The controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s birth-control mandate is not the first time the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops have found themselves enmeshed in a dispute concerning religious liberty. In an earlier flare-up sparked by the friction of Catholic doctrine and constitutional freedoms, however, liberty was not a rallying cry for the bishops—it was a problem.
In a pair of papal encyclicals written at the end of the nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII expressed ambivalence about the Catholic Church in the United States. Much of what the man sometimes called “the first modern pope” had to say amounted to nodding approval (“That your Republic is progressing and developing by giant strides is patent to all…”), which at times seemed to take credit for the success it praised.
In a rhetorical flourish, the pope even laid claim to the nation’s neonatal survival: “When America was, as yet, but a newborn babe, uttering in its cradle its first feeble cries, the Church took it to her bosom and motherly embrace.”
The opening passages of both encyclicals (Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae and Longinqua Oceani) paint such a rosy picture of the Holy See’s opinion of the United States that it is easy to miss that the documents were written to accuse certain U.S. Catholic bishops of heresy.
“There are some among you,” the pope wrote, “who conceive of and desire a Church in America different from that which is in the rest of the world.” Apparently unconcerned that on this side of the ocean the word might have a more positive ring than he intended, he used the name by which this heresy had become known in Europe: Americanism.
Too Much Choosing Going On
Prime suspects in this crime against orthodoxy included the first Bishop of Peoria, John Lancaster Spalding, who held the problematic opinion that “the Catholic Church must fit herself to a constantly changing environment, to the character of every people, and to the wants of each age,” and the first rector of the Catholic University of America, Bishop John Joseph Keane, who had the heretical chutzpah to declare “there is truth in all religions” during an address at a meeting of interfaith leaders.
Like the current dispute over the coverage of contraception in health care plans provided by Catholic institutions, the Americanist heresy came down to objections over compromise and choice. The word heresy itself comes from the Greek herein, “to choose,” and the pope’s main concern was that there was altogether too much choosing going on in America.
Choosing to highlight some parts of the Church’s teachings over others, clergy compromised their message through their readiness to appeal to those not of the faith. Catholics generally risked compromising the sanctity of their community when they chose to join associations with non-Catholics. Even something as essential to the American experiment as the non-establishment of religion compromised the form of government to which Catholics ought to aspire. “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,” the pope wrote, “or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.” Though the Church had prospered in the United States, he lamented, it would be better off if it “enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.” The notion that non-establishment might truly be in the best interest of both sides of the church/state divide was a core tenet of the Americanist heresy.
The accused bishops for the most part denied they were guilty of any offense, and in time the disagreement passed. The heresy itself, in the words of one alleged Americanist, was nothing but a “phantom.”
Yet the pope’s diagnosis of the condition of the Roman Catholic Church in America was actually fairly accurate. The “Church in America” would, in fact, be “different from that which is in the rest of the world.” Catholicism has undeniably made compromises in the United States—and this is precisely what has allowed it to thrive.
The Church has flourished here because it has made the same bargain all other religious organizations in the U.S. have made. In order to receive the many protections and advantages afforded to faith groups by law, it has agreed to conduct itself not as the one true faith, but as one among many. Having made this bargain, the Church has been influenced and enriched by the faiths around it, and must at times accommodate those with whom it disagrees.
Though Pope Leo XIII warned against compromise in the nineteenth century, and though as recently as last month Bishop William Lori of Connecticut declared “about religious liberty, there can be no compromise,” compromise itself is not a threat to the free exercise of religion. On the contrary, compromise is the very soul of American religious liberty.
No Monopoly on Concerns of Conscience
It was compromise, after all, that the architect of the nation’s understanding of religious liberty had in mind when he made a simple statement that in another time and place might have seen him labeled a heretic of the highest order: “Difference of opinion,” Thomas Jefferson said, “is advantageous in religion.” While Jefferson is generally thought to have been a live-and-let-live sort when it came to competing spiritual doctrines, in his Notes on the State of Virginia he took a more radical stance. “The several sects,” he wrote, “perform the office of censor morum over each other.” Conflicting religious positions, in other words, develop in collaboration—in compromise.
Like the bishop who suggested his church should adapt to meet the needs of the age, Jefferson did not believe religious ideas should be considered untouchable, or too fragile to approach. They should instead be discussed and debated, like any other ideas in a democracy, with respect to all, and with the awareness that no side—religious, non-religious, or indifferent—has a monopoly on the concerns of conscience. To truly support religious liberty, one must never forget that what one person calls heresy, another simply calls choice.