Lost to the Ages: Msgr. Denis O'Connell

“There will be no encyclical at all.” 

Coming from Msgr. Denis O’Connell, that unequivocal declaration, in a letter of December 1898 to a friend in the United States, was music to the ears of liberal Catholics fearful the pope would condemn ideas collectively known as “Americanism.” If this former rector of the American College in Rome — an insider’s insider par excellence — said it wouldn’t happen, then surely it would not. 

But it did. There was no encyclical, but a month later Pope Leo XIII sent Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, the leader of the American hierarchy, a document cast in the form of a letter called Testem Benevolentiae(“Testimony of Good Will”). 

“It is clear, Our Beloved Son,” Pope Leo wrote, “that those opinions cannot be approved by us the sum total of which some indicate by the name of Americanism.” 

“Very discouraging,” Cardinal Gibbons sighed to Msgr. O’Connell. 

Shaping American Church 

It’s nearly impossible to read an account of American Catholicism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries without running into Denis O’Connell. Over and over. With good reason, contemporaries called him — sometimes affectionately, sometimes not — “Machiavelli.” 

A familiar figure on the Roman scene, he pops up in narratives of Church controversies and personalities of that era, which had more than its share of both in Rome. His letters read like early versions of an insider newsletter, filled with factual items and speculation, gossip, put-downs of mutual enemies, and unremitting encouragement for the liberal, Americanist wing of the hierarchy in the United States. 

During almost two busy decades in the long pontificate of Leo XIII, roughly 1885 to 1903, he was probably the most influential American resident in ecclesiastical Rome. By the end, certainly, he was the most controversial. 

Now he is largely forgotten — a name in the history books. But Denis O’Connell’s meteoric rise and fall and his peculiar career at the upper reaches of the hierarchy deserve to be recalled for what they disclose about people, ideas and issues that, around the turn of the last century, did much to shape the Catholic Church in the United States as it is today. 

At the heart of the power struggles in which he played a part lay a fundamental question still unanswered even now: How American can American Catholics afford to become without compromising their Catholic identity? 

Making connections 

Denis O’Connell was born in Ireland on Jan. 28, 1849, third child in a family of eight children. Like many Irish families of that day, the O’Connells immigrated to the United States. They settled in Columbia, S.C., years later the hometown of another influential churchman, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. 

In 1863 the young man began studies for the priesthood at St. Charles Seminary in Maryland. One day he met Bishop James Gibbons, vicar apostolic of North Carolina. It was a fateful meeting for both. Bishop and seminarian became close friends, and when Bishop Gibbons was appointed Bishop of Richmond, Va., in 1872, he incardinated Denis O’Connell into his diocese and sent him to the American College in Rome, an institution for students from the United States preparing for the priesthood. 

Today the undergraduate division of the North American College occupies a massive 1950s building atop the Janiculum Hill, with a panoramic view of downtown Rome on one side and no less dramatic view of the dome of St. Peter’s on the other. Back then the college was housed in an ancient convent (now home to the graduate division) in the heart of historic Rome near the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps and Piazza Venezia. The entrance was on the Via dell’Umiltà — Humility Street — a name rich in irony considering young O’Connell’s later career. 

Ordained in 1877, he returned to the United States, where his great friend and patron had by now become archbishop of Baltimore. Recognizing talent, Archbishop Gibbons made frequent use of the young priest to run errands for him back in Rome. 

In 1883 Father O’Connell accompanied the archbishop there for a meeting of U.S. archbishops to prepare for the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. The next year he was a priest-secretary at that historic meeting of the hierarchy. In 1885 it was back to Rome to negotiate approval of the council’s decrees at the Vatican. While there, thanks to Archbishop Gibbons, he was appointed rector of the American College. 

Two years later Gibbons became a cardinal. Now Denis O’Connell was sitting on top of the world. 

His assignment in Rome consisted of two jobs — seminary rector and Roman representative of the American bishops. As time went by, that increasingly meant representing Cardinal Gibbons and the Americanist wing of the hierarchy — men like Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., Bishop John J. Keane, rector of The Catholic University of America, and Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria. 

This was work he relished. The good-looking, quick-witted priest loved the Roman scene and the feeling of being a somebody at the papal court. And, like his episcopal friends in the United States, he was an Americanist heart and soul. 


But what was Americanism? That’s not so easily explained. The school of thought passing by that name was hardly a “school” at all and had two distinct, though related, aspects: political and religious. 

The political dimension was focused on appreciation for American church-state arrangements, viewed as supplying a congenial setting for the Church. In its religious aspect, Americanism called on Catholics to take advantage of this providential situation through rapid adaptation and assimilation into the cultural mainstream. 

Americanism’s moving spirit was Father Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), a convert and founder of the Paulist Fathers, who believed American Protestants were ripe for conversion and that the country itself afforded a God-sent setting for evangelization. In order to seize this opportunity, he held, the Church needed to update itself by adopting American ways of thinking and acting — in short, it had to become Americanized. 

Cardinal Gibbons, preaching in Rome on March 25, 1887, while taking possession of the “titular” church assigned to him as a cardinal, Santa Maria in Trastevere, delivered an Americanist manifesto in the heart of the Roman Church. The bold move, a departure from form for the usually cautious cardinal, was at Msgr. O’Connell’s advice. 

This famous sermon said in part: 

“For myself, as a citizen of the United States, without closing my eyes to our defects as a nation, I proclaim, with a deep sense of pride and gratitude, and in this great capital of Christendom, that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection without interfering in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” 

Undoubtedly, Cardinal Gibbons knew — and Msgr. O’Connell knew exceedingly well — that in Rome, where the Holy See’s relationship with the new government of united Italy was in a state of crisis and the pope was a self-declared “Prisoner of the Vatican,” that was rubbing it in. Nor was it likely to go down well in countries like France and Germany, where church-state relations often were tense. 

But the Americanists wanted to make a point, even at the cost of bruised feelings: What was right for the Church in the United States was right for the Church everywhere. 

Internal strife 

Still, even at home they had opponents within the Church and within the ranks of the hierarchy. Prominent among these were New York Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan, and Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid of Rochester, N.Y. 

Through the latter years of the 19th century, the split in the hierarchy grew stead-ily. Among the issues was the question of parochial schools, which the Americanists generally viewed coolly as an obstacle to the rapid assimilation of Catholic immigrants into the American mainstream.
An even larger issue concerned the persistent complaints of German-American Catholics. Wishing to slow down assimilation and retain the language and religious customs of the old country, they resented — not without reason — the preference shown to the Irish in appointments to the hierarchy and matters of pastoral policy. 

Angered by German efforts to seek redress in Rome, Msgr. O’Connell recommended taking deliberate steps to stir up nativist anti-Catholic sentiment toward the Germans so that the American government would take steps against them. Then, he explained to Archbishop Ireland, “all English-speaking Catholics can stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow citizens to put these evils down.” 

Jesuit Father Gerald P. Fogarty, Church historian and O’Connell biographer, says dryly of this that “his tactic of manufacturing a crisis is not to be condoned.” 


But if parochial schools and the situation of German-Americans were hot-button issues in American Catholicism of the late 19th century, the hottest issue of all — for the Americanists anyway — was the appointment in the United States of a resident papal representative: an apostolic delegate. 

Bad enough, they thought, that America was still technically a mission country under the jurisdiction of the Vatican’s missions department, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. (That would remain so until 1908). Having a delegate from Rome on the scene to keep an eye on things would be the last straw. 

The struggle to prevent it dragged on for years, but by 1892 Pope Leo had had enough. Brushing aside Americanist objections, he named Archbishop Francesco Satolli, a close friend and professor in Rome’s Propaganda Fide college, first apostolic delegate in the United States. 

Now the Americanists did an about-face. Instead of opposing the delegate, they decided to co-opt him. Msgr. O’Connell was assigned to accompany Archbishop Satolli to the United States and play a key role in an elaborate plot that included virtually kidnapping the delegate to keep him out of the clutches of the archbishop of New York. The tactic worked, the delegate was furious at Archbishop Corrigan for supposedly snubbing him, and the Americanists were in clover. 

Archbishop Satolli sided consistently with the Americanists at first. But finally he caught on to what was happening. Named a cardinal in 1895, he returned to Rome and became a close adviser to Pope Leo. In that role he was one of the Americanists’ bitterest foes, with a large hand in the pope’s eventual condemnation of Americanism. 

But Denis O’Connell even earlier had fallen from grace. A compulsive gossip-monger, in 1895 he was reported to Pope Leo XIII as circulating a scurrilous rumor about the pope. Pope Leo summoned him to the Apostolic Palace, gave him a dressing down, and ordered him dismissed as rector of the American College. The “real cause” of his fall, Father Fogarty holds, was misusing his position to serve the interests of the Americanist faction in the hierarchy.

Papal condemnation 

Cardinal Gibbons stepped in to rescue his friend by giving him a post at Santa Maria in Trastevere. The ex-rector lingered on in Rome, presiding over a Tuesday evening salon called “Liberty Hall” at which he played host to a stream of Church liberals whom he hoped to organize as an international party of reform. “We are the Church,” he told Archbishop Ireland — employing an expression now used as its name by a European Catholic “progressive” movement. At the same time he labored to head off the condemnation of Americanism. In the end, he failed at both things. 

The story of how the condemnation came about has often been told. In brief, it’s this. 

Americanism is sometimes described as a moderate form of Gallicanism. The word refers to a school of ecclesiological opinion in France favoring a distinctively French Church, in communion with the pope but enjoying quasi-autonomous status under a system of decentralized governance. 

Understandably, then, the Americanist Catholicism taking shape in the United States became an object of intense and enthusiastic interest in liberal Catholic circles in France. In time, French “Americanism” troubled the Vatican nearly as much as the homegrown variety in America. 

In 1897 a French translation of a worshipful biography of Father Hecker, by an American Paulist named Walter Elliott, was published in France with an introduction by a liberal French priest named Felix Klein. Abbé Klein’s introduction went even further than Fathers Hecker and Elliott in extolling and expanding Americanist ideas. 

Testem Benevolentiae and its condemnation of Americanism were as much a response to the version of Americanism in that volume as to anything happening in the Church in the United States. But the Church in America was hardly exempt from Pope Leo’s criticism. 

Among other things, the pope rejected what today would be called cafeteria Catholicism (the idea that “the faithful may indulge … each one his own mind” about what to believe) and an Americanist vision of “a Church in America other than that … in all the rest of the world” — in other words, an American Church.

Cold shoulder 

Msgr. O’Connell was in no hurry to leave Rome, but in late 1902 he accepted a plum job arranged for him by his friends — rector of The Catholic University of America. It was not a great success. He enjoyed socializing in the nation’s capital, but — through no fault of his — the university came close to financial collapse in those years and his relations with the faculty were strained. 

In 1908 he was appointed auxiliary bishop of San Francisco — odd for someone who had spent his life on the East Coast and in Europe. He angled for something else, but Cardinal Gibbons turned a cold shoulder to his becoming coadjutor in Baltimore and eventually succeeding the cardinal. 

In January 1912 he was named bishop of Richmond, Va., Cardinal Gibbons’ old see. According to Father Fogarty, this too was not a great success, due partly to his autocratic manner with his priests. Sometimes he hinted that he still was hoping to go to Baltimore, but Cardinal Gibbons died in 1921, and the bishop stayed where he was — “the last major survivor of the liberal party,” in Father Fogarty’s words. 

In 1926 he resigned and was given the honorary title of archbishop. On Jan. 1, 1927, Archbishop Denis J. O’Connell died. 

Although his labors among the high and the mighty in the Church had “few lasting results,” Father Fogarty believes he made “a significant contribution to American Catholicism” by his part in promoting the Americanist solution to the dilemma of being American and Catholic. 

This contribution was real. Not so clear is whether the Americanist solution still works. In the days of James Gibbons and John Ireland, the assimilation of American Catholics into American secular culture may have been the way to go. It looks rather different now, in the face of a secular culture ever more hostile to Catholic beliefs and values. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

'Judgment of the Church' (sidebar)

On Jan. 22, 1899, Pope Leo XIII addressed a letter called Testem Benevolentiae to Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, leader of the American hierarchy, condemning a set of ideas known as “Americanism.” Excerpts follow. 

“The basis of the new opinions which we have mentioned is … essentially this: In order that those who dissent may more easily be brought over to Catholic wisdom, the Church should come closer to the civilization of this advanced age, and relaxing its old severity show indulgence to those opinions and theories … which have recently been introduced. ... 

“Now the history of all past ages is witness that this Apostolic See … has always been accustomed to modify the rule of life so as never to overlook the manners and customs of the various peoples which it embraces, while keeping the divine law unimpaired. … This, however, is not to be determined by the decision of private individuals … but it should be the judgment of the Church. ... 

“Therefore, from what we have said thus far it is clear, Our Beloved Son, that those opinions cannot be approved by us, the sum total of which some indicate by the name of Americanism. ... For it raises a suspicion that there are those among you who envision and desire a Church in America other than that which is in all the rest of the world.”

New World, New Civilization (sidebar) 

In 1857 Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists and the guiding spirit of Americanism, published a book called “Aspirations of Nature” on the role of the Church in the United States. A key passage reads: 

“The new world promises a new civilization. And in this unfettered civilization, true religion will find a reception it has in vain looked for elsewhere and a development of unprecedented glory. For religion is never so attractive and beautiful as when connected with intelligence and free conviction.” 

The book was not received as well as Father Hecker hoped. Among the disappointments was a negative review by his old friend Orestes Brownson, a convert like himself and the leading American Catholic intellectual of the day. Brownson believed non-Catholic Americans were far less disposed to conversion. There was, he held, “scarcely a trait in the American character as practically developed that is not more or less hostile to Catholicity. Our people are imbued … with a prejudice that makes them revolt at the bare mention of the Church.”

'Salvation of Souls in America' (sidebar) 

On Aug. 20, 1897, at an “International Catholic Scientific Congress” held in Fribourg, Switzerland, Msgr. O’Connell delivered a paper titled “A New Idea in the Life of Father Hecker.” The reference was to Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist fathers and spiritual father of the Americanist movement. In the paper, Msgr. O’Connell set out his own thinking about Americanism. He said in part: 

“Whatever be the theory, in practice this system [of American-style relations between church and state] seems to work as well as any other actual system we are acquainted with. Nowhere is the action of the Church more free, and the exercise of pontifical authority more untrammeled. ... 

“[Americanism] involves no conflict with either Catholic faith or morals. … It is no new form of heresy or liberalism or separatism, and … ‘Americanism’ is nothing else than the loyal devotion that Catholics in America bear to the principles on which their government is founded, and their conscientious conviction that these principles afford Catholics favorable opportunities for promoting the glory of God, the growth of the Church, and the salvation of souls in America.”