“Vatican Hegemonism”: Part 1 of 4

(Commentary at Catholica by John Chuchman & Sr Charlene Ozanick)

Vatican Hegemonism targets America and America’s Nuns

Practically every day, there is news about the latest crack-down by the Vatican on some area of American Catholic life. It could be a social agency, a university, a religious group — even the Girl Scouts are now under investigation. At times, the crack-down comes through a bishop, who acts with the impunity granted to him by the Vatican. It is an attempt by the Vatican to exercise its hegemonism over America.

The dictionary defines “hegemonism” as a preponderant influence or authority over others — domination. It is this last term that frighteningly explains the various pronouncements coming from the Vatican and from the Bishops in the United States — that demand extreme concern by all Americans. It is an attempt to exercise ‘domination’. Although this concept may sound far-fetched and extreme — it is not. If we take a look at a part of America’s Catholic history, we will see the root of the problem between America and the Vatican.

The initial appearance of Americanism

When the reactionary Pope Pius IX died in 1878, Rome began to openly express its suspicions of the American Church’s loyalty. This took place during the so-called “Americanism” controversy. Rome’s fear of “Americanism” was related to its fear of “Modernism”. “Modernism” was a label Rome gave to a movement among Catholic theologians to update Catholic scholarship. In particular, Catholic biblical scholars were applying new methods — developed by Protestant scholars — to the study of the Bible. These scholars researched the historical context in which the Bible was written in order to better understand the Bible on its own terms.

Isaac Thomas Hecker [1819-1899]

At about the same time, an American priest named Isaac Hecker [1819-1899] founded the Paulist Fathers. Hecker was a convert to Catholicism. He took a dim view of the way Rome arbitrarily imposed its authority on the American Church. Hecker thought many of Rome’s decrees were an attempt to impose European ways onAmericans rather than an attempt to safeguard Catholic doctrine.

In the introduction to Walter Elliot’s biography of Hecker, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, praised Hecker as “the priest of the future”. Elliot’s book made its way to France. There, a French editor spoke of Hecker’s attitude toward Rome as the “American way”. French bishops read this as signaling a break with Rome on the part of the American clergy. Fears and suspicions escalated, and the”Americanism” controversy was launched.

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