American Idol


Our American Independence Day celebration is arguably the last
national secular holiday observed by a majority of citizens for what it
actually represents: a celebration of American patriotism. President’s
Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Veteran’s
Day, Columbus Day – most Americans celebrate these merely by taking the
garbage to the curb a day later that week. But the Fourth of July still
means fireworks and flag-waving (even that lady across the street who
usually flies the Scooby Doo flag displays the stars and stripes for
the day) – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. In fact,
according to Thomas Aquinas, proper patriotism is a true virtue and a
form of piety: “Piety pays duty and honor to parents and country and to
whatever is related to them.”

Unfortunately, too many Americans still confuse patriotism with
the kind of nationalism that leads one to lip silly clichés such as “my
country, right or wrong.” For more than a hundred years, some American
Catholics have loosely subscribed to their own brand of nationalism: In
an 1899 encyclical called Testem Benevolentiae (“Witness of Good
Will”), Pope Leo XIII addressed a set of related problems identified as
“Americanism.” In the main, he referred to the belief that certain
Catholic intellectual leaders in the U.S., including bishops, were
uncritically enthusiastic about their country’s messianic nationalism
(not patriotism) and believed that the Church’s doctrines and practices
were ill-suited to American culture. Above all, Pope Leo was concerned
that American Catholics would exalt their own national culture at the
expense of the universal Church, concerning themselves with being a
“good American,” even if it meant being a “bad Catholic.” Consequently,
Leo warned that the faithful ought not jettison the teaching authority
of the Church in favor of deciding doctrine for themselves – a
peculiarity of the constantly bifurcating Protestantism in the New

It is instructive to note that Testem Benevolentiae was
dismissed out of hand by the American bishops and other Church leaders
of the time. In fact, Americanism became known as the “phantom heresy”
because, so the bishops claimed, there was no evidence of the errors
the Holy Father so forcefully warned against. Of course, looking back
with the hindsight of a century, any thinking man can now clearly
recognize how prophetic was Testem Benevolentiae. American Catholicism,
especially after the Second Vatican Council (although Vatican II
actually reaffirmed Leo’s teaching), came to be identified with
exercising one’s “freedom of conscience” and, in many cases the kind of
“radical individualism” – “I’ll do what I want” – that Pope Benedict
XVI is warning us about today. In short, your mother’s generation of
American Catholics adopted wholesale the primary tenet of Americanism
as defined decades earlier by Leo XIII: the exultation the American way
of life at the expense of Catholic faith and culture. Think: diversity,
tolerance, multiculturalism, divorce-and-remarriage, freedom to choose,
“alternative lifestyles” – and so forth.

Thus, I would argue this Fourth of July that the phantom
heresy of Americanism is alive and well among Catholics, not only in
the United States, but also in many of the places to which we export
our culture of radical individualism. Too many Catholics have exchanged
doctrine and truth for opinion and conjecture, so much so that American
Catholics, along with the American mainstream, idolize the so-called
“right to an opinion.” It’s not that holding opinions is in itself a
problem – on the contrary. It’s just that we’re no longer basing most
of these opinions on the weight of evidence, defined doctrine, or the
testament of history. People now routinely hold opinions – strong
opinions – about books and authors they haven’t read, about subjects
with which they have no familiarity – and based on what? Knee-jerk
emotionalism? The cult of unfounded personal opinion has become today’s
most prominent American Idol. Think about the “opinions” of some
Catholic politicians on abortion. They are unable to acknowledge the
objective moral evil (no opinion necessary) and instead state that, in
their opinion, women should have the “right to choose” — meaning, of
course, the right to kill their children. Take any hot button issue –
immigration, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, the Iraq war and so
on – and most Americans, Catholics included, will spell out some kind
of opinion for you, in most cases based on few or no facts at all.
That’s mainly because – and I am speaking now specifically of Catholics
– are no longer equipped to draw upon the sources of received and
understood doctrines.

Just think how many self-identified “Catholic” vanity
blogs now exist in the virtual world – by my count, about 15,000 too
many. By “vanity blog” I mean those that exist solely as a testament to
the existence of the blogger. I have always badmouthed vanity blogs and
vanity bloggers – and always will do, for the simple fact that vanity
blogs are, for most people, instruments of narcissism, pride,
self-righteousness, and personal absurdity. Really, who cares to hear
your every opinionated thought on every conceivable topic?

Interestingly, this incontinent airing of all opinions was
something that concerned Pope Leo XIII back in 1899. He knew where “the
assumed right to hold whatever opinion one pleases upon any subject and
to set forth in print to the world” would lead. In a word, it would
lead to confusion, especially in a culture where even the “brightest
and the best” no longer seem intellectually equipped to identify
logical fallacies or to read and think critically. This problem isn’t
limited to liberal Catholics who consciously rail against the Church
and her traditions; it is also manifest among those Catholics who
consider themselves “orthodox” or “conservative” or “traditional.” Are
their “opinions” on, say, immigration and the Iraq war informed more by
the teachings of the Church or by the political sway of mainstream
America? Do they believe that the Church is bigger than America? Or, do
they think America is bigger than the Church? Alas, too many
“conservative” Catholics are “conservative” in their political beliefs
rather than their moral and religious beliefs – and that, in a
nutshell, is what Pope Leo XIII was warning against. Think on that
every time you see a flowering firework this July.



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