In the 1895 apostolic letter Longinqua Oceani, Pope Leo XIII assured the Catholic world that “we highly esteem and love exceedingly the young and vigorous American nation”. The Church was doing very nicely in the Republic, especially with all the Catholic immigrants flooding in, but there were dangers. 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”.

Leo had in mind the concept of the separation of church and state, but his words were uttered in a climate full of broader misgivings about the direction of American Catholicism. Making too many compromises and accommodations with modernity, or privileging individualism over authority, was deemed perilous. Such worries crystallised in the so-called Americanist crisis which, while short-lived, cast a long shadow over relations between the United States and the Vatican.

Many issues were at stake, from support for early labour unions to the preservation of parochial education, but the crux was concern over making too many concessions in order for the Church to survive, thrive or expand on American soil. Into the mix, charges of theological minimalism or indifference began to surface, not least after Catholic attendance at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. Many figures came in for criticism – Archbishop John Ireland of St Paul, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore and John Keane, first rector of the Catholic University of America, among them – but the stakes were raised when the supposed Americanist menace began to threaten Europe.

A French translation of a biography of Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, hit the shelves in 1897 and did good business. The portrayal of Hecker’s thought was not especially sophisticated, but the book depicted him as the ideal modernising priest. The theological specifics were of the technical variety – distinctions between active and passive virtues, the relative merits of natural and supernatural virtues, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – but Hecker, who had died in 1888, was perceived by Rome as having symbolised the dangerous American flirtation with modernity.

In January 1899 Leo XIII issued Testem Benevolentiae, in which Americanism was defined and denounced. The text was positioned as a painstaking rebuttal of Hecker’s thought but it was addressed directly to Cardinal Gibbons, even though there is no reason to suppose that Gibbons or his main allies had any particular sympathy with many of the controversial ideas. Critics of the papacy’s actions quickly asserted that “Americanism” was a “phantom heresy”: a concoction that attempted to draw vague and disparate musings together in order to create a bogeyman.

This was not an unreasonable accusation, but the whole Americanist incident spoke to larger and long-lasting themes. What price could be paid in order to win Americans over to Rome? Was there a risk of diluting doctrines, of ignoring the Magisterium and the deposit of faith? Was anyone seriously suggesting that “the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity”?

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