Testem benevolentiae nostrae

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Testem benevolentiae nostrae
(Latin: )
Encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII
Quum diuturnum Cercle jaune 50%.svg Annum sacrum
Date 22 January 1899
Argument Virtue, Nature and Grace, and Americanism
Encyclical number 70 of 85 of the pontificate
Text in English

Testem benevolentiae nostrae (Witness to Our Goodwill), "Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature and Grace, With Regard to Americanism", is the name for an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII. The encyclical was addressed to "Our Beloved Son, James Gibbons, Cardinal Priest of the Title Sancta Maria, Beyond the Tiber, Archbishop of Baltimore", and was promulgated on January 22, 1899. It concerned the heresy sometimes called Americanism to ensure that the Church in the United States did not allow the model of civil liberties to undermine the doctrine of the Church. Most historians believe the letter was really directed at liberal currents in France.[1]


Pope Leo XIII

The name Testem benevolentiae nostrae literally means "Witness to Our Good Will." In it Pope Leo expressed criticism regarding what he heard of the culture of Catholics in the United States. These concerns grew from a response to the preface of the French translation of the biography of Isaac Thomas Hecker.[2]

The translation of Hecker's biography reached France eleven years after Father Hecker had died. It was translated in French and published with a very liberal preface by Abbé Félix Klein. Hecker had remained in good standing with Catholicism from his conversion in adulthood to his death so the controversy revolved around the book. Leo proposed to review certain opinions expressed by the translator in the book about Isaac Hecker.[2]

The basis of these opinions was that the Church should adapt to the new advanced civilization and relax her ancient rigour regarding not only the rule of life but also the deposit of faith, and should pass over or minimize certain points of doctrine, or even give them a new meaning which the Church had never held.[2]


Rejection of American particularism

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 encyclical 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.[3] (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 encyclical 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 encyclical 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.[4] 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?"[3] 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."[3]

Negative view of freedom of the press

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.[5]

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."[3]

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 encyclical. 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.

Legacy and influence

The legacy of Testem benevolentiae nostrae is highly 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.

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