About two years ago, not long after the indomitable Fr. Anthony Brankin became pastor at our geographical parish (St. Odilo in Berwyn), his homily from the preceding Sunday started appearing in the church bulletin.
I'm very glad of this, because even if we go to our other parish (St. John Cantius), we're still able to read his homilies.
Two things in particular strike me about Fr. Brankin's preaching:
(1) His homilies are always relatively short (which, for various reasons, methinks is a very good thing).
(2) He is never afraid to address controversial topics, and, in so doing, lovingly challenge his parishioners to become more faithful to Holy Mother Church's teaching.
Which leads me to his humdinger of a homily from Sunday, July 5, which appeared in this past week's bulletin. I present it herein for your edification—as well as my own:
As Catholics we often hear of heresies. Basically a heresy is a false teaching. Say for instance a priest were to say that Jesus did not rise from the dead. That would be a heresy.
Suppose a theologian was teaching that we need not believe that there are three Persons in One God — that would be a heresy.
Recently I read where a German Bishop was preaching in his cathedral that Jesus did not die as a sacrifice for our sins. That would be a heresy.
It stands to reason if there is something that the Church proposes for our belief, and says very clearly that to believe this is what it means to be a Catholic, then to say, preach, or believe differently is a heresy. To be in heresy is to be wrong. It doesn’t mean that we are going to lynch heretics or burn them at the stake. But it does mean there is something wrong about heretical believing and thinking—and it needs to be corrected before we go on.
It is important that the Church perform the function of judging certain statements for us so that we can develop our own belief filters. When we hear something through that filter, we can judge whether some statement or belief is heresy or not.
On this Fourth of July weekend I thought we might discuss for a moment a very unique modern heresy that is not very well known, but is pretty common. It is called the heresy of “Americanism”.
Now usually when we use the word “Americanism” we are talking about patriotism—but that is not what this word means this time. Actually it was coined by Pope Leo XIII at the end of the Nineteenth Century and he condemned it as something he saw in many American bishops’ teaching. He intended by “Americanism” to mean an attitude that says that America was founded by God and that because of that we Americans need not follow the rules that all the other nations and peoples must follow.
In other words, “Americanism” is the heresy that teaches that whatever we do—because we are Americans or American Catholics - is therefore right. The rules and moral laws that other people must observe do not apply to us because we are exceptional.
Now this “Americanism” is shown in two ways. First—and this is the specific problem that Pope Leo saw is that American bishops, were saying that because we are Americans in America, not all Church teachings apply to all of us. Because we are in a special country in a special position, whenever Rome decrees something we do not have to observe those Church rules or teachings.
I saw this in the seminary a dozen times. I remember when the American Bishops were trying to get American children to make their First Confessions after First Communion. Nobody else in the world was doing this—but our Bishops were. And the Bishops confused it enough for about ten years that there is a whole generation of people—adults now—who made their First Communion—but never made their First Confession. And every time the Pope from the 70’s on would tell the American Bishops to go back to the traditional practice, they would pretend they didn’t hear it and say—“Oh he is talking about Italy.” It took twenty years to straighten out that mess!
Sometimes “Americanism” refers as well to our response to what the government does. An Americanist would say that whatever America does is right—because by definition America does not do wrong.
Now this stems from America’s religious origins—and the notion that came from the Puritans and Pilgrims that God gave them America as refuge—ultimately—from the Pope in Rome. So America is the new Promised land—the new Israel—the new manifestation of God’s will in earth and certainly not the Catholic Church.
So therefore what ever America does is approved by God. If we invade Mexico, or Cuba or the Philippines—as we did in the 19th Century—or invade Iraq, Afghanistan, or if we drop an atom bomb or invent nerve gas, or develop germs to conduct germ warfare or if we torture prisoners and have a good reason for it, then it’s OK. That’s “Americanism”.
You will notice that there is no heresy called Mexicanism or Peruvianism.
“Americanism” can snag most of us. Rather than examine some governmental policy in the light of Catholic moral teaching—or weigh this or that action in the scale of papal teaching—or church tradition, we simply go along with it all—agreeing that whatever America does must be moral—because it is America.
I used to do this all the time—particularly when the issues came down along the lines of liberal and conservative as defined by the media or party politics.
For example, I would to think that when Church teaching and the Pope came in conflict with what we were about as America, I would say, “Well, as the Pope he is a wonderful and holy man, but he doesn’t know as much about it as our president. So unless he is talking about the Nicene Creed or the 6th Commandment we don’t have to listen to the Pope.”
Well that’s “Americanism” plain and simple. As Catholics, it was easy to fall prey to Americanism because as a nation of immigrants we always wanted to be accepted. We didn’t want the Protestants who were running this country to think we were somehow unpatriotic and disloyal and un-American. God forbid that they should think that Catholics were loyal to foreign power from overseas! Why that would be treason on its face.
Indeed, it was never easy to be a Catholic in America. When they put up the Help Wanted signs on factories and stores that specified, “Irish need not apply” it wasn’t because the Irish had freckles and red hair—it was because they were Catholic. There were riots in the streets. Convents, churches and rectories were burnt down to try to send these Catholics back home.
My brother Pat was pastor of a parish in Oklahoma where as late the 1920’s the people in the town burned down the church and scattered the Catholics as far as they could. And that parish was so afraid of the outside world, that they didn’t do Ash Wednesday for the next 60 years. They didn’t want to mark themselves out as Catholics any more than necessary.
Do you remember when John F. Kennedy was running for President and he spoke before the Baptist ministers and promised them he would never let his Catholic beliefs interfere with his being President? We bent over backwards—and still do— to prove to the reigning culture that we were true blue Americans. And we went along with the idea that somehow America was connected more closely with God than any other country — and that what we do — no matter what— has God’s blessing. That is not only heresy — it is also idolatry.
As Catholics we must understand that all countries and all peoples are equal in the sight of God and are equally loved by God and equally judged by God. Pope Leo said that!
Our standard of reference for all of life even as Americans is the Catholic Faith; and we must listen to what our traditions and our popes teach. We must never ever think that just because some politician has decided to get our country involved in something immoral—like abortion or unjust wars — that the case is closed and we cannot object. We must never think that loyalty to our country means we cannot speak out.
We should never be under the impression that the Catholic Church must be silent once the politicians start talking.
And when we have learned to use the beautiful teachings of our faith to guide the policies and programs of our country we will be better Americans — precisely because we have become better Catholics.