The Fallacy of Centrism and the Heresy of Americanism

Christianity is the enemy of centrism, which has become the false god of democratic republics everywhere. 

The debate is about to start. The moderator takes the microphone and begins to prepare the television audience for the event: “On one side of the stage we will soon be joined by Jesus Christ, and on the other, Satan. This will clearly be a divisive debate. It is unfortunate that neither political party has been able to find a more centrist candidate.”

That tongue-in-cheek summation of political reality is an obvious exaggeration, and yet it makes a point in a way that only the consideration of extremes can. 

The promotion of centrism as the political zenith is only a ploy. Nearly no one’s political goals are that mundane. Still, there are many who wish for only certain evils to be accepted—to have their consciences placated for their favorite sins. That said, the only way to achieve such a goal by way of centrism (and truly, centrism is the only path) is to be as politically extreme as possible so as to establish the highly coveted centrist goal as far away from politically-stifling, Chrisitianesque goodness as possible. 

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Yes, Christ is politically stifling for all but the perfect, and Christianity is the enemy of centrism, which has become the false god of democratic republics everywhere. 

In his encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), Pope Leo XIII dealt with what had come to be known in some circles as “the heresy of Americanism.” The chief elements of the so-called heresy are the lame prodigy of a religious reductionism for the sake of ecumenism; specifically, 

  • the assumption that it is time to lay aside the “passive” virtues—abstinence, endurance, and self-abandonment
  • the reduction of emphasis on the spiritual life—prayer, fasting, contemplation, mortification, intersession
  • the embrace of the “active” virtues; for, clearly, what is most needed in modern times is social work. 

In the words of Pope Leo,

This over esteem of natural virtue finds a method of expression in assuming to divide all virtues into active and passive, and it is alleged that whereas passive virtues found better place in past times, our age is to be characterized by the active. That such a division and distinction cannot be maintained is patent—for there is not, nor can there be, merely passive virtue. “Virtue,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “designates the perfection of some faculty, but the end of such faculty is an act, and an act of virtue is naught else than the good use of free will,” acting, that is to say, under the grace of God if the act be one of supernatural virtue. (Emphasis added.)

The pope goes on to explain what he sees as the results of such misplaced emphasis: the reliance on a sort of natural religion rather than the truths of revelation—a natural religion that was perceived as a means of bridging doctrinal fissures:

The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.

What is the significance of this to political centrism? Religious centrism and political centrism are largely indivisible because both deal with justice. Pope Leo clearly thought that religious centrism would lead to the enshrining of the so-called active virtues, which, without the help of the Spirit wrought by a well-rounded spirituality, would become the mere deification of natural human effort. 

The natural virtues, of which he spoke, are those noted by the great Greek and Roman philosophers:  prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—for they are known to us via natural law. However, the notion that natural law springs from nature and does not involve the work of the Holy Spirit is both nonsensical and unbiblical—as though nature was her own author. 

The perfection of virtue, natural or otherwise, is impossible without grace, and the supposed passive virtues are well-springs of grace. Pope Leo was fighting religious centrism for the sake of truth, and, ultimately, for the sake of our salvation. Religious centrists operate just as do political centrist: seeking always the extreme so that the filthy mean may be elevated to acceptable, perhaps even commendable. 

When we strip the political landscape—civic or religious—of its centrist sophistry, all that remains is compromise, a word that nearly no one would have the audacity to equate with goodness. 

In a morally binary system, this ultimately can only mean letting evil have its way up to a certain point. Toward that end, we can always expect to have certain political elements proposing things so wretched that not even they would be happy if they accomplished all of them, said accomplishment being beyond their initial goals.

Centrism is reductionist, and reductionism is evil. In the civic sphere, it is argued there may be times when a small compromise is the lesser of two evils and may be morally acceptable for lack of the political capital to fully accomplish the good—the demands of justice. It is quite another to see compromise—centrism—as one’s goal: the political gold standard. 

Avowed political centrists never have any sparkle—no light behind the eyes. There can be no give and take when life and liberty are on the line, for life and liberty are no one’s but God’s to give or take.  

There can be no give-and-take with evil.   

Georg Hegel (1770-1831) philosophized that truth is but the result of a dialectic exercise, a societal conversation that involves a thesis and an antithesis and their eventual merging into a synthesis—fancy mumbo jumbo for compromise (think synodality gone very wrong). In Hegel’s mind, such philosophical centrism is the source of all true wisdom—truth being whatever is currently all the rage. 

I have begun writing this on the feast of Pope St. John Paul II, who in spoken word and the timbre of his writings consistently condemned the Hegelian system.

If you live in a society wherein the political parties simply have different approaches to solving problems—toward a just end—centrism might actually have some value. But many of the values of the dominant parties in American politics are not merely different, they are fundamentally opposed. 

If one party displays a disdain for the nuclear family and the other enshrines it, where is the centrist position? If one party sees human life as an absolute and the other sees it as a relative good, where is the centrist position? If one party sees the primary purpose of the federal government as the good and protection of the States, and ultimately, of the American people, and the other sees it as a global pawn, where is the centrist position? If one party sees freedom of speech and assembly as fundamental and the other sees them as dangerous and in need of vigilant moderation to the point of censorship… 

There was no centrist position—no compromise—that could be justified in the slavery debate, and there is none in the abortion debate; just as there is none for most of the many things commonly and conveniently labeled “political issues.”

The ultimate irony is that political centrism in America has no center

There is no rallying point—no invigorating core to centrism; it is lifeless, vacant, dull. It is at best a sellout; a letting evil have its way to a point. 

Joe Biden campaigned as a centrist, and the world yawned. And yet, he received votes. What a boring, lukewarm lot we have become. And note that his policies are radical by any standard. They are extreme—well beyond stated campaign goals—so that he may hope to achieve the mundane evils he sought. He recognizes how the process works.  

The handwringing over divisiveness in America will never cease as long as certain elements seek to bastardize the system by damaging it just enough to allow themselves to partake of the sins of their choosing with impunity.

Behind every ideologue there is a pretense. Only eternal truth is unpretentious. 

And as concerns the Church and our current synodal experience, and the fears of many regarding the direction it sometimes seems to be going—a direction feared to be guided more by politics than by the Spirit, I defer to Pope Leo:

…in regard to ways of living she [the Church] has been accustomed to so yield that, the divine principle of morals being kept intact, she has never neglected to accommodate herself to the character and genius of the nations which she embraces.

Who can doubt that she will act in this same spirit again if the salvation of souls requires it? In this matter the Church must be the judge, not private men who are often deceived by the appearance of right. In this, all who wish to escape the blame of our predecessor, Pius the Sixth, must concur. He condemned as injurious to the Church and the spirit of God who guides her the doctrine contained in proposition lxxviii of the Synod of Pistoia, “that the discipline made and approved by the Church should be submitted to examination, as if the Church could frame a code of laws useless or heavier than human liberty can bear.”

Let it be far from anyone’s mind to suppress for any reason any doctrine that has been handed down. Such a policy would tend rather to separate Catholics from the Church than to bring in those who differ. There is nothing closer to our heart than to have those who are separated from the fold of Christ return to it, but in no other way than the way pointed out by Christ. (Emphasis added.)

Clearly, a window to the present can always be found in the past.

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • Jerome German

    Jerome German is a retired manufacturing engineer, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of a multitude. His parochial activities have included music ministry, faith formation, and spiritual direction/talks for men’s retreats. He contributes articles to Crisis Magazine and Catholic Stand.

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