of Notre Dame Press.

External links