Pope Leo XIII’s Condemnation of Americanism

More than a century ago, in 1899, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Testem Benevolentiae about the dangers of “Americanism.”

The United States of America was founded on classical liberalism. The Founding Fathers—despite many debates on the details—preached a system of liberal neutrality, free markets, and “liberty.” This system is a radical departure from premodern and Christian values and is based on fundamental errors about the purpose of law and the meaning of freedom.

Pope Leo XIII clarifies the confusion around “freedom.” True freedom is the freedom for the Common Good. Those who seek virtue, “far from having suffered loss of liberty, enjoy that fuller and freer kind—that liberty, namely, by which Christ hath made us free” (Testem § 15).

In another encyclical, he reminds us that the purpose of law is to lead people to virtue: “In a free State, unless justice be generally cultivated, unless the people be repeatedly and diligently urged to observe the precepts and laws of the Gospel, liberty itself may be pernicious” (Longinqua Oceani § 15).

In the days of Pope Leo XIII, some Catholics in America were actively preaching these errors of Americanism. But his encyclical was sent to all the American bishops, warning that even a passive acceptance of Americanism was a dangerous departure from the Gospel.

We cannot consider as altogether blameless the silence which purposely leads to the omission or neglect of some of the principles of Christian doctrine, for all the principles come from the same Author and Master, ‘the Only-begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father.’ They are adapted to all times and all nations, as is clearly seen from the words of our Lord to His apostles: ‘Going therefore, teach all nations; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you all days, even to the end of the world.’ (Testem § 4)

He concludes: “From the foregoing it is manifest, beloved son, that we are not able to give approval to those views which, in their collective sense, are called by some ‘Americanism’” (Testem § 18).

Elsewhere he notes that despite the growth of the Church in America at that time, “it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced” (Longinqua § 6).

This brings us to the ultimate error of Americanism: an acceptance—and often a full embrace—of capitalism.

In Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays, he says that the Church must not play “a waiting game” but will “have to use some of the dynamite inherent in her message.” He notes that “Modern society has separated Church and State but it did not separate the State from business. The State is no longer a Church’s State. The State is now a Business Men’s State.”