The Spirit of 76

by a Benedictine monk

In this beautiful country of the United States, “we the people” that compose it are Americans. The word “Americanism” can cause a dilemma. We can be confused between an error condemned by the pope and our love for our country. Our Founding Fathers, from the pilgrims on the Mayflower to the pioneers on the western frontier, were essentially concerned with survival. If we consider the very hostile and bitter elements of nature and the upheavals of the European and Native American nations, the American people were obliged to fight for survival. The fighting spirit of our pioneering ancestors was often called The Spirit of ’76. Just as we can understand Americanism in two ways, the Spirit of ’76 can be interpreted in two ways: a strong character showing the virtue of fortitude, or a revolutionary attitude throwing off all authority.

The Spirit of ‘76 refers to the spirit of the American Revolution, which was, in a certain way, the forerunner of the French Revolution. The French elite, in their pleasant Parisian tea-rooms, were philosophically preparing a revolution against God, and as a result the French kingdom was overthrown and most of the “tea-room philosophers” were beheaded. Our Founding Fathers were familiar with this French “philosophy of illumination.” They were heavily influenced by these errors long before the two revolutions were fought. The American Revolution was a continuation of the English-French hostilities on American soil and a trial run of the anti-Catholic French Revolution. These two Revolutions seemed to have infused a sense of self-sufficiency to the American population and mistrust of European authority. America made her “Declaration of Independence” to the world, and unfortunately to God as well.

In 1899, Pope Leo XIII had to deal with this spirit that found its way into the souls of American Catholic clergy and laity. Some of the American Catholics seemed to think that the Church should change or camouflage her doctrine in order to adapt herself to the American enterprise, tainted by the erroneous principles of the French Revolution. With great charity, the pope expressed himself clearly and firmly in order to preserve the deposit of faith. In general, the American clergy and faithful accepted the correction.

The second Vatican Council seemed to introduce yet a third revolution. What Leo XIII had condemned as an error in 1899, was now, in the name of ecumenism, presented as a new pastoral approach. Precaution was taken to avoid offending our separated brethren, even to the point of camouflaging doctrine and introducing liturgical changes affecting the faith. The churchmen of Vatican II were promising to adapt the Church to the spirit of the world. Americanism or the Spirit of ’76 was ushered into the Church. Strangely enough, it was the authority of Rome that seemed to impose these errors on the faithful. In the following decades, nearly 80,000 priests left the priesthood and the horrendous crisis that we all know was upon us. The very survival of the priesthood was at stake, something had to be done.

Like the Vendée of the French Revolution, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Bishop De Castro Mayer, a handful of priests and religious, and a small group of faithful from across the world refused to adapt the deposit of the Catholic faith to our modern times. For their efforts, they were labeled as rebels and revolutionaries. In all reality they were energetically trying to maintain order and peace in the midst of the modernist crisis. To do this they required the gift of fortitude. This brings us to the positive way of interpreting the Spirit of ’76.

The first Americans trying to survive the hardships of our continent can be compared to Archbishop Lefebvre and all those trying to survive the terrible confusion of the Vatican II crisis. It took a great love of the Church and fortitude to oppose error, especially when presented by priests, bishops, or popes. The crisis in the Church continues and the gift of fortitude is necessary today more than ever.

Today’s Catholic priests, bishops, or pope no longer receive automatic respect from the faithful, as was previously the case; they are now obliged to merit it. Experience shows that the faithful must compare the teaching of the clergy to the past teaching of the Church. If we consider the past betrayals experienced by the faithful, this attitude is understandable, although unfortunate. Priestly authority is certainly under attack by Americanism, even by those that are trying to live their Catholic faith. The only way a priest can restore confidence in his authority is to clearly teach Catholic doctrine and morals by word and example.

Both clergy and laity must avoid falling into the errors of Americanism by being intensely united to God through charity. Both must reestablish confidence in the legitimate authority flowing forth from God. The laity must listen to their priest. He in turn must listen to his superior who is obliged to listen to God and His laws. We must adapt ourselves to God and not try to put God into our mold.

The real solution can be found in the Rule of St. Benedict: “Prefer nothing to Christ.”

This is the true Spirit of ’76 capable of sacrificing all for the love of God and country.