An Apostolic Letter of Leo XIII addressing controversies in America
Testem Benevolentiae, an Apostolic Letter of Leo XIII addressed to Cardinal Gibbons, January 22, 1899. It opens by explaining its title, remarking that just as His Holiness had given frequent proof of his affection for the people as well as for the Church in the United States, by praising their spirit and their progress, so now the same affection prompts him to point out certain things which should be avoided or corrected, in order to set at rest controversies that were injurious to peace. Referring to the preface of the French translation of the “Life of Isaac Hecker”, as the occasion of these controversies, he proposes to examine certain opinions therein advanced on the manner of leading a Christian life. The basis of these opinions is that, to make converts, the Church should adapt herself to our advanced civilization and relax her ancient rigour as regards not only the rule of life but also the deposit of faith, and should pass over or minimize certain points of doctrine, or even give them a meaning which the Church has never held. On this the Vatican Council is clear; faith is not a doctrine for speculation like a philosophical theory, to be relinquished or in any manner suppressed under any specious pretext whatsoever; such a process would alienate Catholics from the Church, instead of bringing converts. In the words of the council the Church must constantly adhere to the same doctrine in the same sense and in the same way; but the rule of Christian life admits of modifications according to diversity of time, place, or national custom, only such changes are not to depend on the will of private individuals but on the judgment of the Church. What makes the new opinions more dangerous is the pretext of those who follow them that in matters of faith and of Christian life each one should be free to follow his own bent in the spirit of the large measure of civil liberty recognized in these days. The difference between the two spheres had already been indicated in the Encyclical on the Constitution of States. The argument now adduced in favor of this new liberty is a preposterous one. When declaring the infallibility of the pope, the Vatican Council did not have in mind a situation in which, this papal prerogative acknowledged, the faithful might have a wider field of thought and action in religious matters; rather the infallibility was declared in order to provide against the special evils of our times, of license which is confounded with liberty, and the habit of thinking, saying, and printing everything regardless of truth. It was not intended to hamper real serious study or research, or to conflict with any well-ascertained truth, but only to use the authority and wisdom of the Church more effectually in protecting men against error.
Next follows a consideration of the consequences that flow from the principles and opinions just rejected. First, it is declared wrong to say that spiritual direction is less needed in our days, on the score that the Holy Ghost is now more bounteous with His gifts than in times past. The history of the Church does not warrant this view. The Holy Ghost is active in His influences and good impulses; but His promptings are not easily discerned or properly followed without external guidance. Divine Providence has so arranged that men should be saved by men, and that men should be led to loftier holiness by the direction of their fellows as in the case of Saul by the help of Ananias. The more perfect the way of life one may enter the more direction is necessary. This has been the invariable view of the Church and of those who have been remarkable for holiness. Secondly, natural virtues must not be extolled above the supernatural. The former, according to the new opinions, are more in accordance with present ways and requirements, and make men more ready and strenuous; as if nature with grace added to it were weaker than when unaided, or as if the habit of acting always with good natural motives could be sustained without grace. Even were the acts of natural virtue all they seem to be in appearance, how can they without grace become solid and enduring, or avail for the supernatural beatitude to which we are destined? Thirdly, it will not do to establish a division between the virtues and regard some as passive, others as active, and advocate the practice of the latter as more suitable for our day. There can be no really passive virtue. All virtue implies power and action, and every virtue is suitable at all times. Christ, meek and humble of heart or obedient unto death, is a model in every age, and the men who have imitated Him in these virtues have been powerful helps to religion and the State. Fourthly, the vows taken in religious orders must not be considered as narrowing the limits of true liberty, or as of little use for human society or for Christian perfection. This view is not in accord with the usage and doctrine of the Church. To assume the obligations of the counsels, in addition to those of the commandments, is not a sign of weak-mindedness, nor unprofitable, nor hurtful, nor injurious to liberty; rather it is a way to the fuller liberty by which liberty; has set us free. The history of the Church, particularly in the United States, is a testimony to the alacrity and success with which the religious orders work everywhere, by preaching, teaching, and by good example. Whether in active ministration, or in contemplative seclusion, they all merit well of human society, and their prayer propitiates the majesty of God. And the congregations that do not take vows are not to magnify their manner of life above that of the religious orders. Finally, as for methods of dealing with those who are not Catholics, it is not prudent to neglect any method which has proved useful in the past. Should the proper authority approve of other methods such as, for instance, preaching, not in the church, but in any private or proper place, or by amicable conferences rather than by disputations, let this be done, provided that the men devoted to this task be men of tried knowledge and virtue.
The Letter concludes with a brief exhortation for unity, as against a spirit that would tend towards developing a national Church. The term Americanism is approved as applying to the characteristic qualities which reflect honor on the American people, or to the conditions of their commonwealths, and to the laws and customs prevailing in them; but as applied to the opinions above enumerated it would be repudiated and condemned by the Bishops of America. “If by that name be designated the characteristic qualities which reflect honor on the people of America, just as other nations have what is special to them; or, if it implies the condition of your commonwealths, or the laws and customs prevailing in them, there is no reason why we should deem that it ought to be discarded. But if it is to be used not only to signify, but even to commend the above doctrines, there can be no doubt that our venerable brethren, the bishops of America, would be the first to repudiate and condemn it, as being especially unjust to them and to the entire nation as well. For it raises the suspicion that there are some among you who conceive and desire a Church in America different from that which is in the rest of the world.”
This Letter put an end to a bitter controversy which had been agitated for nearly ten years, particularly in the Catholic press. In expressing their adhesion to the Holy See and their unqualified acceptance of the teachings set forth in the Letter, the bishops of the United States made it clear that whatever departures from the same might have occurred in this country they had not been either widespread or systematic as they had been made to appear by the interpretation put upon the “Life of Father Hecker” in the preface to the French translation. (See Isaac Thomas Hecker.)
CONDE B. FALLEN