Heresy in the Making, Part 1
THE GESTA DEI PER HIBERNOS 1860-1889
Dr. Justin Walsh
We must at once admit that the Irish race is the providential instrument through which God has wrought (a) marvelous revival. As in another age men spoke of the gesta Dei per Francos, so we may now speak of the gesta Dei per Hibernos. Were it not for Ireland Catholicism...would today be feeble and non-progressive in England [and] America. —Bishop John Spalding, Religious Mission of the Irish People, 18801
What came to be called the Americanist heresy in the Roman Catholic Church incubated when English Catholics sought refuge in Maryland in the 17th century. These first Catholics in British North America established a colony based upon the un-Catholic notions of religious toleration and separation of Church and State. Such ideas had spread to other colonies by the time of the American Revolution, an event that the Catholic Carroll family of Maryland supported and perceived as positive for their Church. Maryland's Catholicism, a seemingly minor irritant for the Church, became a potentially dangerous illness in 1789 when Rome selected Baltimore to be America's primal see and named John Carroll the nation's first Catholic bishop.
Cardinal Gibbons signs a pastoral letter.
The danger grew out of Carroll's twin obsessions with the Founding Fathers and religious freedom, obsessions which bordered on idolatry. Both Carroll's writings and actions indicated that, for practical purposes, he equated Catholicism with Americanism in a way that was detrimental to the true Faith. It was also Bishop Carroll who deleted the oath against heretics from his consecration rite lest he offend Protestants. By the time Carroll died in 1818 the germ of an Americanist heresy had been firmly planted in the American Church.
Such Irish-born successors to Carroll as John England of South Carolina and John Hughes of New York spread the virus between 1820 and 1850. Both prelates followed in Carroll's wake when they ignored Mirari Vos (on Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism, 1832) because they thought Gregory XVI's anathemas against religious liberty did not apply to the United States. By 1860 American-born prelates John McCloskey of Albany and Martin Spalding of Baltimore furthered what could be definitely diagnosed as a heretical infection. The former, born in Brooklyn shortly after his parents arrived from County Derry, became in 1875 America's first cardinal. In 1858, however, he thought promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was "inopportune" because Protestants did not like Mary. And so Bishop McCloskey refused to propagate the doctrine in his diocese. Archbishop Spalding, whose forebears settled in Maryland in the 17th century about the same time as the first Carrolls, was similarly reluctant to obey papal directives. In 1865 he issued a pastoral letter stating that Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors (1864) applied only to "European false liberalism."
By the time of the Civil War, the Catholic Church in the United States had clearly suffered for four-score and seven years from a mental malady that may accurately be termed an "Irish infection." Unless checked, the malady threatened to become an "Irish infestation." From its start the infection was primarily a sickness of the mind or, as one French critic described the Americanism of the 1890's, an "epidemic of intellectual influenza."2 Another French cleric, Fr. A. Roussel, denounced all varieties of liberal Catholicism most eloquently in 1926:
"Liberal Catholicism" or whatever name one might give it, such as "Christian Democracy" or "Social Catholicism" [or "Catholic Americanism"] is a general sickness of the mind which extends to every domain, whether it be practical or theoretical....It suffices to recall its origin or historical development, its principal traits and mentality, particularly its doctrinal incoherency, its radically false mind, its special attitude concerning relationships between Church and State, and the multiple ambiguities behind which it hides.3
The liberal heresy that threatened to permeate the Church in the United States under the rubric of Americanism must be examined, as Fr. Roussel suggested, root and branch in every domain. The infestation was fostered by a post-1860 cabala of Irish-American churchmen. The word Cabala is chosen deliberately to describe a small, strategically placed group who conspired to implement a hidden and basically un-Catholic agenda.4 James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Bishop John Joseph Keane of the Catholic University of America, and Bishop Denis Joseph O'Connell of the North American College in Rome dominated the Cabala. Lesser members, who shared the principles of the leadership, included Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria and probably about half of the Irish clergymen in America.
John Spalding, a nephew of Baltimore's Archbishop Martin Spalding, was first to articulate the Cabala's view that Irishmen were America's Chosen People. While describing "the gesta Dei per Hibernos" in 1880 he wrote that the Irish gave to Catholicism in America "a vigor and cohesiveness which enables it to assimilate the most heterogeneous elements, without which it is not at all certain that the vast majority of Catholics emigrating hither from other lands would not have been lost to the Church."5 It was precisely this mistakenly messianic view that the big four of Gibbons, Ireland, Keane, and O'Connell were determined to foist upon the Catholic Church in the United States.
During their lifetimes these leaders generated a mass of evidence in books and articles they authored, in journals they founded, in sermons and speeches they delivered, and in their private papers. Upon examining their record a historian might well conclude that Leo XIII was prudent when he warned against "Americanism" because the extant record is rife with heretical thought. Sometimes the thought seems grounded in Catholicism gone mad. Other times it seems grounded in the machinations of men who would intentionally betray Catholicism. Then too, it may have been grounded in some indecipherable combination of madness and betrayal. Either way, the ancient aphorism "Quos Deus vult perdere prius dementat" (Whom God would destroy He first makes mad) seems applicable. Certainly Fr. Isaac Hecker, the Cabala's immediate progenitor and only common denominator other than its Irishness, was mentally disturbed throughout much of his life. A supreme irony is that Irish churchmen who manifested mostly hatred for their German confreres nevertheless fell prey to the mad meditations of a son of German Protestant immigrants.
When Catholic historians deigned to consider the Americanist heresy prior to Vatican Council II, they usually admitted grudgingly that such a thing may have existed in the 1890's. Then in 1899 Pope Leo XIII condemned some doctrinal deviations associated with Fr. Hecker, who died in 1888. The deviations, which conservative French clerics termed "Americanism," were described in disarmingly disingenuous words by the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1912. The Pope only condemned assertions that the Church
should adopt herself to our advanced civilization and relax her ancient rigor as regards 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 meaning which the Church has never held.6
By 1900 the American hierarchy abjured ever having entertained a single thought along the lines described above and the matter seemed put to rest. It remained at rest until Pope John XXIII opened his window in 1960 to get some fresh air. Americanism, long believed to be moribund, was reborn stronger than ever, ready to infest the Church everywhere!
The tactic used to bury the heresy was illustrated in 1929 when the same scholars who edited the Encyclopedia published a dictionary of Catholicism with this entry:
Americanism, a term rightly employed [according to Rome] to express characteristic qualities which reflect honor on the American people, but wrongly employed [says Rome] to express certain opinions that are not in accordance with Catholic principles....
This perfunctory and noncommittal statement typified the approach of the scholarly establishment in the American Church during the first six decades of the 20th century. As a result a conventional wisdom emerged suggesting that any Americanist heresy was unworthy of serious study because it was insignificant. Thus scholars who were either culpably naive or intentionally deceptive helped maintain a conspiracy of silence about the dangers of blending Roman Catholicism with civic Americanism.7
A liberal Catholic historian substantiated the scholarly cover-up and its long-term effect. "It is usually said of the 'Americanism' condemned by [Leo XIII] that it never existed—at any rate not in America," Theodore Maynard wrote. "Broadly speaking this is true; after certain suppositious opinions were pronounced erroneous...everybody...who could be so much as suspected of having held them, denied in the most sweeping fashion that they had ever believed anything of the kind. 'Americanism,' in the sense that had so alarmed the Holy See, was not found in America at all..." Maynard then drew a conclusion that is especially damning for liberal Catholic scholarship:
The average Catholic of today  has not so much as heard of Americanism within the meaning of the Pope's letter to Gibbons. But if, having heard of it, he tries to find out something about it, he is not likely to have much luck. [The sources] are unobtainable [and] the whole question has been shelved as too dangerous for discussion.8
Of the four Americanist leaders only Cardinal Gibbons, born in Baltimore on July 23, 1834, was native-born. As the eldest, the first to be ordained, and the one who advanced farthest in Holy Orders, Gibbons served as the group's titular head. Archbishop Ireland, second in terms of influence, was born in 1838 in County Kilkenny. John J. Keane was born in 1839 in County Donegal. In 1848 both the Ireland and Keane families came to America seeking refuge from the potato famine. The Irelands landed at Montreal and then drifted to Boston and Chicago before settling in 1852 in the frontier village of St. Paul, Minnesota. The Keanes settled in Baltimore as soon as they arrived in the country. Denis J. O'Connell was born in 1849 in County Cork and migrated at the age of five to South Carolina.
Two years after infant James Gibbons was baptized in Baltimore's Cathedral, his father fell ill and the family returned to County Mayo. Here they prospered between 1836 and the late 1840's. Then the famine hit, the father died of cholera, and widow Bridget Gibbons decided to return to America. James was 20 years old in 1853 when the family, intending to return to Baltimore, mistakenly boarded a boat bound for New Orleans. The misdirection allowed young Gibbons to be present during the spring of 1854 as New Orleans was "electrified by a Redemptorist mission....The fiery preaching of Fr. (Clarence) Walworth, who was later, with Isaac Hecker, to found the [Paulists], revealed to Gibbons what he was and where his duty lay."9
The mission proved a landmark event in the life of James Gibbons: he decided to become a priest immediately after this first-hand encounter with the ideas of Isaac Hecker. In 1855 Gibbons returned to Baltimore where he entered St. Charles Seminary; in 1857 he advanced to theology at Mount St. Mary's at Emmitsburg; on June 13, 1861, one month shy of his 27th birthday, he was ordained a priest for the diocese of Baltimore. In the same month, with his city under martial law due to the Civil War, he was commissioned to serve as a chaplain at nearby Fort McHenry. By the time the war was over, Fr. Gibbons's "devotion to duty, mild and optimistic outlook, excellent sermons, and abundant common sense had brought him to the attention of" Archbishop Martin Spalding.10 In 1865 Spalding made Gibbons his secretary. From this vantage point he planned and organized the Second Plenary Council of 1866, the first step in building what became a Baltimore nexus for the Americanist heresy.
John J. Keane entered St. Charles Seminary in 1859. He was ordained for the Baltimore archdiocese in July, 1866, and assigned to St. Patrick's parish in Washington, D.C., his only assignment before becoming a bishop. In November, when Fr. Keane attended the Plenary Council as an observer, he met Isaac Hecker and became better acquainted with Fr. Gibbons. In 1872 he applied to Archbishop James R. Bayley for release from the Baltimore Archdiocese in order to join the Paulists. Isaac Hecker, who saw Keane as an ideal editor for the Catholic World, seconded the young priest's petition: "He has a good pen, a literary taste and turn of mind, and many other qualifications." Archbishop Bayley refused Hecker's request, saying "we need him" and besides, Keane was "destined for a bishopric." The bishopric came in April, 1878, when he was named bishop of Richmond, Virginia. Keane advanced on the recommendation of Archbishop Gibbons as Denis J. O'Connell lobÂbied the cause in Rome.11 The coming together of Gibbons, Hecker, and Keane was the second step in building the Baltimore Americanist nexus.
Denis O'Connell entered St. Charles Seminary in Baltimore at the age of 19 in 1868, the same year that James Gibbons was named vicar apostolic of North Carolina. Since O'Connell's home parish was within the new vicar's jurisdiction, O'Connell the seminarian cultivated the young bishop. As a result, when Gibbons became bishop of Richmond in 1872 he incardinated O'Connell into his diocese. In 1873 Gibbons sent "his" seminarian to Rome for Theology. By the time O'Connell was ordained in 1877 Gibbons had been named coadjutor bishop of Baltimore with the right of succession. O'Connell transferred to the Archdiocese of Baltimore when Gibbons succeeded Bayley in October, 1877. Fr. O'Connell was deployed to Rome by the new Archbishop in 1878 to secure the pallium—a papal cloth that symbolizes how an archbishop shares in papal authority—that went with the office. Soon O'Connell became Gibbons's "eyes and ears in Rome," a role that he filled until Gibbons called him home to help plan the Third Plenary Council of 1884.12 Formation of the Gibbons-Keane-O'Connell triumvirate was the third step in building Baltimore's Americanist nexus.
The Second Plenary Council of 1866 was a triumph of national proportions for the young Fr. Gibbons. As its chief planner and organizer, he got to know most of the American bishops and these contacts proved invaluable for his future advancement. For two weeks, while Archbishop Spalding was ill, Gibbons hosted some 40 prelates grappling with a multitude of problems. The final report, a straightforward and unquestionably orthodox statement of Catholic principles, warned against such "errors of the time," as Unitarianism and Spiritualism. Indifferentism, that is, "teaching that one religion is as good as another," was condemned specifically. Priests were told not to mingle "political and civil matters with religious doctrines in their sermons," and ordered to register baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals by parish. Also, every parish should strive for its own school, which employed "teachers belonging to religious congregations." In dioceses with large German populations seminarians should learn enough German to hear confessions "in keeping with the Church's policy to care for immigrants in their own language." Of greatest significance to Gibbons, Hecker and Keane, the assembled bishops agreed to study the feasibility of building a Catholic University of America.13 The three priests had some ideas about what kind of university was needed.
James Gibbons saved the best for last as he closed the meeting with "ecclesiastical splendor. All Baltimore watched the colorful procession [of more than 40 prelates suitably garbed] going into the Cathedral, and a murmur of surprise went through the crowd when the carriage of President Johnson arrived." In what undoubtedly constituted a spectacular coup, President of the United States Andrew Johnson appeared as an auditor at the last solemn session in the Baltimore Cathedral. Fr. Gibbons arranged the appearance because Washington was in the Baltimore archdiocese and the young priest was a social gadfly. After the Civil War he began to accept invitations to dinners and receptions. "In this way he met the President and many cabinet members socially. His lack of pretense, easy manners, width of understanding, and patriotic convictions, endeared him to many." Andrew Johnson was the first of many Presidents to cavort socially with Gibbons as a priest, Archbishop, and ultimately Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. "Most had never seen a Catholic [priest or] bishop at such close range. What they discovered in Gibbons was pleasing and memorable."14
John Ireland began his road to the priesthood when Bishop John Cretin, a Frenchman, literally plucked the 14-year-old lad along with Thomas O'Gorman, an 11-year-old companion, from a St. Paul school yard in April, 1853. Bishop Cretin proposed to enroll the two in France as "the first seminarians of St. Paul." The following September the two Irish-American boys left St. Paul for le petit seminaire of Meximieux. In 1857 Ireland moved on to the major seminary at Montbel, where he remained until ordained as a deacon in June, 1861. These eight years in French seminaries constituted the extent of Ireland's formal education.
In view of his future prominence as an Americanist it is worth noting that "he came into contact at the seminary in Meximieux with some of the Liberal Catholicism of [Felicité] De Lamennais." At age 22 Ireland returned to St. Paul and spent five months as a secretary to Bishop Thomas Langdon Grace, Cretin's successor. Once Grace satisfied himself that Ireland was fit for the ecclesiastical state, John Ireland was ordained (in December, 1861).15
War is usually a watershed for the generation which bears its brunt. The Civil War was such for Americans like Ireland who were born between 1830 and 1855. He had returned home just three months after the firing upon Fort Sumter and he followed the cue of Archbishop John Hughes of New York. In the summer of 1861 Hughes flew the stars and stripes from atop St. Patrick's Cathedral. He indicated his feeling for the land of his birth as well as for America, the country of which he had long been a citizen, when he addressed the Irishmen of New York's famous Fighting 69th regiment; "Never forget your country; love her; defend her when the time comes; but let this love of old Ireland affect you only individually. In your social and political relations you must become merged in the country of your adoption."16
John Ireland was determined to "become merged in the country of his adoption" from the moment he returned home. Even before his ordination he wanted to raise a regiment of Minnesota Irishmen to help save the Union. On St. Patrick's Day, 1862, Fr. Ireland preached a long sermon that is no longer extant but regarding which a newspaper reported "in point of fervor, historical research, patriotic feeling, and genuine piety [it] has not been excelled within our memory." In May 1862, Governor Alexander Ramsey named Ireland chaplain for state military units stationed in the West. The priest served with the Fifth Minnesota Volunteers along the lower Mississippi until March 1863, when he resigned his commission and mustered out of the Fifth.17
The importance of this stint for Ireland's future cannot be exaggerated. First, he was appointed at a time when it was highly unusual for Catholic priests to be named as chaplains of any kind of military unit in the United States. Since the founding of the Republic most territorial and state militia units, volunteer regiments, and regular army forces had been controlled by a Masonic lodge. Men from the same lodge invariably dominated territorial and early State governments, the first cultural institutions (such as historical societies), and business enterprises.
In Minnesota, St. Paul became the center of all this activity as the capital city. Ireland's appointment to a chaplaincy put the young priest in synchronization with the political, cultural, and business elite of the state as he made contacts that proved useful during the rest of his life. The appointment also made him one of the first Catholic priests in the nation to be named an army chaplain; muster rolls show that eventually 40 priests served as chaplains with Union troops and 28 others with Confederate troops.18
After the war, Ireland became a charter member and founding chaplain of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). This society of Union veterans was patterned after Masonic lodges, replete with esoteric rituals, secret signs, and secret oaths. Despite the Church's opposition to such societies, Ireland did not hesitate as a Catholic priest, bishop, and archbishop to be a GAR enthusiast. As Marvin O'Connell wrote, "at numerous [GAR] encampments John Ireland proudly took his place among the million men who, in their youth, had rallied to save the Union. Like them he had earned the right to wear the badge of an American patriot."
Indeed, Ireland seemed at times to see something almost mystical in his military experience. For example, although he exercised his military ministry for less than ten months, in 1892 the Archbishop reminisced inaccurately that "My years [sic] of chaplaincy were the happiest and most fruitful years of my ministry." At an 1897 encampment he reminisced in a stream-of-consciousness fashion about "the memory we yearn to transmit to the coming years":
The Irish immigrant boy, a refugee from his homeland, now belonged to the greatest military machine so far created in the annals of man. The French seminarist, accustomed to the hushed murmur of the cloister, was now Lincoln's soldier who heard the rattle of drums, the crash of artillery, the shrieks of maimed and dying men, the whine of the cannon ball, the blood-curdling "rebel yell" of charging Confederate infantry.19
In 1882, Bishop Ireland received an unexpected dividend from his "Happy-Warrior" romanticism when Governor Lucius Hubbard reorganized the state militia into the Minnesota National Guard and named the prelate chaplain of the restructured unit. The appointment was ecumenical in nature, since the state chaplain had to minister to all denominations. Hubbard had served with the Fifth Minnesota and was a fraternal associate of Ireland's in the Grand Army of the Republic. In the letter of appointment the Governor wrote: "I ask you to regard this tender as a token of the very high esteem in which I have ever held you personally, and the profound respect I entertain for your character as a foremost representative of your Church."20
In addition to the GAR, other secret societies that claimed Governor Hubbard as a member included the Loyal Legion, Minnesota Sons of the American Revolution, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Masons. Hubbard, along with Civil War Governor Alexander Ramsey, had also served as an officer in the Minnesota Historical Society, founded by Masons in 1849. From 1877 to 1880 John Ireland served as the elected president of the Historical Society. He won election two years after he was consecrated a bishop.
Dr. Justin Walsh has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a Master's degree in History from Marquette University and a doctorate in History from Indiana University. He spent 18 years as a university professor before resigning from teaching because of the deterioration of university standards in morals and academics. He currently teaches at the Society of Saint Pius X's St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Winona, MN, USA.
1. John L. Spalding, Religious Mission of the Irish People, as cited in Theodore Maynard, The Catholic Church and the American Idea (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, Inc., 1953), p. 118.
2. Charles Maignen, Father Hecker: Is He a Saint? (English Edition, London: Burns and Oates, 1898), Preface, p. xii.
3. Fr. A. Roussel , Liberalism & Catholicism (French edition, 1926), as translated into English and edited by Fr. Coenraad Daniels (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1998), p. 109.
4. The word Cabala is spelled in various ways, including Kabala and Kabbalah. For its Masonic and Talmudic Jewish meanings see Paul A. Fisher, Behind the Lodge Door, Church, State and Freemasonry in America (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, 1994), Chap. 2, "The Mind of Masonry," pp. 39-58, and note 47, pp. 290-291.
5. Spalding's Mission, as cited in Maynard, American Idea, p. 118.
6. See article entitled "Testem Benevolentiae," Catholic Encyclopedia, vo1. 14 (New York: Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1912), p. 537. This standard reference was published by the Americanist-founded and liberal-controlled Catholic University of America. There was no entry under the heading "Americanism."
7. See "Americanism," in New Catholic Dictionary (New York: Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1929), p. 37.
8. Theodore Maynard, The Story of American Catholicism (New York: Macmillan Co., 1942), p. 498.
9. Francis Beauchesne Thornton, Our American Princes: The Story of the Seventeen American Cardinals (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1965), pp. 46-47. See also Marvin E. O'Connell, John Ireland and the American Catholic Church (St. Paul, Minnesota: Historical Society Press, 1988), p. 186, which states Gibbons "attended a Redemptorist mission offered by several future Paulists." There were only five such Redemptorists, and Hecker was their leader.
10. Thornton, p. 49.
11. Marvin O'Connell, career of Keane, pp.182-185, Hecker and Bayley quotes, p. 184.
12. Ibid., career of Denis O'Connell, pp. 180-182.
13. Council directives are summarized in Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), pp. 219-222.
14. Thornton, closing ceremony, pp. 49-50, Gibbons as friend of Presidents, p. 55. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) was the first of at least five Presidents of the United States known to be 33rd degree Masons as well as friends of James Gibbons. The others were James A. Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1897-1901), Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), and William Howard Taft (1909-1913). For Johnson's contributions to Masonry, see Fisher, pp. 209-211.
15. For Lamennais quote, see Thomas T. McAvoy, The Americanist Heresy in Roman Catholicism, 1895-1900 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), p. 40; for Ireland in France, Marvin O'Connell pp. 37-60.
16. For Hughes and the Civil War, see Richard Shaw, Dagger John, The Unquiet Life and Times of Archbishop John Hughes of New York (New York: The Paulist Press, 1977), pp. 333-372.
17. For the chaplaincy, see Marvin O'Connell, pp. 66-74.
18. For chaplains in the Civil War see Theodore Roemer, The Catholic Church in the United States (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1950), pp. 252-253.
19. For reminiscences of service, Marvin O'Connell, pp. 74, 84-85.
20. Letter as cited in ibid., p.163. At the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 Ireland sought unsuccessfully to put America's bishops on record as favoring modification of Rome's condemnation of the GAR as a secret society forbidden to Catholics.