Q: Is Americanism a heresy? If so, what does it mean? The person who introduced me to this term was not very clear about its meaning.
A: This name was given to certain teachings condemned by Pope Leo XIII in his apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae (January 22, 1899). He specifically did not, however, include the legitimate use of this term to signify “the characteristic qualities which reflect honor on the people of America.”
The pope condemned five specific errors: the rejection of external spiritual direction as no longer necessary, the extolling of natural over supernatural virtues, the preference of active over passive virtues, the rejection of religious vows as not compatible with Christian liberty, and the adoption of a new method of apologetics and approach to non-Catholics.
Many historians of American Catholicism describe this as a “phantom heresy” that had few or no supporters in the United States.
This condemnation arose from a controversy begun by the French adaptation and translation of The Life of Isaac Thomas Hecker, by Walter Elliott, C.S.P.
Hecker (1819-1888) was a U.S. convert from Unitarianism. He was ordained as a Redemptorist priest and later founded the Paulist priests and brothers. Hecker was very enthusiastic about how much American values could aid the spread of Catholicism.
In the United States, proponents of Catholic schools, however, often regarded Hecker as their enemy. In Europe, Hecker’s ideas were interjected into local controversies, especially over Church-state relations. The Catholic Church in 1899 still questioned the validity of Church/state separation.
Pope Leo XIII’s letter was addressed to Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, who responded that no educated American Catholic held these condemned doctrines.
This is not the only instance when some teachings have been condemned but which their supposed authors would not recognize or uphold. For example, “Origenism” was condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, 299 years after Origen of Alexandria (for whom it is named) died. The condemned statements were taken from his writings, not always in context.
Gerald Collins, S.J., and Edward Farrugia, S.J., write, “It is still not clear how far Origen himself was at fault, how far he was simply exploring a variety of views, and how far false views were ascribed to him after his death.” They cite three Fathers of the Church who greatly admired Origen (A Concise Dictionary of Theology).
In another case, Pope Leo XIII condemned in 1887 four propositions called “Rosminianism,” extracted from the writings of Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855). These propositions concerned the extent and manner of our knowledge about God and two statements about God’s self-revelation to the saints in heaven (The Teaching of the Catholic Church, by J. Neuner, H. Roos and K. Rahner). Again, it is not clear that Rosmini believed what was condemned.
Pope Benedict XVI authorized Father Rosmini’s beatification in 2007!
The New Catholic Encyclopedia (2003) has a very good article on Americanism.