Testem benevolentiae nostrae

Testem benevolentiae nostrae is a letter written by Pope Leo XIII to Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, dated January 22, 1899. In it, the pope addressed a heresy he called Americanism, and expressed his concern that the American Church should guard against American values of liberalism and pluralism undermining the doctrine of the Church.


Pope Leo XIII

Testem benevolentiae nostrae translates as "Witness to Our Good Will." The Pope was concerned about the culture of Catholics in the United States, in response to the preface of the French translation of the biography of Isaac Thomas Hecker.[1] Hecker's biography reached France eleven years after Father Hecker had died (in good standing with the Church), and its French translation included a liberal preface by Abbé Félix Klein. Leo proposed to review certain opinions expressed by the translator in the book about Isaac Hecker.[1] In particular: The Church should adapt to the new advanced civilization and relax her disciplines regarding not only the rule of life but also the deposit of faith, passing-over or minimizing certain points of doctrine, or giving to them a new meaning which the Church had never held.[1]


Rejection of American particularismEdit

Testem benevolentiae nostrae involved American particularism and view of individual liberty. On particularism it was believed that a movement of American Catholics felt they were a special case who needed greater latitude in order to assimilate into a majority Protestant nation. The letter rejected the idea of "some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.[2] (In 1892, certain immigrant support associations, while advocating for the establishment of national parishes in order that the congregations could be served by priests who understood the language and culture, pressed for the appointment of bishops to reflect representation of each nationality. This caused considerable disturbance among the American hierarchy.) The letter reiterated that Catholic teaching was the same throughout the world and not to be adjusted to suit a particular area.

During the 19th century, Catholic doctrine articulated that Protestantism was a heresy and even a harmful new religious movement, although the Church under Leo did indicate individual Protestants might well be innocent due to "invincible ignorance". Still, Protestant religions themselves were not to be learned from or accepted as equals. Outside of this issue the article gave the consolation that Catholicism could accommodate to American norms when they did not conflict with doctrinal or moral teachings of the Catholic Church.

The letter actually had more to do with Catholics in France than those in the United States. French conservatives were appalled at Abbé Klein's remarks in a book about an American priest, and claimed that a number of the American Catholic clergy shared these views.[3] Hence, in many ways, the article was more a warning to France that its Republic was becoming too liberal or secularist.

He expresses concern lest Americans would value their freedom and individualism so much they would reject the idea of monasteries and the priesthood. "Did not your country, the United States, derive the beginnings both of faith and of culture from the children of these religious families?"[2] Again this is more about the anticlericalism in France at the time.

It was not uncommon for American bishops, finding themselves having to provide education and health care to large numbers of immigrants, pointedly solicited congregations involved in those activities. Leo cautioned against valuing an active apostolate more than a contemplative one. "Nor should any difference of praise be made between those who follow the active state of life and those others who, charmed with solitude, give themselves to prayer and bodily mortification."[2]

Negative view of freedom of the pressEdit

In November 1892 at a meeting of the archbishops held in New York City, Bishop Francesco Satolli, soon to be the first Apostolic delegate to the United States, presented fourteen propositions regarding the solution of certain school problems which had been for some time under discussion. The draft propositions were "inopportunely" published, with incorrect interpretations and malign insinuations in some papers, causing a good deal of "acrid" discussion.[4]

Testem benevolentiae nostrae clearly rejects full freedom of the press.

"These dangers, viz., the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church's teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty."[2]

Defenders of the document believe criticizing press freedom was understandable in an age of increasing libel, slander, and incitements of violence in newspapers. Newspaper stories of convents had already inflamed anti-Catholic violence. Further the Spanish–American War, which many Catholics opposed, was often blamed on William Randolph Hearst's newspapers and had occurred a year before the letter. Opponents of Testem benevolentiae nostrae believe it displayed an ongoing Vatican opposition to democracy and progress.

Still, both sides tend to agree that Leo XIII wrote in a less condemnatory or at least more tactful manner than most of his immediate predecessors. Critics state this is merely because his immediate predecessors were or became strident reactionaries like Pope Pius IX. Supporters cite the fact that his encyclical on Americanism, "Longinqua", spoke of love for America more than condemnation of it.

Gibbons' responseEdit

The brief did not assert that Hecker and the Americans had held any unsound doctrine. Instead, it merely stated that if such opinions did exist, the Pope called upon the hierarchy to eradicate them. Cardinal Gibbons and many other prelates replied to Rome. With a near-unanimous voice, they declared that the incriminated opinions had no existence among American Catholics. Hecker never had countenanced the slightest departure from Catholic principles in their fullest and most strict application. The disturbance caused by the condemnation was slight; almost the entire laity and a considerable part of the clergy were unaware of this affair. However, the pope's brief did end up strengthening the position of the conservatives in France.[5]

Legacy and influenceEdit

The legacy of Testem benevolentiae nostrae is disputed. Among Traditionalist Catholics today there remains widespread support for its statements against ecumenicalism and liberalism. In more liberal circles, however, scholars maintain that it largely destroyed Catholic intellectual life in the US for the first half of the twentieth century. And yet, many others hold that its importance has been exaggerated. It does, however, highlight the uneasy relationship between the Holy See and the United States, a country which did not give full diplomatic relations with the Holy See until the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Some historians believe the letter was really directed at liberal currents in France.[6]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Pallen, Condé. "Testem Benevolentiae." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 7 November 2015
  2. ^ a b c d Pope Leo XIII. Testem benevolentiae nostrae, 22 January 1899
  3. ^ Kelly, Joseph Francis. History and Heresy, Liturgical Press, 2012 ISBN 9780814656952
  4. ^ Parsons, Reuben. "Leo XII and the Church in the United States", Studies in Church History, Century XIX, Pt. II, J.J. McVey, 1900
  5. ^ Smith, Michael Paul. "Isaac Thomas Hecker." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 20 February 2020  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  6. ^ Allen, Jr., John L., The Catholic Church, Oxford University Press, 2014 ISBN 9780199379811

External linksEdit