Leading politicians of both the left and the right have made headlines over the past few weeks for what might charitably be described as their creative reinterpretations of Catholic teaching. But beyond what must be acknowledged as the sheer error of their statements vis-à-vis church positions on life issues may lie a deeper impulse, one which has plagued the Catholic Church in the United States for much of its existence.
It is difficult to get a precise definition of “Americanism,” in large part because it refers more to a collection of mistaken beliefs than to a single, avowed school of heretical thought (as in the case of the Gnostics or the Cathars). Nevertheless, this “phantom heresy” has a few readily identifiable characteristics. Testem Benevolentiae, the 1899 letter from Pope Leo XIII to the Archbishop of Baltimore, referred to American Catholics’ propensity towards: “the confounding of license with liberty … the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth … to the world.” In other words, American Catholics tend to muddle political principles (especially the cherished freedoms of the First Amendment) with religious life, which places a far greater emphasis on patient obedience and humble understanding.
But there’s more to the Americanist impulse than the mere assertion of the supremacy of the individual’s conscience. Newt Gingrich, in the interview in which he claimed that human life began at implantation, not conception, did not merely assert his own (divergent) opinion. He went farther, actually characterizing those who hold that human life begins at conception in a manner that suggested a certain strangeness or irrationality to their belief: “my friends who have ideological positions that sound good don’t then follow through on the logic” was how he phrased it. In a way, painting his fellow Catholics as driven solely by an irrational “ideology” — in contrast, of course, to his position, grounded in a more reasonable and commonsensical approach.
Faring no better than her former House peer (and faring far worse in terms of nuance), Nancy Pelosi mocked “this conscience thing” that marks members of her own faith—while, ironically, extolling the virtues of her own conscience to rise above any long-held teachings or carefully-considered doctrines. But here, again, a Catholic put distance between their own religious life and their fellow Catholics, depicting them with a sort of foreignness or exoticism for their strange outlook in life.
This is another key element of Americanism: the transposition of a hardcore (and misunderstood) ‘American exceptionalism’ out of the political realm and into theology and, more specifically, ecclesiology. Americanist Catholics, Pope Leo noted in his encyclical on the subject (Longinqua Oceana) have a tendency to believe that the American church itself is somehow a ‘purer’ or ‘better’ version of the Catholic Church, that it has received a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit unavailable to the benighted churchmen in the Old World. The American church represents progress, for it has shorn itself of old superstitions and transcended trifles over mere “doctrine.” It is easy to see how this belief can pair with the elevation of an American Catholics’ conscience above all else to form the basis of a quite imaginative and dangerous distortion of the Catholic faith as a whole.
Of course, in many ways, the recent statements by Gingrich and Pelosi are utterly unremarkable, if only because they represent well-publicized instances of statements and modes of thought that are ubiquitous at the lay or local levels. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for all Catholic politicans to read Pope Leo’s encyclical, urging as it does every American Catholic to rein in their self-assured sloppiness and carefully:
examine closely every part of the Catholic doctrine, and to free themselves from preconceived notions. In this matter, if the first place belongs to the bishops and clergy, the second belongs to the laity, who have it in their power to aid the apostolic efforts of the clergy by the probity of their morals and the integrity of their lives.