Americanism and the Collapse of the Church in the United States
(Remnant Press, 1984; Updated, Tan Books, 1994)
Americanism is a term that appears to express nothing more than a devotion to America. In reality, however, it teaches principles and a way of life that pose, and always have posed, a threat to the Church of Rome. Indeed, the threat that it poses to Catholicism may be the most dangerous experienced by her in the past few centuries of revolution. Its harmful quality arises from its subtle and effective transformation of the United States into a new religion whose central dogma of “pluralism” cannot be investigated or questioned; a new religion whose creed is said to be purely “practical” and “pragmatic”, but which actually aims at a messianic rebuilding of the entire globe; a new religion that brooks no opposition to its will.
The collapse of the Catholic cause in the United States can be attributed in large degree to an understandable error to which patriotic Catholic Americans fell prey. Americanism was presented to them as involving nothing more than a praiseworthy love of country with practical, pragmatic goals. They rushed wholeheartedly into its defense under the assumption that their civic duty demanded it, and that failure to do so would lend support to the enemies of their country. But what they, in fact, received in the name of patriotism and pragmatism was a set of instructions for religious and cultural suicide. Catholics followed these instructions, replacing their true faith with the Americanist religion, generally not even recognizing that they were doing so, and, indeed, generally rejoicing in their self-destruction every step of the way.
Nothing can be accomplished for the cause of the Church (and, ironically, for the cause of true American patriotism as well) until such time as Catholics come to understand the nature of the force that is killing them. A full appreciation of the depth of the opposition of Americanism to Catholicism can, however, only be gained from discussion of historical problems rooted centuries in the past. Clarification of these problems will be a two-step undertaking. It will begin with an examination of what may be called the “soul” of America, and the ways in which the character of this soul dictated the development of a subtle, pseudo-patriotic, pseudo-pragmatic, fideistic religion. Next, it will focus upon the various attempts of an “alien” Church to come to terms with this truly anti-patriotic cult. The particular Catholic controversy surrounding the emergence of an Americanist heresy in the latter half of the nineteenth century will be treated in the context of this second step of my argument.
Only when the historical groundwork has been laid will it be possible to grasp the appeal of the “mess of pottage” that has conquered the contemporary Catholic—clerical, religious, and lay—and the ease with which the Church in the United States has lost its own soul and praised its suicide as a great victory. Only when it has been made clear how deeply-rooted the problem really is can its present world-wide consequences be properly judged and the formidable question be asked anew: what is to be done?
I. Patriotism and the American SoulTwo concepts crucial to an understanding of this analysis have been lost to the western world in the course of the last half century. The first is the idea that there is a structure of incalculable importance to the shaping of an individual which we can call the “nation”, and the second, the recognition that each specific nation is guided by a kind of “soul”. My contention is that the American “nation” has a tortured “soul”, and that this tortured soul has militated against the construction in the United States of the sort of nation that the individual truly needs. The result of this unfortunate development has been an irrepressible conflict with the Catholic religion.
What, exactly, is a “nation”? This itself is a difficult question, and one that has been complicated by the revolutionary ideology of the past two centuries. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that it is the broad community within which the individual feels the presence of “home”. It is the structure whose language, geography, institutions, past and people evoke familiar and affectionate images.
One need not say that a given nation was historically predestined to be what it now is or to possess its present boundaries to recognize that some such “cradle” is essential to a man’s well-being. Even though it is the individual and the individual alone who gains salvation, the individual always achieves his goal within the context of a number of different communities: societies which include his family, his school, his workplace, union and even his clubs. Each of these enriches him as a person in varying degrees by elaborating psychological needs and incarnating moral duties in specific emphatic ways. Each pinpoints the True, the Good and the Beautiful for him from different perspectives.
The “nation” provides the framework for all these elaborations and incarnations, and is also the necessary symbol of the unity of a serious “home”. If a man does not belong to a real unity of this kind to which he is devoted and for which he sacrifices simply because it is the crucial framework for his existence, he begins his pilgrimage through life with only half of the baggage vital for his journey. The man without a country is like the man suspended in mid-air because he lacks the concrete things that a nation offers—a village, a language, a way of life and a means of providing it—in order to accomplish even his most basic tasks. Are there problems inherent in the individual-nation relationship? Many, because one may be tempted to break the moral code for the benefit of his country just as one can be led astray in his family’s self-interest. Do the difficulties that it engenders justify its abandonment? No more than a father’s crimes on behalf of his children legitimate rejection of the family structure.
How does one determine the peculiar quality of any given nation, as opposed to nations in general? By examining what I have chosen to call its “soul”. This muse or spirit can be identified through the clear means that God has given to every man to understand the world about him. It is captured by the study of language, literature and the legends and historical facts accompanying a nation’s foundation. It is understood through the deeds of its great men, its arts, customs and even its cuisine. The scholar entering to the “soul” of a nation comes to sense the basic presuppositions and modus operandi of its people. Are there problems with this search for a nation’s soul? All too numerous ones. It is easy to substitute feeling or mystic intuition for reason during the hunt. One can readily justify illicit behavior with reference to the demands of a peculiarly inspired national spirit. Do the difficulties that it engenders justify its abandonment? No more than the mistakes made identifying the character of one particular family demand rejection of the notion that it does somehow stand apart from every other “community” of man, woman and child. One must simply be prepared to submit his findings to the tribunal of Christ’s Church, to the judgment of that Mystical Body which has always respected and encouraged true national distinctions.
America’s “soul” has been formed by many factors, of which two are crucial to the present discussion. On the one hand, it has been shaped, to a large degree, by the attempt to unite a multitude of ethnic groups under a tradition inspired by the English experience. On the other, it has been built upon a foundation that is Puritan Protestant. Both these factors have generally merged together, forming a “soul” full of contradictions which few are willing to analyze or are even conscious of existing. These contradictions and difficulties are particularly blatant with regard to the question of the “nation” and “patriotism”. Although, in practice, such influences cannot clinically be separated, it is necessary to do so for theoretical clarity. Clinical separation will reveal that the first of these factors has seriously impaired the quality of nationhood in the United States, while the second has placed obstacles in the path of nationhood in and of itself. Their operation in tandem has created the confusion that permitted the growth of Americanism and its entrance into the life of the Church.
A clear grasp of the first of these formative influences necessitates a brief review of the nature of the British “soul”. England is a nation that has been marked by a conservatism more profound than that of perhaps any other occidental land. Anything that causes change or turmoil generally provokes a deep sense of unease in the English mind. This is as much true of thought as of action. Serious divergences of thought have customarily been seen by the English as having such destabilizing consequences as to inspire them to self-censor the taking of ideas to logical conclusions. It is no accident that the Protestant Revolution in England created the Anglican Church and the “via media”, the “middle way”, with its attempt to combine the new religion with much of the old. One ought not to be surprised that the Enlightenment in Britain did not give birth to political chaos, but, rather, to an effort to modify Christianity and establish that liberal Protestantism which masquerades a loss of faith behind outwardly traditional forms of worship and ecclesiastical government. There is little mystery to the fact that English philosophers have often been anti-philosophers, in the sense that they have sought to demonstrate that ideas have no intrinsic meaning, and that the whole philosophical enterprise is simply a word game. No wonder that literature, with its revelation of the “non-rational” in man, speaks more to the genius of the English nation than metaphysics. So much did the English spirit of distrust of ideas as a channel of change strike the Jesuit editors of La Civiltà Cattolica in the nineteenth century that they argued that a free press in Britain could not mean the same thing as in a Latin nation. The Latin search for distinction and clarity, they insisted, led continental peoples to logical actions that few Englishmen would have been willing to tolerate. An inbred desire for stability prevented them from taking themselves—or anything else—too seriously. If the virtue of this spirit lay in the unity that it provided, its vice lay in its potential banality. Fortunately, as many Catholic political theorists have argued, England unthinkingly preserved so much that was sound and Catholic in spirit that the banal never grasped hold of that country’s culture as a whole.
The United States to a large degree inherited this profound English conservatism. It, too, has always desired stability and disliked change. As soon as it was in a position to do so, it confirmed in its Constitution the political structure of its English past. It did so under the guidance of its historical aristocracy, which, in 1787, effectively usurped from the existing revolutionary Congress the right to do as it wished in this regard. Like the English, the Americans are a people generally suspicious of thought as being a potentially dangerous waste of time. It may be noted in this context that the Civiltà editors applied their comments to the United States as well as to the United Kingdom.
If America had been nothing other than a mirror image of England, then this disdain for the world of ideas might not have had the devastating consequences that it did. But the United States was different from Britain. It had to deal, among other things, with one of the great mass migrations of history. It was forced to come to terms with the descent upon its shores of millions of people of varying nationalities, most of them ignorant of the language and laws of their new home.
American “conservatism” gave birth to movements that tried to keep these masses out. They did not succeed in their efforts. The only other alternative, given the innate national drive towards stability, seemed to be the adoption of a policy of rapid “integration”. If unity could not be assured by closing down the borders, harmony might still prevail by churning immigrants through an “americanizing” process.
How was this task accomplished? In two ways. First of all, “negatively”, by subtly teaching the immigrant peoples what they could not do in the United States. Thus, they were shown that controversial issues disturbing stability, such as those touching upon religion, were out of place in the American forum. The Constitution had already begun this process when its awareness of religious diversity caused it to abandon the concept of an established Church. Secondly, it was also accomplished in a “positive” manner by discovering a goal towards which all Americans, regardless of their way of life, could strive.
This positive goal was found in a kind of materialistic “pioneer mentality” that manifested itself in varied forms. It is hard to exaggerate the power exercised by the image of a virgin continent, ready for conquest, upon the minds of excited Americans. An appeal was made to this image in the cause of “integration”. Loyal Americans were told to avoid divisive quibbling over “non-essentials”. Instead, they were directed down the “pioneer” pathway towards the practical exploitation of this country’s riches. Whether in the East, in a figurative sense, or on the frontier, in a literal one, Americans were assigned a common national purpose: the attainment of a livelihood for themselves and for their families at previously undreamed-of levels. Hard labor and solid material achievement were held up as the true marks of patriotic spirit. Hard labor and solid material achievements, that is, that did not itself somehow disturb or demand too much of one’s neighbors and thereby become divisive; hard labor and material achievement regardless of their object or quality. Thus, in effect, potentially dangerous but sublime concerns were to be sacrificed to assuredly pacifying but mundane projects. The sacrifice was to take place on the altar of American unity, for the sake of the harmony required of “home”.
America did not, with one major exception, carry out this mission violently. The exception was the attack upon the southern aristocracy in the Civil War, whose defeat removed the one class that was permanently controversial and wedded to principles other than the purely pragmatic and material. Otherwise, specific ethnic groups (with the exception of the Indians) were not massacred, foreign languages were not prohibited, and serious religions were not officially persecuted on a regular basis. Any effort of such a kind would have been seen as being destabilizing and divisive, thus violating the basic principle of “integration”. Moreover, “integration” was not primarily carried out by means of the government. Instead, American government aided the process through its very weakness, its unwillingness to enforce religious doctrines or to censor any ideas or behavior espoused by a significant number of people in this country. An all-encompassing governmental program would have clearly indicated the nature of what was happening, aroused opposition, and, perhaps, defeated the ultimate goal of stability.
Thus, the United States presented a two-fold image of protecting “freedom” and ensuring “stability” at one and the same time. It created the impression of establishing what has become known as a “pluralist” society, where many ways of life are “respected”. In truth, however, the manifold organs of Anglo-Saxon society and the spirit of Anglo-Saxon culture were “moderating” and “integrating” this diversity out of existence, slowly, peacefully, but surely. It created the illusion of stability, since the purpose of “integration” was to ensure the continued dominance of native American ways. In truth, however, native Anglo-Saxon Americans themselves were pressured into a gradual transformation of their own traditions. Anything threatening the adoption of the new groups soon began to be discouraged and renounced as much as immigrant particularities. Unity took precedence over custom, habit and even adherence to what was believed to be the truth. While seeking to integrate, native Americans were being integrated as well. Integrated into what? Into a “pluralist” society which could only survive by missing bits and pieces of the ideas of all of its component parts and by bending the entirety to the construction of a grayish culture serving the least common denominator in human material needs. A process was begun which has ended with the “integration” into American life of groups espousing perversities and determining how their needs and interests might help improve the GNP. A process was begun which has ended in the glorification of the computer technician over the saint, media hype over substantive issues, and mass-produced hamburgers over the creations of the great composers.
Generations of European observers, beginning with Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, have remarked upon the effectiveness with which American society, motivated by its Anglo-Saxon spirit, has quietly repressed the emergence of sharp differences of opinion, and channeled its population’s efforts into limited, peaceful, but indiscriminately vulgar material goals. Their commentaries have been supported by numerous American writers who have felt the obligation to “drop out” of this society in order to live as full human beings. I am speaking here of men of the Right, and not of liberals, whose “anti-Americanism” is itself a form of the same Americanist mentality. One is reminded, for example, of T.S. Eliot’s assertion that the thinking American often sought to “lose himself” somewhere outside the national mainstream, in places like New York City, in order to maintain at least the illusion of intellectual and spiritual survival. One can point to H.L. Mencken’s satirical essay, On Being An American, wherein he argues that there are only two grounds for an intelligent man to remain in the United States: either as a means of swindling an easy living, or to enjoy some cheap laughs at the expense of the vulgarity around him. The writings of many such men betray a common bitter theme. America has made the “thoughtful”, the “spiritual”, the “committed” appear to be the province of either the “insane” or the “treasonous”. It has required no secret police in order to achieve this goal. The work has been done gently and naturally, due to the character of an Anglo-Saxon influenced “soul” gone wild.
I believe that these critics have been correct in their assessment. The American obsession with avoiding controversy has ended by punishing the serious man. This is a regrettable phenomenon, since a human being—and a patriot—is not merely a prosperity machine, but also a thinker, a culture builder, and a dreamer of dreams. He needs to pay his respect, both alone and as part of a community, to higher things. As Isaiah says, “without a vision, the people perish”. A nation that allows little or no public scope for such important demands of the human personality is a defective “cradle” indeed. Still, the Anglo-Saxon desire for stability retains some insight into the importance of “home”, its needs, and the value of harmony therein. It sees that something resembling a “nation” is vital enough to men to require sacrifices to maintain it. It appears to admit the country as a structure distinct from the individual and the obvious framework for his development. The baggage that it gives to its citizens may be faulty and inadequate, but it does, at least, provide something onto which they can latch in order to work towards certain legitimate goals in life.
But America grew up under a second and more destructive influence. It developed underneath the tutelage of Puritan Protestantism. This was a teacher that understood so little about human nature that it inevitably poisoned everything that came into contact with it. Even when it tried to fill the void left by the abandonment of higher national purposes, it did so by crushing entirely the idea of the nation. It thus threatened the American with the prospect of having no “home” to love at all.
What lies at the basis of Puritanism? An emphasis upon the total depravity of man after Original Sin. How can man be saved according to its precepts? Only by an individual act of faith in God’s willingness to accept an intrinsically evil monster to live with Him eternally. Nothing that a man might do, good or bad, can, according to the Puritan dogma, affect the outcome of his personal saga.
The results of such an outlook are manifold. A dichotomy between the all-perfect God and totally wicked individuals allows no scope for the work of society in the divine plan. All men are like atoms in the face of their God, fundamentally alone in their approach to Him. “Atomism” is, perhaps, the most basic Puritan by-product. The presumption of communities and authorities like the Church, which claimed to lead men to God, became intolerable. Popes and bishops, seen in this light, must inevitably corrupt whatever functions they perform in this wicked world, and, hence, cannot be part of the divine plan. A “Church”, insofar as one must exist to perform symbolic functions and prayer meetings, thus becomes merely the instrument of a “democratic” congregation of atomistic believers.
Man’s efforts to transform the universe into a “mirror of God” become equally useless. Music, art, architecture, food and dress and everything else attempting to elaborate the beauties of a corrupted cosmos become an abomination. Europe as a whole, whose cities had blossomed under Catholic auspices and hosted innumerable varieties of human endeavor, becomes hopelessly decadent. Many Puritans drew the conclusion that the only way in which a God-fearing Christian might survive would be by fleeing as far from Babylon as possible, to the other side of the ocean, to a New World. Here, paradoxically, he could create a place of safety, a New Jerusalem, a City on a Hill living outside of and above the vain attempt to divinize the universe.
Puritan Protestants did not necessarily wish to change the concept of “home”, “nation”, and “patriotism”. They, too, were English, and, hence, subject to the same conservatism tugging at the British “soul”. Moreover, unconscious Catholic habits and the pressure exerted by a thousand years of Catholic social life often prevented them from putting the full destructive force of their own ideas into operation. Nevertheless, the logic of Puritan Protestantism propelled it towards startling alterations in the patriotic ideal in America. It was destined to reach this end through its encouragement of secularization.
Secularization was promoted by Puritan Protestantism in three ways. One was by having supported tenets so inhuman as to drive men away from God in horror. A second was through establishing such a stark dichotomy between God and man as to throw into doubt the rationality of Christ’s whole mission, to deny the reality of the Incarnation and to retire the divine beyond man’s reach. The last was by so disdaining the world and ridiculing the possibility of its transformation as to liberate nature entirely from God’s direction. Even though Puritans desired none of these consequences, the logic of Puritanism ensured their success. Their progress was often hidden from public awareness, partly because the Anglo-Saxon conservative sense led those who had lost their faith to continue to refer to “God” and Christian terminology in discussing their non-Christian ideas, and partly because such men no longer even sensed the significance of their own apostasy.
A secularized man cannot completely shed the influences that formed him. The “secular Puritan” is still puritanical in his way of dealing with the world. This is obvious in three aspects of his outlook, all of which have reached their logical conclusions by our time.
One can begin by noting that although he no longer believes in God in an orthodox sense, the secular Puritan continues to understand men to be atoms, individuals in whose life society plays no true role. Just as a man was expected to make a private act of faith in God, he is now meant to make a private act of faith in his own “goals”, independently of his fellow creatures. Just as he once privately interpreted the Scriptures, he now must be “self-reliant” in his guidance of his own life. And just as the Church, with its panoply of authorities, was seen to be an unwarranted intruder in the relationship of the individual and God, all secular institutions are now condemned from the same standpoint. The state, the family, authoritative traditions in general and one’s pet enemy organization in particular, are all held to be guilty of a form of breaking and entering. Evil in and of themselves, they explain the persistence of wickedness on this planet and can only be tolerated if they exercise their functions subject to the free acceptance of individuals and through democratic structures analogous to those of the Puritan congregations. The present assault upon every aspect of authority, particularly visible since the 1960’s, is directly related to this attitude and cannot be understood without it. Secularized Puritanism and authority are mortal enemies.
Secondly, Puritanism can still be noted in the secularized American’s discomfort with efforts to transform the world into a “mirror of God”. This discomfort appears in two forms, superficially contradictory but firmly related at their root. Many Americans continue to anathematize “high culture”. They characterize everything from architecture and music to cooking and clothing as silly, wasteful, and effeminate, the moment that it rises above the mediocre. Other Americans feel the need to escape the blandness around them. They cannot, however, bring themselves to flee from it by cultivating truly serious culture. This would so tie them into the Greco-Roman and Catholic tradition as to frighten them back into their mediocrity. Instead, they develop a new type of “high culture” based upon the mad, individualistic ravings of their tortured puritanical souls. Their “cultural” creations are then guiltily justified by them with reference to deep biological or psychological needs. The one group of secularized Puritans adores the Big Mac as the height of human achievement; the other, a homosexual’s multi-million dollar sculpture of a broken toothpick. In short, the Puritan, after his break with faith as during its full fervor, is unable to grasp the principle of restoring all things in Christ. He manifests his inability in either philistinism or perversion. If he does discover the true heritage of the West, he converts to Catholicism or plays carelessly with it like an adolescent plays haphazardly with things before which he should stand in awe.
Finally, the secularized Puritan cannot shake his conviction that the United States is divinely protected, the New Jerusalem, the place set apart by God to house those saints who have fled from Babylon. Even though God does not exist for him in the old way, something god-like is understood to guide the United States towards establishment of the Heavenly City on earth. America’s divine uniqueness now lies in the fact that this country has democratic institutions, that its geographical isolation continues to separate it from decadent European cultures and that its Pluralism, at least on the surface, appears to provide room for the atomistic individual to maneuver. Although his belief that evil can be dealt with through application of “the American Way” may seem to indicate a break with the Puritan past, it really is not. It is in the nature of a doctrine as horrible as Puritanism to push someone psychologically from espousal of a concept like that of total depravity to espousal of its exact opposite, just as it is in the nature of horrible exercise of parental authority psychologically to push a child to complete abandonment of his parents’ teaching. And it is also in the nature of a secularized Puritanism which has lost its vision of God and of Heaven to seek paradise in an earthly realm, peopled by autonomous, god-like atoms manipulating democratic pseudo-societies of the type that America seems to promise.
We are now at the crux of the problem. If America, even in the mind of the secularized Puritan, is the City on a Hill, it would seem to mean that “home” is something worth protecting. But the “nation”, understood in a traditional sense, must itself be a stumbling block to such a mentality. It is a hindrance because it, too, demands respect for authority, whether in the form of institutions or in that of customs and traditions. The true patriot must put brakes upon his “self-reliance” and his atomistic freedom for the good of the country. He is obliged to recognize his inability to provide for himself and his family, to communicate sensibly with a sizeable community and to blossom as a personality outside of his cradle. He is required to admit that society is good or, rather, that societies of all kinds are good, since no one can love his nation and hate the things that make it great. No one can love France, recognizing that the French nation gives him a language, people who understand his way of life, soil on which to be nourished, and a place to lay his head, without at least respecting those forces which contributed to creating it: the Roman Church, the universities, the communal institutions of the city of Paris, and a thousand other entities besides. The true patriot must, in the last analysis, be prepared to give his life to maintain his nation just as he must be prepared to give his life in the defense of his own body. But if a secularized Puritanism is to triumph, the patriot, patriotism, and all the baggage accompanying the idea of the nation must disappear. “Home” demands too much, it is too authoritarian, too reminiscent of the Church’s vain effort to place itself between God and the individual. Yet how could one maintain love for America without allowing it to become love of nation in its unacceptable sense?
The dilemma may be resolved only by giving a new definition of patriotism in the New World, one that takes secularized Puritanism and its preoccupations to heart. A patriotism demanding sacrifices for the sake of the cradle, and thus placing impositions upon the individual, is seen as a wicked thing. But a patriotism which redefines love of country and makes it into devotion to a set of anti-authoritarian principles is another story entirely. A patriotism reminding man of his dependence upon his city, tongue, and fellow citizens, the dead as well as the living, is seen to be as shameful as it is despotic. But a “patriotism” eliminating all these images could make a magnificent contribution to the liberation of the human race.
How could such a patriotism be developed? By transforming the prudential and, indeed, illusory phenomenon of pluralism into an iron-clad Pluralist Faith; by insisting that the nurturing of diversity as such is the only real purpose of government; by praising American institutions for working towards this end, despite the fact that, historically, such a goal has played no role in the conservative, Anglo-Saxon program; by then explaining that “God”, or whatever force a secularized man might find operative in the universe, had set up the United States and given it its Constitution and its wealth for the sake of propagating atomistic individualism. And, finally, by indicating that patriotism is also service to this cause. Patriotism no longer means protection of American institutions in the sense of their being the legitimate authoritative bodies ruling over men in this country, but protection of American institutions insofar as they help to crush the very principle of authority. Patriotism no longer means protection of American borders in and of themselves, but only insofar as they are the borders of that New Jerusalem established to destroy community and tradition. Indeed, seen in this light, everyone ought—and, indeed, must—establish American institutions and the “American Way of Life”. But, if, through some terrible apostasy, the City on a Hill were to betray its mission, everyone would then be obliged to be devoted to the humiliation of America, whether living in Moscow or Athens or Washington, D.C. True patriotism would then mean devotion to whatever other country takes up the cause of the Pluralist Doctrine. In this second, long unthinkable situation, the “patriot” must necessarily engage in what men throughout the long course of human history have always rightly called treason. And in whatever they do to promote this new form of “patriotism”, we shall see that they do not ensure freedom but, rather, the reign of pure force; the triumph of the will.
II. The Americanist Heresy
We are now in a position to define Americanism. Americanism is a religion which both major elements of the American “soul”—secularized Puritanism and Anglo-Saxon conservatism—have helped to develop. Americanism is a religion that adores the United States as the incarnation of the secularized Puritan vision of paradise. It is a religion that simultaneously adores the bland, materialistic, catch-all unity that stems from the Anglo-Saxon drive for stability and integration. Americanism is an evangelical religion that wishes the rest of the world to be converted to its doctrines and preaches them under the heading of Pluralism. Even though its dogmas are as iron-clad as Marxist ones, even though it inevitably revolutionizes societies under its control, it masquerades as being nothing other than a practical method of attaining the good life. Americanism subtly combines the ideological character of Puritanism with Anglo-Saxon disdain for ideas. Patriotism in the United States is devotion to this complex Americanist-Pluralist religion.
Let us examine the different aspects of this religion in greater detail. The strength of the secularized Puritan element in Americanism is incontestable. Few dare to defy the notion that America has a divine mission to protect atomistic freedom, Pluralism and Democracy. The Americanist faith is evoked on every ceremonial occasion by each political faction in its own distinct fashion. It is inscribed on national monuments and in patriotic legend. The conservative cult of the Constitution as a God-given document reflects it. So does the Monroe Doctrine, which establishes the New World as an American sphere of influence, not on the grounds of self-interest, but as a means of carving out a “truly free” segment of the globe. The symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, the adulation of unrestricted capitalism and the spirit behind the American Civil Liberties Union are all different manifestations of the same religious definition of the meaning and glory of the United States. Moreover, the fideistic way in which this American Religion is taught, one which permits no investigation and discussion of the principles upon which it rests, is as classically Puritan as the historical influence of “preachers”—ministers, and then, in secularized form, professors, psychologists, journalists, etc.—in the interpretation of the true will of the supposedly autonomous individual.
Puritan and secularized Puritan control of the main educational and propaganda organs in the United States did much to ensure penetration of the vision of America’s evangelical mission, especially after the defeat of the southern aristocracy, whose peculiar and unfortunate character made it an obstacle to this. It was not, however, the only factor aiding such penetration. Indeed, certain features of the drive for integration also indirectly contributed to the strength of the Puritan vision of America’s role in the world. Thus, for example, incoming groups of immigrants were grateful, in a good patriotic sense, for the real material benefits they had won as a result of their acceptance here. They were all too unaware of the price they would ultimately have to pay in true happiness for the ability to consume goods that they did not really need or initially want. The United States, for them, was the land of milk and honey. Since the powers-that-be claimed that atomistic democracy and Pluralism were their essential backdrop, the immigrants gave the Americanist Religion their genuine support. They were too tired from trying to “make it” to notice what a sham their supposed freedom really was in the Pluralist scheme of things. The myth of American liberty became their myth as well. Also, the “integrationist” insistence upon work and material achievement, although not intrinsically anti-patriotic in the old sense of the word, aided anti-patriotic secular Puritanism in practice. It forced men to act as atomists, to lower their sights from God to insurance policies, to flee from the centers of community life, regardless of the emotional costs involved, just so long as a dollar was to be earned elsewhere. The constant picking up and leaving that has long been a part of the American way of life had to destroy tradition, authority and a sense of commitment in a way that aided the secularized Puritan cause.
Americanism, however, also means “religious” devotion to the bland consequences of the Anglo-Saxon drive for stability. It entails devoting oneself not only to the cause of atomistic freedom, but to a rejection of the firm ideas and divisive behavior that can come from actually exercising freedom. The result has been that Americanism requires simultaneous commitment to atomistic diversity and integrationist unanimity. While praising individualism, an American is really expected to avoid it like the plague. American protocol insists upon a danse macabre, an insane ritual of exulting in liberty and behaving with herd-like docility, whether in politics, at work or in private behavior. The inherent paradox has been seemingly resolved by insisting upon twisting individual “creativity” to the development of vulgar advertising jingles, unisex clothing and broad, insipid, intellectual formulae for everything from philosophy to foreign policy. Those who follow the prescribed pattern are lauded as being both men of conviction as well as team players; those who reject it are either laughed off center stage or written out of polite society as being insane. Older foreigners exposed to this horror are often baffled by it (though their children have digested the lessons and learned the steps of the danse macabre all too well). Most Americans do not even notice it, nor do foreigners raised under its spell from birth. Secularized Puritanism indirectly aids the adulation of unanimity just as the Anglo-Saxon conservative sense indirectly aids the growth of atomism. The philistines and perverts who are the standard bearers of Americanist creativity would not know what individualism really meant even if their lives depended upon it.
Americanism promoted an atomism that sneered at true community life with its panoply of authorities and traditions as the worst of plagues. This atomism did not understand just how necessary community was to save men from madness. When this atomism infected country living, where such respect was often great and where it was perhaps most essential, it made rural existence intolerably lonely. It has now created the suburb. It has punished those who fled the structured community of the old city for the “freedom” of the outside world with the misery of lives spent on super highways and in soulless shopping malls. The drive towards individual space has led to the creation of vast tracts of “sameness” across the entire breadth of the land. Similarly, those who wished to remain in cities found themselves forced to apologize for their behavior with reference to “personal needs”, “unique life styles”, and an equally corrupt spirit of self-reliance. This “individualism” has been crowned by an insufferable and repulsive trendiness. If the suburbanite atomist is herd-like in his vulgarity, the city-dwelling atomist is machine-like in his obsession with pseudo-intellectual and cultural fads. Americanism is, to a large degree, responsible for their troubles, and Americanism is a principle of death; of life-long euthanasia.
There are four major problems with Americanism, all of which have been mentioned above and which must be summarized now. Americanism is a false religion, a fideism disguised as being merely a practical method for achieving peace amidst diversity and attainment of a free and happy life for all. Rather than providing peace and freedom, it ensures the triumph of base, irrational will. This dangerous fideism destroys patriotism and the nation. It has the same effect on serious religion—especially the true one, the Catholic Faith. Let us examine each of these four problems in turn.
The Americanist usually claims that the American government and way of life are simply practical, effective pathways to human happiness. He also insists that they are “doctrineless” and “neutral” in character by virtue of the fact that they offer every possible viewpoint a chance to thrive. But we have seen that these are misrepresentations of reality. America is tied together with Pluralism, which is an evangelical form of secularized Puritanism, and shaped by the Anglo-Saxon tradition under pressures from immigration as well. This Pluralism breaks down commitment to all other ideas, establishing a purely materialistic harmony among pseudo-individualists. It has become one of the most effective means of oppression, repressing, as Marcuse says, by tolerating everything to meaninglessness and, therefore, to death. No beneficial new order of the ages began for mankind with the United States and the American Constitution. No new, happier man was born from the American way of life. Rather than providing some special form of grace to transform men (which only the sacraments can give), America and American Pluralism offer an example of the dismal logical consequences of certain already aged ideas and tendencies under the understandable though regrettable circumstances of American History.
But what is of concern to us here is the fact that the Americanist has made an act of faith in the unique ability of American institutions to achieve the good, and that he does not see that he has actually become an ideologue. This blindness is totally comprehensible. Americanism does not appear to be a religion because it had to adopt the language of pragmatism to make headway in an Anglo-Saxon country that dislikes ideas. It does not appear to be a religion because of the subtle, generally non-coercive, Anglo-Saxon way in which it goes about its work.
The fact that Americanism is a religion and that many Americans do not see through its pragmatic mask is aided immeasurably by its fideistic character. Fideism is not a faith-seeking-understanding like Catholicism, respectful as the Catholic Faith is of both theology and philosophy, revelation and reason. Fideism prohibits all investigation of its central tenets and their difficulties. This is precisely what Americanism does. It defends and promotes the cult of America as God-Sacrament-Liberation Theology-Pragmatic Tool by cutting off every possible means of investigating and criticizing the various aspects of the American Way. One needs all the disciplines, supernatural and natural, to expose the errors of Americanism, since we have seen that it has developed out of a mesh of theological, philosophical, historical, sociological, and psychological factors. But the two-sided character of the error, secularized Puritan and Anglo-Saxon conservative, combined together ultimately in one, disguised, fideistic faith, works against a complete study of its essence and mode of operation. If one attacks its logical flaws on theological and philosophical grounds, it responds by referring to its purely pragmatic nature, claiming that it must not be taken on an “abstract” level but only as a practical method for establishing peace and freedom amidst the irrational flaw of human events. If one takes these arguments seriously and finds fault with Americanism on a practical, pragmatic level, on the basis of its historical, sociological, and psychological fruits, then it calls forth its exalted role as the sole means of attaining happiness for mankind. It one then returns to the attack on the abstract level, comparing the “truth” of Americanism with other truths, “pragmatic” Pluralism enters into the breach to denounce the practical, divisive effects of such an inquiry. It exhorts everyone to get his mind out of the clouds and focus it on something concrete, common-sensical and really helpful. Hence, the enemy of Americanism hears himself categorized as being simultaneously romantic, naïve, and cynical: an unmotivated, lazy, misanthropic wretch, eager to demoralize simple, virtuous, common-sensical people, and probably a totalitarian in the bargain. The result is to lower a blindfold over peoples’ eyes; to insist that they accept as unassailable doctrines what the Americanist writings claim America to be; to do so while denying that these are truly doctrines, but while also prohibiting the use of all the rational tools that would uncover the fraud which is at work. The only “rational” tool whose use the fideist permits in order to understand and “criticize” Americanism is the recitation of the tenets of Americanism themselves. And these, of course, offer it nothing but praise.
A second problem which needs to be underlined now is that, rather than providing peace and freedom, Americanism ensures the triumph of the kind of base, irrational will which destroys them. Why? Basically because of that disdain and even hatred for ideas and rational authority at work in Puritanism, in secularized Puritanism, and in an Anglo-Saxon mentality deprived of a, consistent Catholic direction. Supporters of Americanism refer us back to the Founders, a study of whom actually demonstrates much of the difficulty. James Madison, in the Federalist, speaks with confidence of America’s ability to secure peace due to the “multiplicity of factions” existing within its borders. He even argues that this multiplicity of factions be encouraged, since its encouragement will mean that no faction will ever be able to gain power over the others. A permanent war of all against all will check and balance each into a common nullity guaranteeing the continued maintenance of the existing public order (and private aristocracy).
This attitude presumes too much. For one thing, it presumes that a human society can, and perhaps even should, be built upon division, and not just division, but a struggle among the divided parts which will not be permitted a conclusion. The question is, of course, whether this would not in the long run cause the various groups struggling amongst themselves either to recognize the pointlessness of their struggle and unite in seeking some common oppressive goals or to adopt new, unforeseen tactics to assure their own unpalatable victory.
Consideration of this question leads us to another false presumption at work among the Founders and important in understanding the flaws in Madison’s argument: the sufficiency of the eighteenth century, Anglo-Saxon “common sense” view of reality to protect a public order which is also good. As stated above, this view of reality was itself shaped by that Puritan and secularized Puritan concept of life which understood men to be depraved, individual atomist at war with authority. Appreciation of the consequences of this concept among the Founders may well have been limited by an Anglo-Saxon propensity not to investigate ideas too seriously, by maintenance of many older external forms in the midst of negative change (like the Anglican Church herself), and by the remnants of Catholic or classical influences still at work in society. They may not have willed the consequences of these ideas, but their will is not the problem here. The question is whether Puritan and secularized Puritan ideas have logical consequences of the sort that I have indicated; consequences which other men may “will” to draw and apply to life.
And this, as we have seen, they do. The atomization of man and of human society multiplies factions further and further. The most common and successful of such willful factions are those which the American system was disposed to produce by its history (i.e., sexual, commercial, and lunatic). Reason is itself rejected as a guide since that, too, is considered to be an oppressive authority. All of these factions are thrown back on their irrational wills to justify themselves and their life styles, while the meaning of “common sense” is expanded to permit them do so since their suppression could be “divisive” and disturb the peace. In a struggle of irrational wills, tactics will be used that might not have been “common-sensical” according to the Founders, but which are judged to be just fine in an atomistic world exposing people to perpetual temptations. A supporter of the Founders is reduced to insisting that this is not what they wanted—in other words, to an appeal to their will. An appeal to will even in their case is not surprising given that a rational probe of their understanding of “common sense” reveals the seeds of the same evils and destructive fruits which we see around us today. But in the struggle of the multiplicity of factions guided by irrational wills, the strongest triumphs, and the twentieth century factions are both stronger and more logical in their willfulness than those of the 1700’s. Of course, Americanists will never admit to the reality of what is happening around them. They will continue to refer back to what the Founders said and wrote, ignoring the factors which tell us what their judgments actually have meant in practice. They will sweep the truth under the rug for the sake of defending their fideistic faith, and they will thereby make impossible that daily search for acting justly which they claim is rendered unnecessary by the machine-like openness and constitutional guarantees of Pluralism.
Thirdly, Americanism destroys patriotism and the nation. Those who accept it and are truly interested in ideas will take its secularized Puritan elements seriously, and see it to be their patriotic duty to support anyone “hurt” by a United States which betrays its “mission” to set peoples free. They will, therefore, willingly aid outright enemies of the country in various parts of the globe and destroy its consistent friends, should they believe Pluralism to be invoked by the former and rejected by the latter. Despite horrendous strategic consequences, truly destructive to the concrete nation, American ideals and American purity must be honored! Meanwhile, Americans who understand something of what a nation truly means and who want to protect the United States and her legitimate self-interests in a traditional sense, are misled by Americanist influences into dangerous waters as well. Thus, for example, they presume that every other nation’s practical desires ought to bend to fit our own. For does not the United States, by definition, defend what is good? It might, on specific occasions. But even if it does, one must always recognize that there are also legitimate national differences which will last until the end of time, and it is precisely these distinctions which a true patriotic sense discerns and respects in other peoples. Sometimes, such Americans think that the only reason for our quarrel with the Soviet Union was our different political and social institutions—as though exaggerated Russian military power would have been a mere trifle without Marxism-Leninism! Americanism blinds them to the fact that nations fought wars before ideologies existed and will continue to do so should they ever disappear. And, finally, there are true patriots, who are also respectful of other nations’ integrity. They find, to their amazement, that the entire strength of the Americanist message is aimed against them and the expression of their real love of the land and concern for the independence of all nations. Why are they amazed? Because no one has pointed out the existence of Americanism to them.
The result is that Americanism makes us men without a country, just as it makes us men without an authoritative state, a network of real institutions with traditions and esprit de corps, men without a history. Americanism seeks to replace the nation with an ideology, patriotism with an ideological, fideisitic religion. But ideology cannot take the place of faith, the state, the city, the family and everything else of importance to national life. It cannot take the place of a real nation. And, hence, it leaves the American suspended in a limbo which the Americanist would have us believe is a model for the cosmos as a whole.
Finally, let us remember that this fideistic faith disguised as patriotism is a jealous thing, and cannot endure competition with real religion. Of course, it would never admit to being a problem for religion, just as it would never admit to being a problem for reason, precisely because it does not see itself as it actually is. Nevertheless, it works ferociously against any faith that contradicts it. It cannot rest until is sucks all substance out of opposing creeds. But operating in the subtle way that it does, it prefers to destroy by reinterpretation; by allowing and even encouraging the survival of its opponents, so long as they redefine their beliefs and goals along Pluralist, Americanist lines. And it was to find its most serious opponent in the Roman Catholic Church and its greatest victory in conquering and blindfolding her to her own collapse.
III. Americanism and the Catholic Church
Americanism was bound to react against Catholicism with peculiar virulence. Indeed, it was obliged to do so. Catholicism represented all that both major influences on the American Religion reproved. The Church condemned the doctrine of total depravity and the secular consequences stemming from it. She did not disdain the principle of authority, the value of community, the wonder of the arts and the glory of the human body. Hence, she did not hand them over to man’s sinful tendencies to be shaped willfully, but, rather, sought to guide them to their proper fulfillment. Rome saw no need to worship the American model of government. The Church was at home in the city. Her traditions were tied in with the heritage of the Greco-Roman polis and the brilliant culture of the medieval town. Moreover, Catholicism had long nourished a diversity of national cultures within that real (even if difficult to define) unity called Christendom. Harmony, in her mind, did not entail an end to ethnic differences nor a minimizing of the universal truth, nor an adulation of materialism. She was ready to sacrifice a cheap, narrowly-construed idea of peace at any price for the sake of obtaining the peace that surpasses all understanding. Other forces encountered by Americanism might embody one or two “erroneous” beliefs, easily defused and integrated into the gray, Pluralist dogma, but Catholicism was the enemy incarnate.
American animosity towards the Church was expressed in as many ways as there were personal reflections of the national soul. The brutish burned convents and churches in Philadelphia. Men of religion evoked images of Bloody Mary from Fox’s Book of Martyrs. They aroused congregations to sympathy for the supposed torments of captive nuns in New England convent dungeons. Politicos set to work in the Know-Nothings, the American Protection Association and the Ku Klux Klan. Intellectuals, cultivating what some have called the anti-semitism of the educated classes, delivered learned papers at Harvard and Yale on the inevitable conflict of Catholicism and human dignity. None of these “types” had to fear serious reprobation. Each was putting the national creed into action according to his peculiar gifts. If the enemy of the American Religion was incapable of being devoured, then it would have to be humiliated and destroyed.
Two distinct Catholic viewpoints regarding the best method of protecting the Church and Catholics in America were in obvious conflict by the latter half of the nineteenth century. One of these was convinced that the battle between Catholicism and American society was an unnecessary one. It has long been labeled the Americanist position. This title is a justifiable one, as shall become clear below, since supporters of the Americanist position gradually grew close to the Americanist faith described in the previous section. Three names stand out among its more significant proponents: Bishop John Keane of Richmond, sometime Rector of Catholic University; Msgr. Denis O’Connell of the North American College in Rome; and Bishop John Ireland of St. Paul. The opposing viewpoint took a much more critical attitude towards the possibilities of an American-Catholic rapprochement. It may simply be called the anti-Americanist outlook. Anti-Americanism had a very flexible set of supporters. Leaders of German-speaking Catholics frequently espoused it. So did several foreign faculty members at Catholic University. Bishops such as Corrigan of New York and McQuaid of Rochester were more comfortable with its skepticism than with the optimism of the Americanist school.
There are at least four good explanations for the development of the Americanist position. Two of these are “positive” in character in the sense of responding to real problems. Two are “negative” in that they reflect unfortunate preoccupations that ought to have been suppressed.
The two positive stimuli to the growth of Americanism were the desire for a true home and the awareness of nativist exploitation of the “alien” Catholics. Europe was far away, Americanists argued, unlikely ever to be seen again by the bulk of Catholic immigrants. The American government, American working conditions and American neighbors would provide the framework for their existence for the rest of their lives. Should wars come, American armies might demand their blood. Hence, the faster that they cut their ties with their lost European past, the sooner that they ceased viewing themselves as strangers in a strange land, the better for their tranquility, material prosperity and the peace of the Church. Hyphenated Americans would always be unhappy and disrespected Americans.
Two negative influences were present, however, in the form of an unhealthy reaction to America’s status as a mission country and in the particular ambitions of some members of one Catholic ethnic group—the Irish. Both of these demand a full and separate attention.
The United States was a mission country of enormous size underneath the supervision of Propaganda in Rome. Because it was a mission country, it required a vast amount of help from abroad in order to survive. How few remember today, for example, the fact that the American episcopacy was once heavily spiced with French prelates, and that seminary training in this country was subject to tremendous Gallic influence.
One of the difficulties of being a mission country is the fact that it is all too painfully clear that the center of things is far away. There are no sacred places. There are no confessors and martyrs or holy kings. There is no developed music or art or theology or any of the other hallmarks of a high Catholic civilization. Mission countries are often engaged in a race to cease being what they are and to arrive, so to speak, at the center of things. This, however, is a cumbersome task and can—indeed, it must—take centuries if it is to be deeply rooted.
A people as “practical” and “results-oriented” as the Americans find slow movements impossible to tolerate. Americanists, sensitive to this mentality, were similar in spirit. Surely, good will and ingenuity ought to be able to make history move faster! What better way to speed it up than to find in the soul of America Catholic lessons about which the rest of the Mystical Body of Christ was ignorant? In other words, what more efficient means of ending one’s mission country status than by declaring the periphery to be the center! In this way, the remainder of the Church could be viewed as the true mission territory and the United States as its teacher.
The second negative influence is the more difficult one to discuss because it seems to be an indictment of an entire people, the Irish. It is not. Many Irish were among the most vigorous opponents of Americanism, and the problem that I am about to discuss may well have been an unconscious one for those who were not. Nevertheless, a complete understanding of Americanism as an historical phenomenon requires touching upon the Irish Question in a manner that some may find to be offensive.
American Catholics of German and French descent were generally of a higher material and cultural level than those who were not. The Germans, for example, had carefully planned their immigration, settled comfortably upon their arrival and often maintained their interest in the outward manifestations of Catholic high culture. Irish Catholics, persecuted for centuries by the English, could not do the same thing. Their only real advantage in the new homeland was the fact that they could speak its language. So long as the mission country status of the Church in the United States continued, along with its emphasis upon the glories of the past tradition, the French and Germans retained a closer tie with the center of things. As soon as that tradition began to weaken, however, and the star of America rose within the Church, then the Irish fortune might rise with it. The key to understanding the American “teachings” would be the English language, not cultivation, and in this endeavor the Germans and the French could be outmatched. Ironically, as some have pointed out, an Irish connection with Americanism would involve the Celts in a glorification of the “enemy” Anglo-Saxon achievement.
Just as positive and negative influences may be indicated in the growth of the Americanist attitude, a two-fold set of factors is responsible for the evolution of the opposing position. Hostility to Americanism was certainly due to fears of its effects upon the corpus of Catholic teachings and the practices of the faithful. It was also the product of a certain jealousy of the successes of the Americanist leaders in mainstream society in this country. Moreover, German ethnic pride and sense of cultural superiority may also have played their role irrespective of the substantive issues involved.
The Americanists were probably right in insisting upon the need for wholehearted Catholic involvement in American society. Catholicism does, after all, have a vision of full participation in all forms of community life. It is not healthy for Catholics to retreat from this vision. When they do so retreat, they have a tendency to create substitute communities that temporarily protect them from the reality around them but which cannot shut it out permanently. They become sectarian in their behavior, sometimes even psychologically ill, like so many Protestant cultists. When this retreat takes place within an already Protestant environment, such as that of the United States, the potential for madness is incalculable. The existence of a non-Catholic society is always a tragedy, and one which mutilates many of the best efforts to deal with it. It is conceivable that a complete victory of the anti-Americanists could have entailed the development of a true ghetto mentality with unpredictable heterodox side effects. It is also conceivable that it might have left the Church in the United States as a set of colonial churches dependent upon foreign governments and traditions, thus arousing quite rational nativist fears.
Nevertheless, the enthusiasm and the type of arguments with which the Americanists promoted the difficult enterprise of making contact with American society indicate their unsuitability for the task. It seems to be fairly clear that a desire to “fit in” to American life caused them to be very blithe about the dangers of “slippage” from the Faith; that the Americanists themselves, in displaying their “patriotism”, began to espouse the “religion” of the United States; and that, finally, adoption of this false patriotic religion began to make them bend Catholicism to the demands of the drab, Pluralist culture around them. In other words, they were conquered by Americanism and became spokesmen for their conqueror.
IV. The Opposing Camps
Americanist spokesmen encouraged any number of sensitive contacts with non-Catholics that radically increased the chance of a break with the Church. They rejected demands for foreign language parishes for immigrants and an ethnic sharing of bishoprics, regardless of the fact that a sudden immersion in Anglo-Saxon culture might mean a drowning in Protestantism as well. Some urged newly-arrived Catholics to abandon the city centers for a countryside where anti-Romanism reigned supreme. Major Americanist figures seem to have been embarrassed at the idea of a separate Catholic school system, preferring state education supplemented by religious instruction. What of the prolonged exposure of school children to teachers trained in hostility to Catholicism? They saw the problem as being an exaggerated one.
While nervous of Catholic lower education, they dreamed of a national Catholic university, the present Catholic University of America, which became a reality during the 1880’s and 1890’s. This was envisioned by them as a tool for breaking out of the ghetto, as an instrument for encouraging educated Catholic contribution to American civilization in a spirit of friendship. But what of the national culture’s penchant for unanimity and the probability that “friendship” would transform the Catholic intelligentsia into yet another group of mindless adulators of the Pluralist party line? And were there no dangers to the Americanist call for Catholic and non-Catholic cooperation in labor unions? Could workers’ interests be so clinically separated from their personal beliefs that a man’s atheism, Protestantism, or Catholicism did not shade them in any significant fashion?
Americanists, as already noted, were largely motivated to urge these contacts because of their “patriotism” and because they believed that they were a practical necessity. They were enthusiastic, both in public and in private, in their gratitude towards the United States for what they felt that the Catholic peoples had gained here. They tried to demonstrate to Catholics the practical use that they could make out of American separation of Church and State. They sought to convince other Americans that full Catholic participation in national life would strengthen this country still further. Once the United States entered the race for colonies, many Americanists became fervent Imperialists. The Spanish-American War was crucial to them, both as a means of displaying their patriotism as well as for the chance it gave to underline the value of the Catholic contribution to the common cause.
Alas! Americanists, like other Americans, were seduced into confusing true patriotism with devotion to the religion of atomism, democracy and Pluralism. They were led from the practical acceptance and use of the unique American experience into its glorification as a superior good in and of itself. This adoption of the secular religion described in the previous section can be seen in endless statements and symbolic actions during the lat twenty years of the nineteenth century. It is best summarized in a biography of Fr. Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), founder of the Paulists, which will be discussed in further detail below.
Several examples will suffice to illustrate my point. Because they had begun to become atomists in the Puritan sense, Americanists were often not alarmed at the prospect of enticing Catholic immigrants away from the cities. They saw America as a place wherein individuals no longer needed the superficial aids of past Catholic communities. Older Catholic cultures were “weak”, and, hence, understandably more dependent upon authority, spiritual directors, miracles and other religious manifestations to keep up their spirit. They were “passive” in character. No wonder that they appreciated “passive” virtues, like obedience, and developed so many religious orders maintained by life-long vows and disciplinary methods.
Now, however, America had created the potential for developing strong individuals who could be “active” instead of “passive”, who were “doers” instead of obedient servants. The Holy Spirit poured Himself out directly to self-reliant American individuals in a way that He did not wish to do with passive Europeans. Hence, they could dispense with certain of the authoritative, visible aids that other Catholic peoples required. As one American archbishop said at Lourdes, there were no appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the United States because Americans did not need them. Individual Catholic Americans could survive more fruitfully than those wrapped up in the community-rich, medieval European setting. Unfortunately, he did not understand that they would be living off of the diminishing capital of the past as they stripped themselves of all reference to it.
Similarly, Americanists were not terribly frightened of state schools in the United States because they presumed that American institutions were divinely shielded from error and abuse. Rather than being products of necessity, political choice and the American Constitution, America’s freedoms and her separation of Church and State were God’s most perfect political and social gifts to man. They were magnificent by definition. Therefore, nothing guided by them, such as state schools, could ever harm Catholicism.
Finally, the Americanists’ true spirit is underlined by the character of the statements that they made about our country’s victory in the Spanish-American War. Americanists combined their views with Social Darwinism to express just how natural this victory really was. The Latin peoples, they argued, were subjects of inferior, decadent, authoritarian cultures. Hence, they were still childlike in behavior. America represented superior, individualistic Anglo-Saxon culture, and her victory would set the inhabitants of the Caribbean free. Indeed, her victory demonstrated that the banner of God and of humanity was in her hands. America would soon be in a position to teach the world that democracy, separation of Church and State and rugged individualism were Catholicism’s best friends.
All of the elements of secularized Puritan Americanism are present in these statements: atomism, disdain for Europe and belief in the divine mission of America. Unfortunately, the consequence of acceptance of this secular religion also began to make its appearance as well: namely, the minimizing of the Catholic Faith for the sake of fitting in with vague, bland, materialistic Pluralist Fideism. Insistence upon the superiority of “active” virtues like work over “passive” ones such as obedience already indicate this transformation. So does American Catholic neglect of art and music. So, too, does the willingness of Americanists to be present at ceremonies in Harvard Chapel and the Brigham Young Monument in Utah. So does the gesture of giving dubious titles like “The Ultimate Religion” to otherwise decent Catholic talks at a “World Parliament of Religions” representing everyone from Anglicans to theosophists and swamis.
None of these developments was missed by the opponents of Americanism. They argued that Americanism was, to a certain degree, simply a means of adulating the unacceptable spirit of American life. Americans did not want the supernatural to interfere with their lives, such critics insisted, and the Americanists were trying to accommodate them by declaring their naturalistic concerns and abilities to be supernatural promptings and virtues anyway. American government had developed in such a fashion as to banish the Church from political and social matters. Secularists now praised this development. Americanists were trying to ingratiate themselves with such people by declaring separation of Church and State to be the ideal Catholic goal. In fact, what Americanists were saying was that Protestant and Enlightenment influences, such as those which had built the United States, produce higher cultures than Catholic ones. Rather than less authority and community and supernatural manifestations, the anti-Americanists argued, the United States required more of these than did other nations. The American Religion did provide some of the things that it promised, particularly material benefits. But unless the United States were permeated with the supernatural, this very prosperity would expel God from the nation. It would expel Him not as an atheist would banish Him, as an evil superstition, but as an inconsequential and superfluous being who interfered with consumption. And it would do so in the wrapping of seemingly traditional Protestant Christian language.
Three issues, more than any others, brought the battle between Americanists and their opponents to a head during the 1880’s and 1890’s, forcing Rome to deal with the problem. These three problems were the German Question, the conflict over Catholic University and the publication of the French translation of Fr. Elliott’s Life of Fr. Isaac Hecker.
The German Question chiefly involved the debate over German Catholic efforts to protect their identity as an ethnic group. It centered around the issues of appointment of bishops in the United States with regard to ethnic considerations, the feasibility of foreign-language parishes and the separate Catholic school problem. It did not pit all of the opponents of Americanism on the same side of the fence since many anti-Americanists did believe in the ultimate need for an English-speaking unity in this country. What it did so, however, was to identify the power of many of the Americanist spokesmen and demonstrate the awe in which they held America and American institutions. Germans became embittered as a result of this debate, both by what they felt to be the Irish domination of the Church and the way in which certain Americanist Irish prelates seemed to be accusing them of greater loyalty to Germany than to the United States. The fact that there had even been efforts made by Catholic clergy to have this Church issue brought for discussion before the American Congress was particularly irritating. Many German Catholics became convinced that there were heretical, secularist tendencies at work behind the scenes, and dedicated themselves to exposing them.
A second conflict centered around Catholic University. Controversy had plagued Catholic University since before its birth, controversy involving its purpose, location and leadership. A number of foreigners had been hired to work as faculty members from the time of its inception in the Departments of Theology and Philosophy. Several of the most outspoken among them, including Fr. Georges Périès, Fr. Joseph Schroeder and Msgr. Joseph Pohle felt that the institution was being manipulated by a clique of Americanists. The vigor with which they attacked manifestations of the Americanist spirit made them personae non gratae at the University. They were eventually forced out. Needless to say, personal matters as well as substantive issues entered into their difficulties, but that is in the nature of the human dilemma. An Americanist/anti-Americanist quarrel lay at the foundation of the problem. Upon returning to Europe, they exposed in French and German Catholic journals the character of that which they claimed to have heard and seen in the United States. They, too, were convinced that they were dealing with a subtle heresy.
Rome had already given some credence to the complaints of these men while they were still at Catholic University. Leo XIII had sent an Apostolic Delegate to the United States in 1893, Archbishop Satolli, who had resided for a time on the university’s grounds. Satolli came to share the fears of the anti-Americanists. His reports to Rome led to the retirement of Keane as Rector of Catholic University in 1895. The Vatican issued a letter, Longinquina oceani, in the same year. This stressed the unique character of the American experience and its inability to serve as a model for the rest of the Catholic world. When Satolli was finally replaced as Apostolic Delegate, his successor was a religious. The choice of a religious as a replacement was interpreted as a sign that Rome considered Americanist disdain for passive virtues such as the obedience entailed by vows to be an error.
Nevertheless, the most important confrontation leading to intervention from Rome came with the translation in 1897 by the Abbé Klein of Fr. Elliott’s Life of Isaac Hecker. Fr. Hecker, founder of the Paulists, had supported “opening the windows” to the United States in a manner reminiscent of the Americanists. Carved on his tombstone in St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York are his own words: “In the union of Catholic Faith and American civilization…a future for the Church brighter than any past.” Fr. Klein, as well as a number of renegade “neo-Christians” in France, suggested that the Pluralism and separation of Church and State in America ought to be the model for European affairs as well. This universalizing of what Rome admitted to be a parochial, practical necessity in the United States, this universalizing of which the Americanist was also guilty, unleashed serious debate both in the Old World and in the New. The exiles from Catholic University insisted that they had listened to this sort of thing all the time in academic circles in the United States. German-American Catholics understood it to be the natural accompaniment to the earlier attack on their ethnic unity. Proponents of Americanism seemed to confirm suspicions of their intentions by speechmaking tours overseas and discussion among themselves of the progress of “The Movement”.
Still, Americanists claimed that they were not promoting the kind of thing that one found in the biography of Fr. Hecker or in the statements of neo-Christians. They insisted that Europeans who criticized them were actually enemies of the United States. In one sense, they were correct. Anyone writing or thinking about Americanism inevitably tries to analyze it in logical fashion. He must organize it to do so. But since it is one of the essential aspects of Americanism not to take ideas seriously and to presume that it is simply espousing a practical method of achieving a good, the Americanist often does not see the contradictions of which he is guilty. Nineteenth century Americanists were orthodox Roman Catholics. They wished to be American patriots. American patriotism involved unquestioning adherence to Americanism. Hence, they tried to be both Catholics and Americanists at the same time. When the logical consequences of accepting Americanism were spelled out to them, when the significance of their own symbolic actions was explicated, they reacted in a typical Americanist way: they denied logic. They did not intend to be heretics. Therefore, Americanism could not be a heresy when it proclaimed America to be a God-given instrument for the instruction and progress of the world. Moreover, the Americanists were perhaps correct in claiming that their enemies were the enemies of the United States, but only in the sense that the United States and the Americanist Religion were equated. I have tried to show that this equation need not take place when a true definition of patriotism and nationhood exist.
Rome was faced with an unfortunate dilemma. Americanism was an error, but it seemed to be the case that its proponents did not understand either the problem or their part in it. Thus, she responded in the only way that seemed to be just. A letter, Testem benevolentiae, was sent to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Baltimore in 1899 explaining the danger of Americanism, stopping short of accusing any Americans of accepting this doctrine, but urging them to abandon it if they had done so. It was not enough to crush the monster.
V. The Blindness of a Conquered People
Americanism, in its Catholic form, was long said to have been nothing other than a figment of over-excited and over-suspicious minds. This judgment would seem to have been confirmed by the fact that significant mention of it practically disappeared almost from the moment that Testem benevolentiae took notice of its dangers. And yet a comparison of contemporary Catholic life with the main Americanist tenets would indicate unmistakably that it has now won as total a victory as it humanly can win.
Many of the doctrines which were only embryonic in the Americanist of the 1890’s who basically still wished to be orthodox, have blossomed into straightforward, unashamed heresies today. There is now a blatant insistence upon the need for a national American Church, one that has as its chief duty the propagation of Pluralist doctrines of openness to freedom for everything except that which is substantive, exalted, truly distinct, Catholic and therefore, unacceptably “divisive”.
Moreover, the inevitable consequences of Americanist thought are more manifest in practical ways than they were one hundred years ago. The dismantling of all that is solidly Catholic for the sake of integration has brought in its train every one of the evils to be noted in secular Pluralist society as a whole. Americanism always is accompanied by spiritual boredom, and nothing can be imagined that is more boring than American Catholicism in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The liturgical disaster, the stripping bare of churches and the way in which gimmicks, games, vulgarities, petty forms of social work, sexual obsessions and narrow political concerns have taken precedence over the supernatural all testify to the blandness and materialism that this conquest entails. Americanism is always accompanied by the multiplication of facts, the impotence of the serious and the domination of the strongest materialist or irrational will, and nothing can be imagined that is more divided, more bumbling in its defense of the truth and more enslaved to the desires of powerful illicit wills than American Catholicism in the 1980’s and 1990’s. All the talk of manifold types of hyphenated Catholics with interests unceasingly in collision, all the episcopal statements and programs wrapped in contradictions and chintz, all the commanding influence of financial consultants, sex experts and uninformed charismatic personalities in parishes, chanceries and doctrinal committees sing of the ravages of the Americanist Faith.
And yet, once again, far from decrying its destruction, the conquered Catholic people do not admit what has happened to them but praise their conquest and strive to tighten the chains of their conquerors with their own hands. “They die, and yet they smile.” They have forgotten what Catholicism is all about, even when they think that they are defending it. I should like to offer four historical and sociological reasons for the silent victory of the conquering enemy.
Americanism appeared to fade away partly because the United States at the turn of the century was on the periphery of the world in the Vatican’s mind and could not hold its attention for long. Rome was not eager to bother the Americans, so long as the Americans did not openly bother Rome. Rome, in other words, allowed the infection to grow.
Admittedly, it was difficult for her to continue hostilities when the Americanist himself insisted that no heresy existed, that he possessed no discernable theological platform and that he merely espoused a humble, pragmatic method concerned with promoting contacts between the secular world and Catholicism, unconnected with doctrinal matters. The subtle transformation of his pastoral program into an evangelical religion escaped him, much as it escaped many other patriots who unwittingly served an anti-national creed. Americanists could not grasp the meaning of Testem benevolentiae because the encyclical was itself part and parcel of that preoccupation with abstractions that American Pluralism was supposed to overcome. If the Americanist issue did not attract the concern of most Catholicism and one of the participants in the battle refused to admit that there was even a war, why would Rome, belabored with other difficulties which it judged to be more critical, think to intervene anew?
Moreover, the contrast of Modernism with Americanism seemed to confirm this judgment. The Modernist Crisis did involve a direct theological challenge to Catholic doctrine, and, thus, could not arouse a general Americanist enthusiasm. American failure to embrace Modernism in the wake of the Americanist flare-up gave the United States the aura of a model orthodox nation. Alas! Rome did not realize how “practical”, “pragmatic” Americanism could suck whole nations into what was effectively a nominalist, naturalist, modernist wind tunnel!
Secondly, Americanism also triumphed in the midst of its seeming demise due to Catholic acclimatization to the surrounding American world. This acclimatization was solidified by the post-war flight from the cities. It was one thing speaking of the glories of the American way of life when the bulk of Catholics were foreign speaking or at least were making their home in ghettos in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. In this case, such chatter amounted to nothing more than tossing grains of incense before the statue of an Emperor whose dicta might still be interpreted in a Catholic sense. After all, even an Americanist who lived under such conditions was constantly subject to an afterglow of the old Catholic ways, and probably would never grasp or develop the full meaning of his new religion.
Once, however, Americanism was emphasized under the authority and customs of the beauty-less suburbs, it began to take its real toll. Catholics started to live with their fellow Americans door-to-door. They discovered the true meaning of Pluralism in doing so. They understood that it did not mean adding their heartfelt convictions to an uplifting national dialogue. Instead, they saw that it signified adoption of sexual, commercial and other democratic obsessions, merged into a dull, drab, shapeless middle position, reflected by the character of their bedroom communities as a whole. Pluralism is the intellectual expression of Wonderbread. Catholics saw this and they grew infatuated with the horrendous reality of it. Soon, their love affair led them to a Wonderbread Liturgy, a Wonderbread Catholic school system and a Wonderbread theology, all dedicated to the glorification of secularized Puritanism. This is what Americanism always offered, and this is what Catholics finally obtained. It was a glorious acquisition.
Catholic politicians played their infamous role in this acclimatization. America was only willing to accept as national politicians those able to fit in with the Pluralist mentality, men who would bow down and adore the national God and the national Faith. Many Catholic politicians were willing to sell themselves in this fashion, or, to be more precise, were already so Americanized as not to understand the humiliation they were undergoing. Once more, American society went out of its way to praise them for the “courage” they displayed in accepting the devil’s offer of all the kingdoms of this world. The average believer saw their consequent success as a sign that the place of the Church in American life had become secure. Democracy, Pluralism and separation of Church and State had, it seemed, really done their job. They had given Catholics and their Church a full share in national affairs. This is true, so long as one underlines a harsh fact: those Catholics and that Catholic Church which were given a full share in national affairs were so defused by the Americanist Religion that they bore little or no relation to the believers and the Faith that the United States had so disliked a century beforehand.
A third explanation for the apparent demise of Americanism was the rise of Soviet power. Marxist hostility to the Church was so overt as to overshadow completely the subtle way in which the American Religion opposed the true Catholic spirit and led to similar anti-Catholic results. American Catholics, thrilled that the enemy of their Church was also the enemy of their country, understood anti-communism to be a means of emphasizing their patriotism. Unfortunately, it also proved to be a pathway to their Americanization. Catholics began to believe, en masse, that any criticism of the American way of life—indeed, any suggestion that there could even be a single alternative to the American way of life—was tantamount to treason. Instead of using their loyalty to home to wean the United States away from the equation of patriotism with the American Religion, they fell prey to the same unfortunate error. We are now paying the price of that surrender, since many Americanized Catholics feel duty-bound to betray the land which they believe has ignored its democratic mission in South America, Asia and Africa.
Fourthly, Americanism has prevailed because of recent American dominance of the western world as a whole. The victory of the United States in World War Two and its undoubted material prosperity convinced many Europeans that American attitudes towards the State, the individual and Pluralism itself were valid. It convinced them that efforts to shape countries according to the dictates of substantive political and social doctrines like those of Communism or Nazism were erroneous. It convinced them that American Pluralism was the neutral force allowing all doctrines a chance to prosper which I have demonstrated it was not. I once thought that 1968 marked the beginning of the end of this fascination of Europe for America, but the cultural influences from the United States have continued to grow unabated, making an effective escape a difficult enterprise. So omnipresent are they now that people no longer even remember where they originally came from, or that the Second World War was actually an important event permitting their development.
The Church did not remain free of these influences either. Americanist notions penetrated throughout the Universal Church in the period after the Second World War. I do not deny the validity of the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, one would have to keep his eyes shut not to recognize just how many Americanist concepts, in union with related Vitalist visions, played a role in its proceedings and interpretation. The notion of avoiding doctrine issues for purely “pastoral” concerns is something an Americanist, suspicious of ideas, would want. The subtle transformation of a non-doctrinal synod into the only doctrinal council, a force for developing a democratic, Pluralist, truly oppressive institution, is something that a student of Americanism could have predicted. So was the insistence upon separation of Church and State. Efforts since the Council to minimize Catholicism by integrating Marxist, capitalist, feminist and homosexual ideas into the body of the Faith are all vivid signs of the pressure of Americanism. The most certain indication of its presence is the boredom and the childishness of much of what passes for Catholic life since the 1960’s. How could Americanism not triumph when the very centers of the Universal Church reflect its wishes? Reflect its wishes, and yet deny that they do so at one and the same time?
VI. What Is To Be Done?
It is essential for the American people to become a nation. It cannot do so while Americanism is the standard used to define the meaning of nationhood. It is essential for Catholic Americans to relearn orthodox teachings and the glory of orthodox cultures in order to save themselves and to raise their nation to supernatural perfection. They cannot do so while Americanism sets the ground rules for identifying what constitutes both Catholicism and loyal citizenship.
The solution to this two-fold dilemma is the same now as it was when Catholics first began observing and criticizing American life in the last century. It is as simple to describe as it is immensely difficult to carry out. Catholic Americans must distance themselves from the ideology of America. They must not abandon their faith for the sake of this false religion which is both anti-human and destructive to the idea of nationhood as well as blasphemous. Until such time as they act politically and socially on the basis of a true, orthodox vision of God and His Creation, and seek to raise this nation up on that foundation, both they and their non-Catholic fellow citizens will remain “men without a country” and slaves to a vulgar materialism that will eventually bore them to their graves. The necessary precondition for this action is described in my article, “Why Catholics Cannot Defend Themselves”. That precondition is to learn their Faith, free from Americanist manipulation. For no one who wants to shout “long live the United States of America, from sea to shining sea, its flag and its people” can do so with confidence until a race of true confessors converts that land to the one Church of Christ, defeating Americanism and preventing all trace of religion and patriotism from perishing from its shores.
In addition to Dr. Thomas Molnar’s Le modele defiguré, published in France, the following works were crucial to preparing this pamphlet: Thomas McAvoy, The Great Crisis in American Catholic History: 1895-1900 (Chicago, Regnery, 1957); P.H. Ahern, The Catholic University of America, 1887-1896: The Rectorship of John J. Keane (Washington, D.C., Catholic University Press, 1948); C.J. Barry, The Catholic University of American, 1903-1909: The Rectorship of Denis J. O’Connell (Washington, Catholic University Press, 1950); The Catholic Church and the German Americans (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1953); J.T. Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1834-1921 (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1952).
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