Haunted by a Phantom Heresy

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. [more]


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