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Testem Benevolentiae


An apostolic letter of Pope leo xiii to Cardinal Gibbons, Jan. 22, 1899. In this letter the pope, testifying to his esteem in the past for the Church and the people of the United States, indicates in a spirit of affection some matters that need correction. The Abbé Félix Klein's preface to the French translation of The Life of Isaac Thomas Hecker is cited by the pope as occasioning controversies concerning the manner of leading a Christian life; for in the preface of this translation it is advocated that the Church minimize certain points of the deposit of the faith and adapt itself to advanced civilization to make converts. Leo XIII cites Vatican Council I's teaching that the doctrine of faith is not proposed as a theory of philosophy but as a divine deposit to be faithfully guarded and infallibly declared; the Church must adhere in the same way to its doctrine at all times, and although adaptations may be made in the rule of Christian life to suit time, place, and national customs, these modifications may be made only by the Church, not by individuals in imitation of the prevailing false concept of civil liberty. The letter then attacks the argument that says that there is a wider field of action and thought in matters of religion because of the definition of papal infallibility; for Vatican Council I defined infallibility not to give license in matters of religion but to protect humanity from it. The consequences of the views expressed in the aforementioned preface are then treated; the need for external guidance in religion and the superiority of supernatural over natural virtue is stated. The distinction between active and passive virtues is rejected, since all virtue connotes action; the view that the vows of religion limit man's true liberty is rebutted, for they lead man to the fullness of real liberty. The pope attacks the view that methods of dealing with non-Catholics that have proved fruitful in the past should be abandoned. Appealing for unity in the Church, the letter closes with an approval of the term Americanism as applied to the characteristics that reflect honor on the American people.

Bibliography: An English translation may be found in j. t. ellis, ed. Documents of American Catholic History. Vol 2:18661966 (Wilmington, Del., 1987) 53747. The entire issue of U.S. Catholic Historian 11:3 (summer 1993) is devoted to the Americanist Controversy. m. reher, "Leo XIII and Americanism," Theological Studies 34 (1973) 67989. t. t. mcavoy, The Great Crisis in American Church History, 18951900 (Chicago 1957). d. killen, "Americanism revisited: John Spalding and Testem Benevolentiae," Harvard Theological Review 66 (1973) 413454. w. l. portier, "Isaac Hecker and Testem Benevolentiae : a study in theological pluralism," in j. farina, ed., Hecker Studies (Ramsey, NJ, 1983) 1148. g. p. fogerty, The Vatican and the American Hierarchy from 1870 to 1965 (Wilmington 1985). d. j. o'brien, Isaac Hecker, American Catholic (New York 1992).

[w. f. hogan]

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