The New 'Americanism'

In “Testem Benevolentiae,” an apostolic letter sent to Baltimore’s Cardinal James Gibbons in 1899, Pope Leo XIII worried over some liberal tendencies of the Catholic Church in the United States that he called “the errors of Americanism.” One wonders these days if a modern, conservative variant of Americanism is infecting the church. Representative Paul Ryan’s recent take on Catholic social teaching seems to endorse the tradition but then deploys it as cover for a budget-balancing act that threatens to harm the nation’s most vulnerable. A number of Catholics, Mr. Ryan among them, find much to admire about the objectivism peddled by the late Ayn Rand, whose “rational egoism” liberates the individual from obligations to others.

Worst of all has been a noticeable coarsening of attitudes among some Catholics toward those who have come to rely on government aid to sustain themselves in these difficult times. This emerging resentment forgets that the nation’s modest social services are directed primarily at supporting children, the elderly, the disabled and those hurt by the recent recession.


It is not surprising that the most powerful currents of a cultural mainstream should influence the course of its tributaries. In 1997 then Archbishop Francis George remarked that U.S. citizens “are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith.” Over time many U.S. Catholics have internalized some unacceptable American conceits, like the primacy of the individual and the free market and the inherent inefficiency of government. They have come to view with suspicion mediating structures, like unions and advocacy groups, that challenge America’s understanding of itself or its role in the world.

Some Catholics make an idol out of ideology or a fierce faith out of nationalism, elevating personal responsibility while diminishing communal obligations. Their “Americanism” pretends that personal charity can adequately replace the need for social justice and distorts the meaning of subsidiarity into nearly unrecognizable form. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has not directly addressed this modern mutation of Americanism, but he has called for better education among laypeople about church social doctrine and reminded them that it is their responsibility to bring the church’s social justice concerns into civic discourse.

Counter to mainstream American culture, the church teaches that a society should be judged by how well it addresses the needs of its poor and vulnerable members. It demands a preferential option for the poor, not the Pentagon, when moral documents like the federal budget are prepared, a point frequently noted by the U.S. bishops. The church does not accept the peculiar American premise that the poor are generally better off left to their own devices, lest their dignity be degraded by paternalism—a high-sounding slogan that can be used to abdicate collective responsibility.

When Representative Ryan began a well-publicized correspondence with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, the two men lightly sparred over the modern role of Catholic social teaching. Mr. Ryan equated the Catholic concept of subsidiarity with the American tradition of federalism and used it to add a gloss of Catholic authenticity to his budget plan; Archbishop Dolan gently reminded him that solidarity remains another significant component of the Catholic tradition. It is one that persists regardless of the vicissitudes of the annual federal deficit or newfound political urgency to address the national debt.

Here is where Catholics can make their contribution to the current dialogue. Congressman Ryan’s concerns about a smothering national debt and an intrusive government are legitimate, but they cannot be allowed to produce near-term outcomes that in practice mean the abandonment of the vulnerable through deep cuts in food aid, health care and support for the unemployed.

As the nation attempts to balance the immediate needs of the least among us against the long-term demands of debt reduction, Catholics can bring their unique perspective to the table. Perhaps instead of surrendering to the new Americanism, they might “Americanize” the Catholic concept of the common good, helping to define how a just society with limited resources best sets spending priorities and seeks equitable sources of revenue. Certainly then the legitimate needs of the most vulnerable would not be sacrificed to protect the structural privileges of those who have enjoyed the greatest economic rewards in recent years. Certainly war-making would not be privileged over the basic needs of a sustainable civil society.

Catholics in America should value their faith’s contribution to the larger culture, not surrender its uniqueness as an impediment to a deeper and more personally fruitful assimilation. Unlike Ms. Rand, American Catholics cannot make a virtue of selfishness. Our path proceeds not from the gospel of prosperity, but the Gospel of Matthew.

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Ana Blasucci
6 years 5 months ago
Is a "culturally Calvinist" Catholic automatically wrong?
The individual must have primacy, in government's eyes, or we're all a faceless mass to be arbitrarily tossed about.
Compassionate budgeting is noble, even to cultural Calvinists.
The latter however see taxes for what they are, i.e. legal armed robbery when imposed past the level permissible by the sense of the populace (not necessarily the level allowed by elected representatives).
Taxes are enforceable by arms if one pays only what he believes a reasonable portion of his earnings, if less than government demands.
Slavery is chiefly the usurpation of the value of one's labor so that it does not attach to himself.  Past a necessary minimum in line with the consent of the governed, taxes do the same.
Further watering down the currency is the kind of spending we have seen of late.  It necessitates the printing of vast sums; the classic recipe for currency devaluation.  Value is thus lost by private income and taxes paid.  Vicious cycle, anyone?
Might it be permissible for a Catholic to say that government should do what is mandated by the Constitution, and attend to real need that filters up through preliminary levels of subsidiarity, and little else?  Then there would be enough to take care of all genuine need, while our dignity, free will, and American spirit will be preserved.
As Catholics we are formed to consider the morality of a process by its results ("fruits"), but also by the inherent good, evil, or neutrality of the means.
With few and notorious exceptions (WWII, perhaps?), this should make for a heady dose of critical re-thinking any time raising the tax burden or more big deficit spending is on the table.
There is further no organic relationship of opposition to perceived government overreach to unconcern for one's fellows.  In fact, civic virtue is a pillar of the Calvinist legacy, so long as we're invoking the name.
Alan Aversa
5 years 8 months ago
I'm not sure how what you describe here is a "conservative variant of Americanism" when it appears to be "semi-Americanism" or just simply "American nationalism."

Americanism is a heresy that, as Pope Leo XIII wrote in Testem Benevolentiae, "would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world."

Americanism holds (my emphasis):
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.

How does your "conservative variant of Americanism" advocate all these things?


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