From the foregoing it is manifest, beloved son, that we are not able to give approval to those views which, in their collective sense, are called by some “Americanism.” But if by this name are to be understood certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and if, moreover, by it is designated your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed, there is no reason to take exception to the name. But if this is to be so understood that the doctrines which have been adverted to above are not only indicated, but exalted, there can be no manner of doubt that our venerable brethren, the bishops of America, would be the first to repudiate and condemn it as being most injurious to themselves and to their country. For it would give rise to the suspicion that there are among you some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.
– Pope Leo XIII, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae
A friend of mine recently published his thoughts on Catholicism in America. It is a good read and hits upon one of the most distinctive marks of Catholicism in the United States (namely, the waves of mostly Irish immigrants who shaped it). Ultimately, it fails to address another feature that characterized the budding Catholic Church in America: Americanism, that heresy that Blessed Pope Leo XIII was right to be so “obsessed” with.
To say that Catholicism was unpopular among the founders would be an understatement of absurd proportions. The men who founded the country were mostly either descendants of Cromwellian Calvinists or the “get rich quick” Anglicans of Virginia. They were highly educated, wealthy, and up to date on the philosophical trends of the time (Voltaire, Rousseau, et al); the same philosophical trends that swore that man would not be free until the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest.
And we see how that turned out…
So radical was their anti-Catholicism that the Quebec Act of 1774 was one of their great grievances against the English Crown. This was the first time since James II that the government of England had showed an ounce of tolerance to Catholics in its realm and the patriots of New England responded by accusing Parliament of popery. This backfired stupendously on the Continental Army when they later attempted to wrest Quebec from English control.
Yet Daniel Carroll, for entirely financial reasons, helped to bring support to the independence movement. This lone Catholic signer was held up for many years as “proof” to Catholics (by Catholics) that America was for them as well. John Carroll, first Bishop of the new country, echoed this sentiment with his endorsement of religious liberty as defined by the Americans (as opposed to the charitable tolerance which has always been the ideal given to us by Christ). For this and his prioritization of worldly political activity over the spiritual, he would be excommunicated by the Bishop of Quebec.
Zere’s no Canada like French Canada it’s ze best Canada in ze land….
American Catholicism has been defined by an attempt to be “respectable” like their Anglo-Saxon protestant counterparts due to its looked-down-upon minority status. John Carroll is the father of this and it was only aggravated by the influx of Catholics from Ireland and the domination of the Irish over Catholicism in the country. If “not being English” hurt American Catholicism it was not for lack of trying. It was nothing more than the wish of bishops like John Ireland to create a distinct “American Catholic Church” (of mostly Anglo-Irish culture) free of the ethnic diversity that the waves of immigration brought. Any groups that opposed this or the Irish dominance of this – the Poles, the Ruthenian Greek Catholics, and the Germans – had to be assimilated or squashed. The result of this was a Low-Mass Culture that was a parody of its Irish parent and the ghetto-ization of Catholicism as a whole along hard ethnic lines (Italian, German, Irish, and Polish). The schismatic, yet orthodox, Polish National Catholic Church still stands today as testament to that abortive attempt.
The most disgusting display of this quest for “respectability” is the cold shoulder the American bishops gave the Catholics of Mexico in their time of need. When martyrs were shedding their blood south of the border, when nuns were raped and churches burned, and when the Catholics of Mexico made the one concerted effort in their history to take the nation for themselves, the bishops of the United States told the Knights of Columbus that not one dollar or cartridge could be given to the Cristeros. When Rene Capistran Garza made an arduous trek across the United States to beg for funding from the American Catholics, most bishops turned him away or recommended he take up a job.
In light of this, perhaps we can reevaluate the mass immigration of Mexicans fleeing their failed state as a Divine Punishment on the United States for its role the Cristero War: the American leaders, businessmen, and diplomats who supplied and armed the Mexican government, and the American bishops who forsook their southern brethren in their hour of need.
Poor Mexico, so far from God yet so close to the United States.
– Porfirio Diaz, dictator of Mexico before the Revolution and the Cristero War.
This quest for respectability even ties directly into many problems that plague us today: the romanticization of the 1940’s and 1950’s among a large number of American traditionalists, the post-Conciliar imitation of the mainline Protestant sects (How many “Novus Ordo” Masses stylistically bring to mind a Methodist or Episcopalian aesthetic?), and Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
The 1940’s and 1950’s were the first time American Catholicism seemed to be accepted in the mainstream. The “respectable” denominations were losing ground, the evangelicals and bible-thumpers were still in the backwoods, the 1920’s Klan no longer held much power, and many films portrayed Catholicism in a positive light or even had overtly Catholic messages (however watered down they may have been). Vocations to the priesthood were on the rise, the pope was televised on television for the first time, and there was even promise of a Catholic becoming the next president of the United States.
It is an easy intellectual trap then, to blame the Council for the loss of this as many traditionalists have done. I would retort that this era was a “false spring” and that everything that seemed to be good and wholesome was covering far greater problems (this could be said of the 1950’s in general). I know as undeniable fact that pederasty in the priesthood preceded the Council by at least twenty years, that the 1950’s misogyny and wife beating is more than just “feminist myth”, and that this was the time where liturgical and doctrinal experimenters were at liberty to do as they pleased as long as they didn’t cause a great racket. We should ask ourselves, how many of those “vocations to the priesthood” in the fifties resulted in molested children, prison sentences, and scandal?
In fact, I would posit that traditionalists in America sometimes seem nostalgic for an age where the dream of John Carroll and John Ireland seemed to be realized for a brief moment: respectability and acceptance. It was a vain hope regardless. As I have outlined before, there is no reconciling Americanism and Catholicism.
Until traditionalism renounces all ties to this broken dream and the mainstream embraces its Catholic roots over its American ones, Catholicism in America will continue to be “phony”(to use my friends words). Just as the United States is fragmenting into many cultures and belief systems, the Church here must realize that the way forward is for Catholicism to take a polymorphic approach. The Idol of Uniformity is dead. Ding Dong.
I share my friend’s sentiment that the Anglican Ordinariate will be a great tool for spreading the faith among Anglo-Americans (as well as providing a beautiful liturgy without the strings of “traditionalism”). I also welcome the displaced Catholic and Orthodox immigrant communities who wish to remain Christian and keep their heritage (be it Ukrainian, Arabic, or Coptic) and wish them in well in their duty of spreading the glory of Christ. I hope they never bow to pressure to conform, never back down from spreading the glory of Christ, and never bite into the poisoned apple of respectability. Perhaps an influx of immigrant groups such as these will give Catholics here what they have always lacked.
Freedom to have an identity without a John Ireland pushing them into the ghetto.