The incident — Catholics challenging the pope, even accusing him of heresy — no doubt seems shocking. But challenges to papal authority are nothing new in the Catholic Church. Laypeople, theologians and priests have claimed the right to define the nature of Catholicism throughout its 2,000-year history.
Many of the signatories of the Filial Correction are Americans, and they are part of a long history of American laypeople challenging priests, and American laypeople and clergy challenging the pope, over matters of doctrine, governance and culture. What is notable about this document, though, is that it accuses the pope of “modernism.” This is not a rejection or condemnation of modern life, however. Instead, “modernism” refers to a particular set of beliefs formally condemned by church doctrine as heretical, including the belief that church dogma can change over time, which the authors argue the pope has advanced with his directions on the pastoral care of Catholics who are divorced or remarried.
Even more striking is the role of Americans in pressing this challenge, because of the way that the American Catholic experience contributed to the branding of modernism as a heresy at the end of the 19th century — a status that some Americans have now turned back on Pope Francis.
Central to this history is the exercise of lay power in the American Catholic Church. Although the first U.S. diocese was founded in 1789, the Catholic population was small and sparsely settled. As a result, church infrastructure grew slowly in the United States — so slowly, in fact, that in many locales, Catholic parishes and missions frequently had no resident priests. This forced Catholic laypeople to fend for themselves, with parishes incorporated under existing state laws that gave these laypeople — known as trustees — significant power over congregational governance and property.
When the institutional presence of the Catholic Church in the United States began to grow in the early 1800s, the stage was set for showdowns between the lay trustees, who wished to maintain their power, and the newly resident bishops and priests, who wished to assert theirs. For many years, the American church was riven by contentious battles in which lay leaders attempted to expel priests from their parishes that produced court battles between laypeople and prelates for control of church buildings.
The papacy was decidedly supportive of its priests and bishops in these battles. By the middle of the 19th century, the largely French- and Irish-born hierarchy in the United States — many of whom began promoting a top-down view of the church with the pope as the preeminent decision-maker and focal point of Catholic life — achieved victory in the controversy over lay trusteeism.
Lay trustees had argued that it was appropriate, and even good, to adapt the church to the nation’s republican structures, and despite their defeat, a related view soon found supporters in the highest reaches of the American Catholic hierarchy. Coalescing around figures such as Isaac Hecker, a priest and convert to Catholicism, and Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, the leading Catholic voice in American public life, this new view not only expressed comfort with American political institutions, democratic traditions and religious liberty, but also argued that Catholicism was inherently and fully compatible with these institutions and values without any adaptation.
In Rome, Pope Pius IX grew increasingly concerned with what he saw as adaptation to liberal political thought, as the very moment he confronted pressing local demands for his own “adaptation” to a new political situation. The Italian unification movement, which formed the separate states of the region into a new Italian nation, culminated in 1870 with the absorption of the Papal States, ultimately stripping the papacy of much of its political power.
Previously viewed as a potential friend of liberal democracy by some Americans, Pius sought to shore up his remaining power by engaging in withering critiques of liberalism. To him, claims of Catholicism’s compatibility with liberal political structures — wherever they existed — were actually demands for the church’s submission to secular authority.
At the First Vatican Council in 1870, shortly before the death of the Papal States, the church proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility. As the political power of the papacy in Europe waned, the idea that the pope’s words could be infallible indicated the papacy’s growing spiritual authority over the global Catholic Church of the late 19th century.
The tensions between the Vatican and American Catholic leaders over America’s particular tendencies spilled over when Pope Leo XIII condemned a constellation of liberal ideas he termed “Americanism” in 1899. Challenging this papal encyclical, Cardinal Gibbons intervened with the Vatican to argue that Americanism, at least as the Vatican conceived it, was largely imaginary.
The Vatican remained unconvinced, and in 1907, Leo’s successor, Pope Pius X, issued an encyclical denouncing modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies” — the liberalism condemned by Pius IX, the Americanism criticized by Leo XIII and a host of other liberal and illiberal ideas that popes had attacked for several decades. This encyclical led to a 1910 Oath Against Modernism, which all clergy members and professors in seminaries were required to swear by until 1967.
In a stunning turn, the period after the Second Vatican Council, which was held from 1962 to 1965, saw the church reverse course and enshrine ideas of individuality and democratic values in its teachings. But while supporters of change and modernization saw Vatican II as a victory, conservatives and traditionalists, many of them American, struck back at aspects of the church’s new direction, like the use of the vernacular during mass, and the increasing role of lay leadership.
Gravely dismayed by the course the church took after the 1960s, these defenders of traditionalism, drawn from the laity and the clergy, became dissenters against the hierarchy and its promulgations. In a near inversion of papal criticisms decades earlier, they attacked what they saw as creeping modernism and liberalism — this time emanating from the papacy itself.
Something similar may be occurring with the current Filial Correction. A key difference between this dissent and that of an earlier period is the role played by digital communications and social media, which amplify the message of the correction in a manner that could have only been dreamed of by earlier generations. Most striking, though, is the deployment of modernism as an attack against a pope by Americans Catholics, whose predecessors were the subject of modernism’s original papal condemnation.