The ‘Americanism’ heresy

Leo XIII’s critique [of Americanism] is more substantial than apologists for Americanism care to admit. Much of it, in fact, is pertinent to conditions in American Catholicism today.

One set of condemned ideas concerns ranking natural virtues above supernatural ones, along with a division of virtues into “passive” and “active” that gives preference to the latter as more suited to modern times. The Pope says this fosters “contempt … for the religious life” and the disparagement of religious vows. Here, one might say, is a Victorian anticipation of the crisis that has afflicted religious life in the United States over the last half century.

Turning to the origins of Americanism, Leo XIII says it reflects a desire to attract to the Church “those who dissent.” Central to it, he adds, is the idea that the Church — “relaxing its old severity” — must “show indulgence” to new opinions, including even those that downplay “the doctrines in which the deposit of faith is contained.”

Leo XIII’s reply is that how flexible the Church can and should be is not up to individuals but rests with “the judgment of the Church.” Opposing this orthodox view, he notes, is the modern error that everyone could decide for himself, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit today gives individuals “more and richer gifts than in times past” — no less than “a kind of hidden instinct” in religious matters.
All this and more was the Americanism condemned by the Pope.