Many may remember when Pope Francis condemned libertarianism awhile back, claiming that libertarianism and Catholicism were not compatible. Although this essay’s focus is not on Pope Francis’s condemnation of libertarianism itself, it is of relation to his claims. Rather, the focus of this essay is that of the Americanism Heresies declared by Pope Leo XIII. To get a further understanding of the Americanism Heresies, let us delve into the context of what exactly Americanism is, why it was declared a heresy, and my response, as a Catholic libertarian, to Americanism and its heresies.
Context of Americanism
In context, Americanism was a building sentiment among American Catholics for the Church to conform with an ever-growing modernist, liberal society. A society that sought to follow their own moral conscience rather than that of the doctrine of the Church and teachings of Christ. American Catholics felt that in order to appeal to more protestants and bring in more converts to the Church, they must dogmatically reform the Church’s teachings of faith in order to fit this liberal sentiment in society.
Ideology Behind Americanism
Suspected to be behind this sentiment was the Enlightenment philosophy of Classical Liberalism. Classical Liberalism, based around the ideas of John Locke and Frederic Bastiat, is the individualistic ideology of a society where an individual is free to make their own moral decisions unmolested as long as they do not violate the rights of others to do the same. The founding of America itself gives credit to Classical Liberalism, instituting some of its ideas such as religious liberty and free speech in the Constitution of the United States.
Why Americanism was Declared a Heresy
In Pope Leo XIII’s letter to the Archbishop of Baltimore, James Gibbons, Pope Leo explains why the Americanistic sentiment was dangerous. He referenced a biography of Father Isaac Thomas Hecker, a priest from the Archdiocese of New York. Hecker’s biography had shown that he had attempted to “water down” Catholic teaching in order to bring in more converts and reach out to protestants. Pope Leo goes on to explain that this sentiment of reforming Catholic doctrine would in fact have the opposite effect of its original intention. Instead of attracting more converts, it would turn Catholics away from the faith. Pope Leo sought to reassert in his letter that Catholic teaching must holdfast and must never compromise to the growing liberal sentiment in society. He claims that the American Church can be no different than the rest of the Church, and therefore has no place to attempt to manipulate and twist Catholic doctrine. Pope Leo XIII also explains in his letter how separation of church and state, free press and speech, religious liberty, and other Enlightenment ideas are all harmful to society and the Catholic faith, citing Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. Ultimately, Pope Leo XIII believed that individualism and twisting Catholic doctrine in order for the Church to fit into society were harmful to the faith itself.
My Response to the Americanism Heresies
As a Traditional Catholic, I find myself sympathizing with Pope Leo XIII. On one hand, I recognize that it is very dangerous for the Church to sacrifice its ideals, teachings, and doctrine in order to fit in with society more. We cannot change the truth that is the Catholic Church in order to appeal to those outside the Church. On the other hand, as a libertarian, I believe that the individual has a right to do as they please so long as it does no harm to another individual. I have found myself torn between both of these views many times in the past, with both sides telling me neither of these views are compatible with the other. Because of this, I have had a desire to seek the truth myself. Over time I researched and prayed. I read scripture. I read the teachings of the early church fathers and the writings of the saints of old and new. What I found was compelling. I found that not only were the teachings of the Church compatible with libertarianism, but the Church formed the basis of individualism.
For example, there are many verses that detail how God has granted us free will to bear personal responsibility and to choose our moral paths, one of them being: “The mind of man plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also details that God made man a “rational being” who is capable of controlling “his own actions”, as detailed in Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 1 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Further evidence is in the writings of St. Augustine, an early church father, who wrote that “an unjust law is no law at all”. St. Augustine outlined in his book, City of God, how earthly government, although divinely allowed to exist for the purpose of protecting human dignity, will never come close to the divine model of the governance of God and His Church, comparing the state to a “great robbery”.
St. Augustine realized that there was no such thing as a perfect state and therefore realized that the state and church are two different entities, writing: “…it has come to pass that the two cities could not have common laws of religion, and that the heavenly city has been compelled in this matter to dissent, and to become obnoxious to those who think differently, and to stand the brunt of their anger and hatred and persecutions…”.
Another Saint I look to is St. Thomas Aquinas. His writings in Summa Theologiae outlined the natural rights of man and how they should go uncoerced in their practice of free will. He claims that “one should do harm to no man”, reasserting the Biblical teaching of the Golden Rule in Luke 6:31: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you”.
He goes on to explain how human law must not forbid all vices, but only the ones that truly harm the rights of others. “Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like” (Summa Theologiae II-I Question 96).
St. Aquinas details how, because of the free will of man and the purpose of that free will, the state must not intervene in the private moral decisions of a man until the free will and rights of another are at risk.
My last presentation of evidence for Catholic teaching on individualism is of recent. During the Second Vatican Council, the Magisterium declared religious liberty a right of the human being in the Decree on Religious Liberty.
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
They go on to back this up by saying: “It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.
They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom.
Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.”
As I stated before, as a Traditional Catholic, I am wary of changing the Church in the name of “reaching out to those outside the Church”, as was the purpose of the Second Vatican Council, and this makes me a heavy critic of the Second Vatican Council. However, I feel this piece of the Council was not instilling a belief into the Church, but rather reiterating and making clear prior Church teaching, going back even to the times of the Old Testament, of the place individualism has among society and the Church.
With this evidence stated and out of the way, I would like to say that I do understand and sympathize with the reasoning of why Pope Leo XIII declared the ideals of Americanism and its goals as heresies. What he did get right was that we should not change Church doctrine to fit the wants of those outside the Church.
Rather, we should holdfast in the truth of the Catholic Church. What I felt he got wrong, however, was his interpretation of individualism inside the Church. The history of the Church and its early philosophers have proven that God has granted us certain rights as individuals, and we must be left unmolested in our moral decisions. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t follow the rules also granted to us by God as Catholics.
If we choose by our own free will to follow the path of God, we have an obligation and duty to follow his rules, otherwise, we are very well damned if we don’t.
All-in-all, this is why I, as a Catholic libertarian, do very much believe that Catholicism, in all its divinity, is indeed compatible with libertarianism and its individualistic aspects. For what is faith if it is coerced upon us?
From a very early age, Sam Fleming has been interested in politics, history, and philosophy. He is the president of the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at Rogers State University.