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The Pope, the Cardinal, and the "Phantom Heresy"

Published Apr 28, 2010
The Pope, the Cardinal, and the "Phantom Heresy"

Pope Leo XIII sent a formal letter to Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore and senior hierarch of the Catholic church in America on January 22, 1899. This was not an encyclical, which would have been addressed to the entire church, but a pastoral warning against what has been called the "phantom heresy." The letter, entitled Testem benevolentiae condemned views which critics said characterized "Americanism." These included a denigration of religious vows and an attempt to adapt the church's traditional teaching to conform to the needs of the modern world. The pope also presented the proper stand to be made by American bishops on the matter.

The controversy began with the ideas of Father Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888), an American-German convert to Catholicism, who founded the missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle. Hecker wanted to bring the Catholic religion to Americans in a form that would not offend the American idea of freedom of conscience and he also sought to create an American priesthood. Furthermore, he wanted to help immigrant Catholics to understand the American way of life. Hecker was successful in presenting the faith to non-Catholics. However, he was criticized for his belief that the church should adapt itself to the religious needs of every people and culture. Some even said he believed the church should pass over or modify its doctrines.

Cardinal Gibbons knew that immigrant Catholic laity and clergy were stigmatized by many Americans as foreigners adhering to a foreign religion, and he was in favor of helping the newcomers to accept the nation's political and social customs. He was also interested in winning American converts, but he was concerned that Hecker's teachings could be misunderstood. Hecker had his critics in America among Jesuits, the German and other bishops, and in Michael A. Corrigan, archbishop of New York. Hecker's ideas were misunderstood overseas, especially after the reading of a paper about his teachings at a Catholic conference in Switzerland in 1897. Soon this controversy reached the ears of the pope, especially through the criticism of French clerics.

Cardinal Gibbons replied to the pope's letter, assuring him that "This doctrine, which I deliberately call extravagant and absurd, this Americanism as it has been called, has nothing in common with the views, aspirations, doctrine and conduct of Americans. I do not think that there can be found in the entire country a bishop, a priest, or even a layman with a knowledge of his religion who has ever uttered such enormities. No, that it not-- it never has been and never will be -- our Americanism."

Cardinal Gibbons assurances were successful. Leo XIII, wrote to him again three years later observing " . . while the changes and tendencies of nearly all the nations which were Catholic for many centuries give cause for sorrow, the state of your churches, in this flourishing youthfulness, cheers our heart and fills it with delight."

The controversy surrounding the "phantom heresy," as it continued to be called, had no effect on the average Roman Catholic. It did, however, slow down "progressive" elements in the Church, and conservatives continued to insist that it existed, and, later, considered that it was the seed of Modernism, a movement condemned by Pius X in 1907.


  1. Adapted from an earlier Christian History Instititute storyD.
  2. Sugrue, Francis. Popes in the Modern World. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1961.


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