A remarkable article from the Remnant Newspaper, and please do not fail to read the encyclical by Pope Leo XIII (only about 7 pages) it refers to.
When I first started investigating what was really going on in the Church, I was surprised to discover that our difficulties dated to well before the 1960s. I read such luminaries as Cardinal Newman writing in the 19th century against “liberalism.” It was a revelation that Catholic leaders had been warning for more than a hundred years against what I was seeing all around me. I was also surprised, given the habitual verbose opacity of modern prelates, to see how simple, forthright and understandable these pre-Conciliar popes were. It is some inspiring, and given our current troubles, comforting and encouraging stuff to read. Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae is the letter from Pope Leo XIII to James Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, warning against what the pope called “Americanism,” and certain trends of thought that he feared would undermine Catholic confidence in the Church’s authority. It can be seen now that his fears were well founded, and can at least reassure us that our troubles are not new, and did not appear ex nihilo from Vatican II.
The fact that there were voices within the Catholic Church of the US in the late 19th century calling for the same things that we see Pope Francis and his pals actually installing today, shows you that we’re still on the same path, fighting the same war that has been going on for hundreds of years. And Pope Leo’s responses will give us weapons to fight.
At that time, 1899, Gibbons was the leading Catholic prelate of the US. But even with him at the head of the US Church, problems were developing there that would eventually seed themselves – or more accurately, be deliberately sown – throughout the universal Church. Indeed, the pope’s warnings against “certain contentions which have arisen lately among you to the detriment of the peace of many souls,” will seem quite familiar.
The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.
He quotes the First Vatican Council:
“For the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention to be perfected by human ingenuity, but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our Holy Mother, the Church, has once declared, nor is that meaning ever to be departed from under the pretense or pretext of a deeper comprehension of them.”
The pope grants that the Cardinal and other priests in the US are morally blameless: “We readily believe there was no thought of wrong or guile,” but adds, “the things themselves certainly merit some degree of suspicion.” The pope was writing in response to a group of French “progressive” priests who had begun to agitate for a change in attitude towards the anti-Catholic regimes ranged against the Church.
Shortly before Gibbons began his episcopal career, a priest named Isaac Thomas Hecker founded the Paulist community of priests – a group that today is known as one of the leaders in Post-Conciliar neomodernism. Hecker believed that the Church should not be hostile to “modern ideas” and was identified as a “liberal Catholic” (remembering that at this time, the term was not yet synonymous with “heretic apostate.”)
He believed in a strategy of stressing only selected portions of Catholicism when addressing American Protestants. In those times, such a strategy could have sounded quite reasonable; retaining a discreet silence in certain company on subjects that could only cause a negative reaction (cf: the nativist “Know-nothing”party and the burning of the Ursuline conventat Charlestown, Mass.). This, it must be remembered, was well before the threat of Modernism had become a universal reality in the Church and doctrinal orthodoxy was taken for granted among the clergy and Catholic laity.
And for a long time, it was a strategy that bore fruit, with many new converts among the American population. But it was the French interpretation and application of Hecker’s ideas that was raising alarms. A biography of Hecker was translated into French and its introduction by one of the progressive French priests was brought to the attention of the pope. While Gibbons was working to improve Catholic/Protestant relations in the US, and doing much to establish the long peace Catholicism was to enjoy there, Leo was facing a deteriorating situation in Europe.
Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, following the chaos created by the Napoleonic wars, secularists and anti-clericals had gone on a rampage, carving vast territories out of formerly Catholic states that Napoleon had already denuded of much of the clerical and monastic presence, installing by force their anti-authoritarian principle and eradicating the temporal power of the Church.
The French priests taking Hecker as their inspiration were in favour of a more conciliatory relationship with the atheist Republic in France and were critical of the conservative establishment’s hostility to the regime. In fact, their slogan will be familiar to those who have followed the current pontificate: “Allons au peuple.” “Let us go to the people.” They looked to the US for a model of a vigorous Church that concerned itself less with politics and more with the social and spiritual condition of the people.