Breidenbach, “Conciliarism and the American Founding”

In the book, “Silence,” by Shusaku Endo, concerning the, shall we say, cool reception of Jesuit missionaries in Japan, there is a powerful line uttered by the despairing old Jesuit about Japanese resistance to Christianity: “This country is a swamp…a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot, the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

I thought about this in reading historian Michael Breidenbach’s careful and superb article (which I am late in noticing), Conciliarism and the American Founding (unfortunately behind a pay wall, but well worth it). Breidenbach argues that the extension of toleration to Roman Catholics in America was highly unusual: so what explains it?

Breidenbach points to one issue in particular: early American Catholics’ rejection of papal infallibility and their preference for “conciliarism”–the location of true ecclesiastical power in councils rather than in popes. Breidenbach writes, “Conciliarists provided important intellectual contributions to the transition from the hierocratic, church-over-state arrangements of the Middle Ages to early modern theories on the juridical separation of church and state.” Conciliarism smoothed the way for Catholics to “fit” their religion within the overarching political theory of the United States (including, I would add, its potent and still-thriving civil religion), and in consequence made toleration for their views more probable. Breidenbach includes a long and illuminating history of the Jansenist defense of conciliarism in 17th century France–again, well worth your time–that was important in the development of conciliarism.

Connected to the conciliarism of American Catholics was their rejection of any political aspirations for the Church–a kind of non-interventionism which rendered them possible subjects for toleration in the new American dispensation. The civil state was the unquestioned sovereign for these Catholics, not the Church.

Breidenbach writes as a historian, of course, and does not openly praise or condemn these developments. The plant of Christianity (and Catholicism specifically) obviously did not encounter the same type of soil that it did in Japan. The soil changed the plant–made the plant accommodate itself to the soil’s demands, or else die. Indeed, it is often said that in America, all religions become Americanized, and the talk of conciliarism reminds me a bit of Professor Sally Gordon’s discussion of the flattening out (hierarchically speaking) of Christianity in America once it adopted the corporate form. Breidenbach’s article made me wonder, in the long run and as the American state continues to grow, which soil actually will prove the less hospitable. Read Breidenbach!

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