At that time, 1899, Gibbons was the leading Catholic prelate of the US. But even with him at the head of the US Church, problems were developing there that would eventually seed themselves – or more accurately, be deliberately sown – throughout the universal Church. Indeed, the pope’s warnings against “certain contentions which have arisen lately among you to the detriment of the peace of many souls,” will seem quite familiar.
The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions.
Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith.
They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.
He quotes the First Vatican Council:
“For the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention to be perfected by human ingenuity, but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared.
Hence that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our Holy Mother, the Church, has once declared, nor is that meaning ever to be departed from under the pretense or pretext of a deeper comprehension of them.”
The pope grants that the Cardinal and other priests in the US are morally blameless: “We readily believe there was no thought of wrong or guile,” but adds, “the things themselves certainly merit some degree of suspicion.”
The pope was writing in response to a group of French “progressive” priests who had begun to agitate for a change in attitude towards the anti-Catholic regimes ranged against the Church.
Shortly before Gibbons began his episcopal career, a priest named Isaac Thomas Hecker founded the Paulist community of priests – a group that today is known as one of the leaders in Post-Conciliar neomodernism. Hecker believed that the Church should not be hostile to “modern ideas” and was identified as a “liberal Catholic” (remembering that at this time, the term was not yet synonymous with “heretic apostate.”)He believed in a strategy of stressing only selected portions of Catholicism when addressing American Protestants.
In those times, such a strategy could have sounded quite reasonable; retaining a discreet silence in certain company on subjects that could only cause a negative reaction (cf: the nativist “Know-nothing”party and the burning of the Ursuline conventat Charlestown, Mass.). This, it must be remembered, was well before the threat of Modernism had become a universal reality in the Church and doctrinal orthodoxy was taken for granted among the clergy and Catholic laity.And for a long time, it was a strategy that bore fruit, with many new converts among the American population.
But it was the French interpretation and application of Hecker’s ideas that was raising alarms. A biography of Hecker was translated into French and its introduction by one of the progressive French priests was brought to the attention of the pope.
While Gibbons was working to improve Catholic/Protestant relations in the US, and doing much to establish the long peace Catholicism was to enjoy there, Leo was facing a deteriorating situation in Europe. Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, following the chaos created by the Napoleonic wars, secularists and anti-clericals had gone on a rampage, carving vast territories out of formerly Catholic states that Napoleon had already denuded of much of the clerical and monastic presence, installing by force their anti-authoritarian principle and eradicating the temporal power of the Church.
The French priests taking Hecker as their inspiration were in favour of a more conciliatory relationship with the atheist Republic in France and were critical of the conservative establishment’s hostility to the regime. In fact, their slogan will be familiar to those who have followed the current pontificate: “Allons au peuple.” “Let us go to the people.” They looked to the US for a model of a vigorous Church that concerned itself less with politics and more with the social and spiritual condition of the people.
Gibbons himself was not a progressive in the European sense, (he had voted in favour of the declaration of the dogma of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I,) but he had made a glittering career as the first Catholic prelate in American society who was widely accepted as a religious leader by both Catholics and Protestants. Starting in an atmosphere of violent intolerance of Catholicism by the Protestant majority, Gibbons’ first assignment was as the Apostolic Vicar of the state of North Carolina, a vast geographic territory with no more than 700 Catholics.
He gained huge popularity and respect while at the same time never shying away from the necessity of conversion. Indeed, he was the author of one of the most famous books of apologetics, “Faith of Our Fathers.” But he gained this acceptance – including the admiration of presidents – by speaking of religious matters in a way that would be acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants, walking a thin line that would today be called “ecumenical.”
The work of Gibbons – who became a priest after hearing a sermon by a Paulist co-founder – to establish Catholic credentials in the Protestant establishment was also predicated on this strategy of strategic silence in certain company. When Leo wrote Testem Benevolentiae, it was this strategy that was coming under suspicion:
“We cannot consider as altogether blameless the silence which purposely leads to the omission or neglect of some of the principles of Christian doctrine, for all the principles come from the same Author and Master, “the Only Begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father.” … They are adapted to all times and all nations…”
Leo denounced the idea that such a strategic silence is an effective way of bringing the Faith to Protestants and atheists.
“Let it be far from anyone’s mind to suppress for any reason any doctrine that has been handed down. Such a policy would tend rather to separate Catholics from the Church than to bring in those who differ.”
As a mere strategy to gain acceptance for the Church in a hostile environment, strategic silence could have been seen as legitimate at a time when the Church herself was assumed to be defended internally from heresy, following the reforms of Trent. But history has shown that the difference of opinion between men like Hecker and Gibbons and Pope Leo comes out squarely in Leo’s favour. The pope’s warning was mainly ignored in the US, and it has indeed caused a great separation of Catholics from their mother the Church.
Leo granted that the Church allows great latitude in social matters, with the proviso that her doctrine is in no way compromised:
The rule of life laid down for Catholics is not of such a nature that it cannot accommodate itself to the exigencies of various times and places…
… in regard to ways of living she has been accustomed to so yield that, the divine principle of morals being kept intact, she has never neglected to accommodate herself to the character and genius of the nations which she embraces.
But he said that the decision on how this balance is to be maintained is up to the appropriate authority:
"Who can doubt that she will act in this same spirit again if the salvation of souls requires it? In this matter the Church must be the judge, not private men who are often deceived by the appearance of right.”
And this includes individual priests and even famous and illustrious bishops. But even worse, Leo said, was the use that enemies of the Faith could make of such a strategy:
“…in that opinion of the lovers of novelty, according to which they hold such liberty should be allowed in the Church, that her supervision and watchfulness being in some sense lessened, allowance be granted the faithful, each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity.
They are of opinion that such liberty has its counterpart in the newly given civil freedom which is now the right and the foundation of almost every secular state.”
This letter to Cardinal Gibbons came after the publication in 1864 of the Syllabus of Errors,that document that outlined the dangers of a state following the principles of atheistic secularism. Widely maligned and constantly ridiculed by “progressives” both at the time and into the modern day, the Syllabus is daily becoming vindicated as we see the inevitable deterioration of the condemned ideas into a suffocating and aggressive anti-Christian totalitarianism. (More on the Syllabus later.)
He warns that… “those who avail themselves of such a way of reasoning seem to depart seriously from the over-ruling wisdom of the Most High...”
“These dangers, viz., the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church's teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty.”
The Church is not a body of luddites, rejecting the advances of “modern industry and study,” Leo says. Indeed, “we welcome to the patrimony of truth and to an ever-widening scope of public well-being whatsoever helps toward the progress of learning and virtue.”
“Yet all this, to be of any solid benefit, nay, to have a real existence and growth, can only be on the condition of recognizing the wisdom and authority of the Church.”
Moreover, he says, there is value in a less formal, more “friendly” approach.
“If, among the different ways of preaching the word of God that one sometimes seems to be preferable, which directed to non-Catholics, not in churches, but in some suitable place, in such wise that controversy is not sought, but friendly conference, such a method is certainly without fault.”
But he warns that this cannot be a task undertaken by just anyone. While every Catholic is authorized to “evangelize” in a way in keeping with his proper state in life, the work of bringing non-Catholics and the lapsed into the fold is one for those with proper authority.
“Let those who undertake such ministry be set apart by the authority of the bishops and let them be men whose science and virtue has been previously ascertained. For we think that there are many in your country who are separated from Catholic truth more by ignorance than by ill-will, who might perchance more easily be drawn to the one fold of Christ if this truth be set forth to them in a friendly and familiar way.
Leo directly refutes the idea that the Holy Ghost could be leading the Church to evangelize in some new way. “There is no one who calls in question the truth that the Holy Spirit does work by a secret descent into the souls of the just,” the pope says. But these “impulses of the Holy Spirit are for the most part felt through the medium of the aid and light of an external teaching authority.”
“This, indeed, belongs to the ordinary law of God’s loving providence that as He has decreed that men for the most part shall be saved by the ministry also of men, so has He wished that those whom He calls to the higher planes of holiness should be led thereto by men; hence St. Chrysostom declares we are taught of God through the instrumentality of men.”
And as for the idea of installing a new method “of bringing back those who have fallen away from the Church” Leo says, “it will suffice to note that it is not the part of prudence to neglect that which antiquity in its long experience has approved and which is also taught by apostolic authority.”
The American bishops sent back a response expressing their utmost obedience to the Pontiff and their agreement with all that the Church proposes, denying that the errors Leo warned against were taking root in the US. It seems reasonable to believe that they were perfectly sincere. But history has a way of showing that even sincere, inculpable errors are not without consequences.
Indeed, Leo says as much, quite bluntly:
“…those who are striving after perfection […] are the most liable to stray, and hence have greater need than others of a teacher and guide.
Such guidance has ever obtained in the Church; it has been the universal teaching of those who throughout the ages have been eminent for wisdom and sanctity – and hence to reject it would be to commit one’s self to a belief at once rash and dangerous.”
…and so we have seen.
The rest of the letter rewards attentive reading, particularly keeping in mind the present context.