The Phantom Heresy?

by Aaron J. Massey

          For most people, the word "Americanism" may conjure up both positive and negative images, from economic strength to Vietnam, democracy to crass materialism. At the turn of the century however, many Americans viewed the United States as the shining city on the hill, a blessed nation full of optimism and teeming with opportunity. This is why the idea of an "Americanist" heresy seemed offensive to most Americans and, for that matter, the entire world. All large movements have large prehistories and many seemingly unrelated factors that converge to create the historical zenith and conclusion of the movement. Americanism is no different. The causes of Americanism are rooted in an amalgam of factors including race, nationality, language, ideology, church politics, civil politics, theology, ecclesiology, and simple personality conflicts. A movement with such broad foundations would be impossible to cover within a small research paper. Whole books have been written on the subject. In this paper, the author will attempt to examine the major causes, players, development, condemnation and future ramifications of the Americanist heresy.

          The single largest contributing factor to the development of the Americanist controversy was the mass exodus of European Catholics to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. The original Catholic settlers in America made up only a small percentage of the population. Even in Lord Baltimore's Maryland, they were quickly overshadowed by Protestants looking for religious freedom. However, the potato famines in Ireland and economic and social upheaval in the rest of Europe led to a massive Catholic immigration, taking Catholicism from a small sect in 1830 to the largest denomination in America by 1870.1 These immigrants were almost all in terrible poverty. There first priority was survival in their new home. Before they could be accepted by society, they had to first be to some extent Americanized. Catholics were spread throughout the country with large concentrations in the urban centers of the East, and small, sparse populations in the Middle West and West. The large compact communities of the East were more insulated from the current social forces, including most of the clergy. The Middle West, however, by necessity had to be more open to the social impact of the America around them. These geographic differences would later play a great role in the Bishops they produce: conservatives from the East v. progressives from the Middle West.

          The first problem facing the fledgling Church in America was one of simple economics. The economic panics and depressions of the 1870s and 80s gave rise to the need for labor and trade organizations that the average Catholic laborer needed desperately. The Catholic laborer of the nineteenth century was usually the ditch digger or factory worker who often worked these difficult jobs for much less than their Protestant counterparts. To improve his economic standing and defend his rights as a laborer, the Catholic labor wanted to enjoy the membership privileges that the Protestant he worked along side also enjoyed. At this time, there were practically no Catholic workers associations; as a result, Catholics tended to join organizations with Protestant or no religious affiliation.2 The Catholic leadership saw several dangers in this trend including the weaning of the Catholic away from the faith, the socialistic politics of some of the organizations and the secret oaths and societies which some of the organizations adopted in imitation of the Masonic rites.3 The hierarchy was also divided on the issue of membership in social and civic organization such as temperance unions. The Church had banned membership in such societies in Europe where they were indeed much more of a danger to the Church.4 However, the progressive bishops viewed the societies as social service or insurance organizations which were of little harm in the United States, and thus did not directly discourage membership because of the potential charge of hedonistic drunkenness by Protestants.5 The Germans and conservatives saw the temperance unions as unnecessary because their flocks were not in need of reform.6

          Another major problem was the issue of nationality. Although many different Catholic groups had immigrated to the United States during the past century, by far the largest were the Irish and German Catholics. Germans were more resistant to Americanization than the Irish for several reasons. Obviously, the German language barrier was much higher than that of the Irish. Also, the Germans were not as economically desperate as the Irish, and, therefore, didn't need Americanized as urgently as did the Irish.7 This was the basic economic difference between the masses. However, the battle over Americanism was going to be fought by the bishops, and three major events forced the basic choosing of sides by the Germans. First, the German clergy had complained to Rome about the inferior status afforded to German parishes in large cities where there would be German-language sermons preached. The Germans also wanted parishioners assigned to the church of their nationality and German-language parochial schools. All of these propositions were argued against by the Irish bishops and were rejected by Rome.8 Second, the Bennett Law of 1889 in Wisconsin required all children between nine and fourteen to attend schools in their district and be taught in English.9 Wisconsin was the seat of German Catholicism in America and the protest mounted by the German episcopate eventually led to the law's repeal.10 The resentment of the Germans towards the leading progressive in the coming battle, Archbishop Ireland of St. Paul, would not be forgotten. Third, a German business man named Peter Paul Cahensly, seeking to help German emigres to the New World, presented a series of Memorials to Pope Leo XIII detailing the great losses to the Faith due to the poor condition of the German churches.11 To remedy the problem, Cahensly and others requested greater recognition be given to the foreign groups in the Church in the United States to the point of possible foreign representation in the hierarchy of the Church.12 Prompt action by Archbishop Ireland and Cardinal Gibbons averted a potential division of the hierarchy by nationalistic lines, but this further widened the rift between the German and Irish bishops.

          Another battle ground was the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. at where the faculty had begun to take sides. The Rector, Bishop John Keane, formerly of Richmond, and Father Thomas Bouquillon were on the side of Ireland and the progressives, while Father Joseph Schroeder of the Theology school and Father George Peries of canon law supported the conservatives.13 The Catholic University had always been a project of the more progressive groups of the hierarchy and had been the special project of Ireland and Keane. The Jesuits did not support the school because it rivaled Georgetown only two miles away. The conservatives also did not fully support the University because of its liberal foundations, especially Archbishop Corrigan of New York because there had been the proposal of a Catholic University in New York also under the direction of the Jesuits.14 As long as Bishop Keane was rector, the University would officially remain on the side of the progressives with much opposition from conservatives within and without. Thus, by the beginning of the 1890s the American hierarchy was divided into two distinct camps. The conservatives were comprised basically of the conservative bishops of the East, led principally by Archbishop Corrigan of NewYork, Bishop McQuaid of Rochester, and Bishop Ignatius Horstmann of Cleveland, along with the German bishops of Wisconsin.15 Their allies in Rome included Father Salvatore Brandi, S. J., editor of the Civilta Cattolica, and Cardinal Camillo Mazzella, S.J., both of them ex-Americans.16 The progressives were led by the triumvirate of Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Bishop John Keane of Richmond, and Monsignor Dennis O'Connell, Rector of the North American College in Rome, who also had the friendship of the two Cardinal Vannutelli.17 Cardinal Gibbons, the only Cardinal in America, was very diplomatic, usually siding with the progressives. The majority of the bishops remained inactive in the controversy offering opinions for either side only when necessary. Another factor which cannot be underestimated is the fact that Archbishops Ireland and Corrigan were both considered front-runners to be the next American Cardinal.

          Americanism remained basically a national issue until 1892. In that year, while on a papal visit in Rome, Ireland was asked by Leo XIII to tour France to drum up support for the Third Republic, called the ralliement.18 Liberal French prelates had long been fascinated with the developments in America while conservative Frenchmen viewed them with horror. Ireland was not openly welcomed by the French clergy and was usually the guest of liberal French laymen. On his tour, Ireland made statements such as, "The Church in Europe is asleep," and "The people is king now," to the joy of supporters of the ralliement and anger of conservative clergy.19 Ireland's speeches sparked a debate that would ironically make France the final battleground for Americanism. Another important event in 1892 was the arrival of Archbishop Francesco Satolli whose stated mission was to escort a set of the Vatican's ancient maps to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.20 It would later be announced that he was to be the permanent Apostolic Delegate from the Vatican. From the beginning it seemed as if Satolli would be influenced by the progressive camp. Satolli's arrival in New York was arranged in such a way that it appeared that he had snubbed Archbishop Corrigan.20 He took up residence at the Catholic University. He also made some propositions on education that mirrored Ireland's plans in Minnesota.21 When he finally announced that his mission was permanent, all but Ireland dissented. Another hopeful event was Satolli's speech in Chicago at the Catholic congress in September 1893 when he urged his audience to go forth "in one hand carrying the book of Christian truth and in the other the Constitution of the United States."22 The Church goes where Rome leads it, and Rome seemed to be leaning towards the progressives. The tide, however, was turning against the Americanists.

          Some progressive bishops attended the World's Parliament of Religions which brought mass criticism from Corrigan and the conservatives who charged Ireland and others with "liberalism" and "minimalism." Satolli agreed and was not pleased with the bishop's decision not to consult him. The battled shifted into civil politics when in 1894 Archbishop Ireland campaigned in a New York State Election to help defeat Bishop McQuaid in his bid for a seat on the board of regents of New York University.23 McQuaid blasted Ireland from the pulpit and was reprimanded by Satolli. McQuaid sent Rome a full report in his defense, calling Ireland a political meddler, dangerous liberal, and a persecutor of Archbishop Corrigan.24 The conservative accusations of McQuaid and others were beginning to take hold in Rome. On January 6, 1895 the encyclical letter, Longinqua Oceani, expressed Leo XIII's praise for the astronomical growth of the Church in America and the equity and customs of the American people.25 However, Leo XIII warned that the separation of church and state was not the ideal and the United States was not the model for all societies.26 He said that the American situation, although good, would be made better if the Church were to receive the favor of the laws and the patronage of the government.27 This encyclical was followed in September by a papal letter condemning interdenominational congresses like the one in Chicago in 1893.28 Meanwhile, in Rome, officials of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith had demanded Dennis O'Connell's resignation as rector of the American College.

          Archbishop Ireland would not be daunted by the mounting opposition. At an episcopal ordination in April 1896, he praised the papally-questioned separation of church and state and began a new phase in his attack.29 He heaped praise on the diocesan priesthood while criticizing religious orders, especially the Jesuits whom he blamed for the losses Reformation England and Japan.30 Meanwhile, Satolli had been made Cardinal in November 1895, and called back to Rome. Cardinal Satolli, along with Cardinal Mazzella, S.J., who had been angered by Ireland's statements against the Jesuits, began to combat "Americanism." Their efforts resulted in the ouster of Bishop Keane as Rector of the Catholic University in September 1896. With the American progressives in disarray the battle turned once again to France and Catholic Europe.

          The French liberals who were in favor of the ralliement in France began to look to the American Catholic Church as an archetype for a benevolent relationship between the Church and a democratic government. The liberals found their icon in a translation of a biography of Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Congregation of St. Paul the Apostle, or Paulists, in the United States. Father Hecker was a convert who called upon the Church to adapt itself to the needs of the modern world. Hecker became the embodiment of a new kind of religious pioneer and the subject of much admiration among the liberal French clergy. In the biography, Life of Father Hecker, by Walter Elliot, Hacker came across as a man of action, the ideal modern priest, blessed with intellect, independence, rugged individualism, and mystical insight.31 The book, coupled with an introduction by Archbishop Ireland was an instant lightening rod for conservative criticism, the most notorious of which came from a series of articles by Abbe Charles Maignen writing under the pseudonym of "Martel" in the French La Verite beginning on March 3, 1898.32 Maignen asked whether Father Hecker was a saint, and countered that he was in fact a radical protestant. Using Elliott's book, Maignen fashioned a theology that closely mirrored that of the Quakers in its emphasis on the internal guidance of the Holy Spirit. He accused Hecker of denying the objective certainty of Catholic truth.33 He also interpreted Hecker's stressing of activism as having a corresponding disdain for the so-called "passive" virtues of humility and obedience, which Hecker said were necessary in the Counter-Reformation, but now the "active" virtues of love, tolerance and compassion were to dominate.34 The violent attack of Maignen and others, including the Jesuits of the Civilta Cattolica, had taken there toll and the majority of the French clergy dismissed American Catholicism as neo-Pelagian. They viewed Hecker's confidence in a new age of the Spirit as the condemned illuminism of Madame Guyon and Molinos. Maignen put his series of articles in book form, but was denied the imprimatur by Cardinal Richard of Paris. However, Alberto Lepidi, the Master of the Sacred Palace in Rome gave the imprimatur, seemingly putting the seal of approval of the Holy See on Maignen's book.35 With Leo XIII's indirect endorsement of the book, rumors of an imminent papal condemnation were being circulated. The rumors became reality on January 22, 1899.

          The papal encyclical, Testem Benevolentiae, Leo XIII stated that he wished "to point out certain things which are to be avoided and corrected."36 The Pope stated that efforts to adapt the church's teaching to the modern world are folly because, as the Vatican Council had made clear, the Catholic faith is not a philosophical theory that is elaborated when humans see fit, but a divine revelation that is to be guarded and infallibly exclaimed.37 Second, there is a great difference between church authority and government authority.38 The state exists by the free will of those associated with it, whereas the church is based upon its own infallible teaching.39 Members of the church must submit to the church's infallible authority to be preserved from private error.

          The encyclical met with a predictably ambivalent reaction. No American bishops contested it. The Americanists at whom the letter was aimed stated that the condemned doctrines were "phantoms" created by their enemies and had no basis in fact.40 Archbishop Corrigan and the conservatives were thankful that heresy had been exposed.41 Most of the bishops said nothing. If one was keeping score, the conservatives had won a major victory with the removal of Keane and O'Connell and, finally, the condemnation.

          The Americanist controversy quickly died, although it served as a precursor for the Modernism battles in the next decade. The actual laity and priests in the trenches were essentially insulated from the high level wrangling. The "Americanism" already instinctual to the American catholic remained unscathed, but the hierarchy and intellectual did remain cautious. American Catholics had experienced their first incipient heresy and would remain theologically dormant for the next half-century. Pragmatic Americanism continued however, culminating in the election of the first Roman Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in 1960.


1. Briane K. Turley, lecture on Catholic Immigration After 1820, February 26, 1998.

2. Robert D. Cross, The Emergence of Liberal Catholicism in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), 117.

3. James H. Moynihan, The Life of Archbishop John Ireland (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953), 215.

4. Ibid., 216.

5. Thomas T. McAvoy, The Americanist Heresy in Roman Catholicism (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1963), 30.

6. Ibid., 30.

7. Ibid., 20.

8. Ibid., 21.

9. Ibid., 21.

10. Ibid., 22.

11. Ibid., 23.

12. Ibid., 23.

13. James Hennesey, S.J., American Catholics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 198.

14. McAvoy, 29.

15. Hennesy, 198.

16. Ibid., 198.

17. Ibid., 198.

18. Moynihan, 136.

19. Hennesey, 199.

20. Ibid., 199.

21. Ibid., 199.

22. Lester R. Kurtz, The Politics of Heresy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 46.

23. John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1952), 25.

24. Ibid.

25. Cross, 195-196.

26. Ibid., 196.

27. Ibid.

28. Hennesey, 201.

29. Ellis, 113.

30. Ibid.

31. Hennesey, 202.

32. McAvoy, 145.

33. Hennesey, 202.

34. Ibid.

35. Cross, 199.

36. Kurtz, 47.

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. McAvoy, 237.

41. Cross, 201.