Question: Pope Leo XIII condemned "Americanism." What is Americanism? Was he saying that Americans can't be good Catholics? Is monarchy the only Catholic form of government?
Answer: In 1899 Pope Leo XIII issued the letter, Testem benevolentiae, to the American James Cardinal Gibbons discussing several doctrinal irregularities which some theologians claimed were being taught by the Catholic Church in America. As Pope Leo indicated, the controversy began when The Life of Isaac Thomas Hecker (founder of the Paulists) was translated into French.(1) Primarily, Americans were accused of trying to make converts by treating some of the more difficult doctrines of the Faith as if they were of lesser importance. For example, they might have avoided discussion of the Real Presence with a prospective Catholic, at least until that person converted. Leo also mentioned accusations that Americans were minimizing the need for spiritual guidance by the Church; were treating natural virtues with greater esteem than their supernatural counterparts; were falsely classifying the spiritual virtues as "passive" (all virtues are "active"), thus demeaning the spiritual life and membership in religious orders; and were abandoning some of the time tested methods of evangelization. The Pope's condemnation was conditional, not insisting that these things were widespread, but simply that they were incompatible with Catholicism and ought to be abandoned wherever they had taken hold.
In a very general sense, Testem benevolentiae might be interpreted as being critical of the American form of government. The "rugged individualism," that tamed the continent, does seem to exalt natural virtue, perhaps at the expense of supernatural virtue. The non-establishment clause of the First Amendment and the American emphasis on liberty were certainly a departure from the traditional European model.
Yet, at its foundation, America was not a Godless or irreligious state. In spite of the influence of Deism and Freemasonry, it had a strong Christian heritage, with a high degree of agreement about the those articles of the natural law normally associated with government: rights to life and property, and the preservation of public morality. Though no one religion was established, religious behavior was fostered, and considered an essential part of the national virtue required to make a republic function. For many years the US Supreme Court would refer to these United States as a "Christian nation."(2) Only in the postwar era have we seen the Federal Government intrude itself into the law making process to strike down laws against abortion, contraception, blasphemy, obscenity, sodomy, divorce, adultery, and business on Sundays. Public apathy is at least as much to blame as any perceived flaw in the Constitution.
In the "best of all worlds," religion and government would be closely allied. Everyone would willingly practice the Catholic Faith out of genuine conviction, and society would observe God's laws as He has revealed them through His Son and His Son's Church. But in reality, the world in which we live is quite different. It is questionable if this ideal alliance ever existed on earth, unless briefly and in isolation. Even in the middle ages Church-State relations were often stormy; oscillating between dominance and being dominated as personalities, plagues, and wars altered the balance of power.
According to St. Thomas, legitimate governments can exist even among pagans.(3) After the Revolution it would have been absurd to expect the largely Protestant population of the former British colonies to form a Catholic monarchy! The government that they did form was certainly more favorable to Catholicism than any established Protestant church would have allowed:
A fact which it gives pleasure to acknowledge [wrote Leo XIII], thanks are due to the equity of the laws which obtain in America and to the customs of the well-ordered Republic. For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance.(4)
On the other hand, Pope Leo recognized that there were countries where the Catholic Church and the State had a harmonious relationship, where the American model would be undesirable:
It would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for Church and State to be, as in America dissevered and divorced.(5)
While the union of a holy Church with a God-fearing state would seem to be the Catholic ideal, in the latter part of the twentieth century a previously unexpected reason has arisen for re-considering the wisdom of the American model in our imperfect world: Modernism. Our spiritual and societal life would be considerably poorer if the Novus Ordo were the state religion, or if the President had to get his marching orders from the NCCB and UN Headquarters.
There is no such thing as a "Catholic economic or political system." Catholics may employ any economic system that works without infringing on the rights of the participants or otherwise violating the natural law. Even extreme systems like communism may serve if universally agreed to, as for example, in a monastery. The choice of a type of government is not determined by divine law or by the Church. "The making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people," as St. Thomas tells us.(6) A representative system somewhere in between could be equally legitimate. Pope Leo XIII speaks clearly to the point:
Various political governments have succeeded one another in France during the last century, each having its own distinctive form: the Empire, the Monarchy, and the Republic. By giving one's self up to abstractions, one could at length conclude which is the best of these forms considered in themselves; and in all truth it may be affirmed that each of them is good, provided it leads to its end -- that is to say, to the common good for which social authority is constituted; and finally it may be added that from a relative point of view, such and such a form of government may be preferable because of being better adapted to the character and customs of such and such a nation. In this order of speculative ideas, Catholics, like all other citizens, are free to prefer one form of government to another precisely because no one of these social forms is, in itself, opposed to the principles of sound reason nor to the maxims of Christian doctrine.(7)
In many minds there is a strong association between Catholicism and monarchy because monarchies were the predominant form of government for much of the Church's history. But even the Catholic Church itself was not an absolute monarchy during that time. There existed a strong tradition of election of the ecclesiastical "monarchs" by their subjects; Popes by the people of Rome, bishops by the people of their city, abbots by their monks, and so forth. The Church and Her faithful have both suffered and prospered at the hands of Catholic emperors and kings, as well as in non-sectarian democracies.
In the final analysis, the thing that makes a society Christian or Catholic is the belief and the behavior of its people. At least in the long run, good Catholics, demanding good and moral government from their elected or hereditary rulers will enjoy the benefits of Christian society. And, again in the long run, no form of civil government will raise bad Catholics above their moral laxity. Leo XIII will have the last word:
We are constrained to confess that Our first pleasure has never been diminished, but on the contrary, has increased from day to day by reason of the increase of Catholicity among you [in America]. The cause of this increase, although first to be attributed to the providence of God, must also be ascribed to your energy and activity. You have ... promoted every kind of Catholic organization ... foster[ed] the union of your churches ... with the Vicar of Christ on earth.... _While the changes and tendencies of nearly all the nations which were Catholic for many centuries give cause for sorrow, the state of yours ... cheers our heart and fills it with delight._ True, you are shown no special favor by the law of the land, but ... your lawgivers are certainly entitled to praise for the fact that they do nothing to restrain you in your just liberty.... Make use of this favorable time ... spreading abroad as far as possible the light of truth.... We are not unaware ... of the success of [your] schools and academies ... seminaries ... measures to enlighten dissidents ... [charities] for the Negro and the Indian ... offerings to relieve the penury of the Holy See.... Your generosity becomes an exercise and a testimony of your faith.... Let the Apostolic blessing ... be taken as a token of [Our] affection and an augury of divine gifts.(8)
Copies of Testem benevolentiae, are available from this parish; ask in person or send a self addressed envelope with postage for two ounces. All of the documents attributed to Pope Leo in this article may be found in The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII, 580 pages paperbound, TAN Books and Publishers, Box 424, Rockford, IL 61105, 800-437-5876.