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Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae is the name for an apostolic letter of Pope Leo XIII. The letter was addressed to "Our Beloved Son, James Cardinal Gibbons, Cardinal Priest of the Title Sancta Maria, Beyond the Tiber, Archbishop of Baltimore", and was promulgated on January 22, 1899. It concerned the heresy sometimes called Americanism to ensure that the Church in the United States did not allow the model of civil liberties to undermine the doctrine of the Church.
The reason for the Letter
The name Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae literally means "Witness to Our Good Will." In it Pope Leo expressed criticism regarding what he heard of the culture of Catholics in the United States. These concerns grew from a response to the French translation of the biography of Isaac Thomas Hecker.
The translation of Hecker's biography reached France eleven years after Father Hecker had died. Hecker had remained in good standing with Catholicism from his conversion in adulthood to his death so the controversy revolved around the book. Leo's letter disputed the views expressed by the translator in the book about Isaac Hecker. This translator was seen to have liberal individualist views seen as contrary to the faith.
Rejection of American particularism and Ecumenicalism
Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae involved American particularism and view of individual liberty. On particularism it was believed that a movement of American Catholics felt they were a special case who needed greater latitude in order to assimilate into a majority Protestant nation. The letter rejected that idea. It maintained that the Catholic Church in the United States would continue to submit to the Vatican in the way of the Catholic Church in other nations. This meant American Catholics were to avoid full assimilation or ecumenical overtures toward Protestantism.
Catholicism teaches that Protestantism is a heresy and even a harmful new religious movement. This should not be exaggerated though because the Church under Leo indicated individual Protestants might well be innocent due to "invincible ignorance". Still, Protestant religions themselves were not to be learned from or accepted as equals. Outside of this issue the article gave the consolation that Catholicism could accommodate to American norms when they did not conflict with doctrinal or moral teachings of the Catholic Church.
Negative view of Individual Liberty
On individual liberty the letter showed a fear that Americanist ideas of individualism would be hostile to the Catholic faith. It expressed fears that Catholics in America would trust their individual conscience more than they would the Catholic Church. This assertion, and others in the letter, actually had more to do with Catholics in France than those in the US. France had after all been the source of the translation deemed radical. Hence in many ways in the article was more a warning to France that its Republic was becoming too liberal or secularist. In any event the letter also stated Americanists had an incorrect view of Papal Infallibility that led them to scorn everything not covered by an infallible pronouncement. Lastly, it feared Americans would value their freedom and individualism so much they would reject the idea of monasteries and the priesthood. Again this is more about the anti-clericalism in France at the time because opposition to the idea of monasteries was apparently rare among Catholics in the nineteenth century US.
More controversially, the document made clear a rejection of full freedom of the press for Catholics. At this time the Vatican still had an Index of Prohibited Books. Defenders of the document believe criticizing press freedom was understandable in an age of increasing libel, slander, and incitements of violence in newspapers. Newspaper stories of convents had already inflamed anti-Catholic violence. Further the Spanish-American War, often blamed on William Randolph Hearst's newspapers, had occurred a year before the letter. Opponents of Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae believe it displayed an ongoing Vatican opposition to democracy and progress.
Still, both sides tend to agree that Leo XIII wrote in a less condemnatory or at least more tactful manner then most of his immediate predecessors. Critics state this is merely because his immediate predecessors were or became strident reactionaries like Pope Pius IX. Supporters cite the fact that his encyclical on Americanism, "Longinqua", spoke of love for America more than condemnation of it.
Legacy and influence
The legacy of Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae is highly disputed. Among Traditionalist Catholics today there remains widespread support for its statements against ecumenicalism and liberalism. In more liberal circles, however, scholars maintain that it largely destroyed Catholic intellectual life in the US for the first half of the twentieth century. And yet, many others hold that its importance has been exaggerated. It does, however, highlight the uneasy relationship between the Holy See and the United States, a country which did not give full diplomatic relations with the Holy See until the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
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