Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Pope Leo XIII's Message to America

by Fr. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R.


An explanation of Pope Leo XIII's 1895 apostolic letter, addressed to Archbishop Francis Satolli, Apostolic Delegate to the United States, regarding the Parliament of Religions and the doctrine of latitudinarianism. Catholics of present-day America can profitably find in the apostolic letter of Leo XIII a reminder of the care they must exercise lest their faith suffer from the spirit of religious indifferentism that is so prevalent in our land today.

Larger Work

The Ecclesiastical Review


249 - 256

Publisher & Date

American Ecclesiastical Review, Lancaster, PA, October 1943

On 18 September, 1895, Pope Leo XIII despatched an apostolic letter to Archbishop Francis Satolli, Apostolic Delegate to the United States. The following is a translation of the Latin original:

"Venerable Brother, Health and Apostolic Blessing. — We know that from time to time there are held in the United States of America assemblies to which both Catholics and those who dissent from the Catholic Church come promiscuously to discuss together religion and morals. In this We recognize the interest in religion which from day to day is increasing among that people. But although these common gatherings have been tolerated hitherto in prudent silence, it would seem more advisable for Catholics to have their meetings by themselves. Nevertheless, in order that the benefit of these assemblies may not be limited to Catholics, they may be conducted in such wise that the opportunity of listening to them will be available to all, including those who are separated from the Catholic Church. While We have judged, Venerable Brother, that in conformity with our apostolic duty we must bring this matter to your notice, it gives Us pleasure at the same time to express our commendation of the Institute of the Paulist Fathers. They have wisely adopted the plan of addressing our dissenting brethren openly, both to explain Catholic teachings and to refute objections brought against them. If each of the bishops would promote in his diocese the practice of these Fathers and the frequent attendance at sermons, it will be most gratifying and acceptable to Us, for we trust that it will result in no little profit toward the salvation of souls. In the meantime, Venerable Brother, beseeching an abundance of divine graces for you, we impart Our apostolic blessing in testimony of Our special affection.

Given at St. Peter's, Rome, 18 September, 1895, in the eighteenth year of Our Pontificate.


Very little comment on this apostolic letter appeared in print at the time of its publication, and in the intervening years it has rarely been mentioned by Catholic theological or historical writers. The Ecclesiastical Review printed the letter in its original form, without translation and without comment, in the issue of November, 1895;1 and, as far as I can discover, there has never been any attempt in this periodical to explain the circumstances that occasioned the letter and its significance. Now, however, since those to whom this papal document came as a mild rebuke have all passed away, it can be commented on without wounding any one's feelings. Furthermore, although it is almost a half-century since Leo XIII sent this letter to his Delegate in our land, it still conveys a timely and important message to the Catholics of the United States.

One of the outstanding events of the Columbian Exposition, held at Chicago in 1892-1893, was the "World Parliament of Religions ". This gathering embraced representatives, not only of the Christian and the Jewish creeds, but also of the Mohammedan, Confucian, Buddhist, Shinto and Theosophist religions. The general sessions lasted from 11 September to 27 September. Besides these general meetings, there were 48 particular denominational congresses held in connexion with the Parliament. One of these was a Catholic congress, which lasted a week and was attended by thousands of Catholics, both clerical and lay.

Prominent among those who attended the general Parliament were Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop Feehan of Chicago and Bishop Keane, then Rector of the Catholic University. The first session was opened with the recitation of the Our Father by Cardinal Gibbons. In the biography of the Cardinal it is stated that when participation in the Parliament of Religions was considered at a meeting of the Archbishops in New York in the autumn of 1892, some objections were made, but the Cardinal took a pronounced stand in favor of participation, and in the end the prelates decided to accept the invitation.2 Bishop Keane was appointed to arrange for the proper and adequate presentation of Catholic doctrine.

As was to be expected, latitudinarianism — the idea that all forms of religion are good — was expressed frequently in the course of the Parliament. One of the objectives of the gathering, according to the previous statement of the committee, was "to inquire what light each religion may afford to the others".3 At the ninth general session, Swami Vivekananda, a Brahman, declared: "To the Hindu the whole world of religions is only a traveling, a coming of different men and women through various conditions and circumstances to the same goal. Every religion is only an evolution out of the material man, a God — and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why, then, are there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, says the Hindu. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the different circumstances of different natures".4 A Japanese delegate, N. Kishimoto, asserted: "On the whole, it is better to have different sects and denominations than to have lifeless monotony".5 Mr. Theodore F. Seward proposed the formation of a Brotherhood of Christian Unity, to which members of all Christian denominations could belong "on the basis of love to God and man under the leadership of Christ".6 In the light of contemporary events we can see the humorous side of an incident that occurred at the general session of the third day of the Parliament. On this occasion a painting representing the sacred mountain of Japan, dedicated to the Shinto gods, hung at the back of the platform. An address on "Good Will and Peace among Men" was delivered by Renchi Shibata, a Japanese Shinto priest. The history of the Parliament relates that when he concluded "a wave of applause broke forth all over the house. Distinguished men and women gathered round Mr. Shibata and shook his hand, and women climbed over tables to pay their compliments to the worthy Oriental. In the whirlwind of enthusiasm everybody in the hall wanted to shake his hand, and he tendered the audience an informal reception for twenty minutes".7

The papers read by Catholics at the general sessions were straightforward and simple expositions of the Church's teachings. However, there was no pronounced attempt to give an explicit and emphatic refutation of the doctrine of latitudinarianism which non-Catholic representatives were so fond of expressing. It seems very probable that the Catholics who participated had not anticipated the extreme liberalism that pervaded the Parliament. After the first day Cardinal Gibbons did not appear again at the sessions. The paper assigned to him on "The Needs of Humanity Supplied by the Catholic Religion" was read on the fourth day by Bishop Keane, who expressed the Cardinal's regrets that he could not be present. His biographer tells us that the Cardinal was prevented from appearing personally by a severe illness.8

Opinions as to the effects of the Parliament differed. In a long statement sent to Cardinal Rampolla, Papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Gibbons expressed the hope that the results would be favorable.9 On the other hand, Bishop McQuaid of Rochester was quite forceful in his denunciation of the Catholic participation in the Parliament.10 Non-Catholics, for the most part, were enthusiastic over the outcome of the congress. In the History of American Christianity, written shortly after the Parliament, L. W. Bacon asserted that as a result of this gathering "the idea that has so long prevailed with multitudes of minds that the only Christian union to be hoped for in America must be a union to the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Church and in antagonism to it ought to be reckoned an idea obsolete and antiquated".11 Bishop Ames of the African Methodist Church declared: "Nothing that has occurred since Martin Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms and laid the foundations of religious liberty and set the forces of Protestantism in motion can compare in any degree with what the Parliament of Religions has accomplished".12 The contrary view was expressed by Rabbi Hirsch of Chicago: "We met and had a good time, and that is all there is of it. The churches are no nearer together than they were, and no faith, so far as I know, has been in the least modified".13

With characteristic prudence and moderation the Holy See waited two years before passing judgment on the participation by Catholics in the Parliament of Religions. Then the decision came in the letter given above. Though couched in the form of a suggestion and pervaded with benignity and kindness, the message of Leo XIII unquestionably manifested disapproval of the part, which Catholics had taken in the Chicago Parliament of Religions and forbade future activities of a similar nature.

Of course, the theme underlying this papal warning is the basic Catholic truth that Catholicism is the only true religion, intended by God for all mankind. Catholics may not regard the existence or the propagation of any non-Catholic religion as something, which in itself is good and praiseworthy; they may not directly encourage or promote the religious activities of any non-Catholic group. Discussions and conferences on religious topics with persons of other religious conviction are not in se wrong; nevertheless, they are frequently accompanied by the danger that Catholics will compromise the principle that their religion alone is true, or at least give the appearance of such compromise. They may also endanger the faith of those Catholic participants who are not sufficiently instructed in theological matters to answer objections that may be brought against the Church's teachings. The ruling of Pope Leo XIII was substantially identical with the prescription of the Code: "Let Catholics take care not to have debates or conferences, particularly of a public nature, with non-Catholics, without the permission of the Holy See or, if the case is urgent, of the local Ordinary".14

It is interesting to note that the clergyman who made the most pronounced protest against the participation of Christians in the Parliament of Religions, basing it on the essentially Catholic principle of the exclusiveness of truth, was not a Catholic, but an Anglican-Archbishop Benson of Canterbury. In declining the invitation to be present, he wrote: "The difficulties which I myself feel are not distance and convenience, but rest on the fact that the Christian religion is the one religion. I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their position and claims".15

It is true, recent Popes, particularly our present Sovereign Pontiff, have invited the co-operation of non-Catholics with Catholics in restoring peace among the nations, in eradicating social and economic evils, in combatting the forces of materialism and godlessness, in upholding the principles of morality. Thus, in his Christmas message of 1942, Pope Pius XII summoned to the crusade for the purification and rebirth of society "all those who are united with us, at least by the bond of faith in God".16 However, in such collaboration on the basis of natural religious truths and the precepts of the natural law, perceptible by human reason, there is no weakening of the principle that the Catholic Church alone is the authorized and infallible depositary of the supernatural religion that Almighty God has revealed for all mankind.

Catholics of present-day America can profitably find in the apostolic letter of Leo XIII a reminder of the care they must exercise lest their faith suffer from the spirit of religious indifferentism that is so prevalent in our land today. Two sources of danger should be particularly noted. The first is the attitude toward diversity of religious beliefs engendered by conditions existing in our armed forces. The intimate association of our Catholic soldiers and sailors with those of other denominations, the common use of the same chapels, the identity of insignia for all Christian chaplains, the "general services" which army regulations prescribe under certain circumstances; above all, the governmental attitude, so consistently practiced in all matters pertaining to religion, that all forms of religious belief are equally good — all these circumstances unquestionably tend to foster the idea that religious differences are of little or no importance. These factors are, to a great extent, unavoidable in a country like ours, which grants equal rights to all religions. Furthermore, our Catholic chaplains, as a body, are priests of outstanding merit, both intellectually and spiritually, and are doing wonders in protecting the faith and morals of our soldiers and sailors. Yet, the fact remains that the mobilization of millions of Americans of all creeds has occasioned a strengthening of the principles of latitudinarianism. Evidences of this appear frequently in the press. Thus, the magazine section of the New York. Times for 22 August, 1943, contains an article entitled "At the Front the Church is Universal". The writer, H. I. Brock, states that, "chaplains of diverse faith [whom he had interviewed] said that in their work together in the army they forgot to think of each other as Jews, Catholics or Protestants". The Washington Post for the same day reports a statement of a Protestant chaplain, Dr. William B. Pugh, making a tour of our foreign military camps, to the effect that "we will hardly know this world when the war is over. Barriers of creed are falling everywhere". And a columnist (with a "Catholic name") in the Boston Globe for 15 May, commenting on the sixth annual banquet of Christians and Jews in that city (which had as its special guests three soldiers back from the front, a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew), remarks: "In the end it makes little difference here below which gateway a man uses to enter heaven. The important thing is to stay on the highway".

The second source of danger is the emphasis that is nowadays laid on one of the "four freedoms" — freedom of religious worship. Indeed, this is commonly proposed as one of the objectives for which America is fighting. Beyond doubt, the expression "freedom of religious worship" is ordinarily understood by our non-Catholic fellow-citizens, when they advocate the "four freedoms", in the sense that every one has a natural, God-given right to accept and to practice whatever form of religion appeals to him individually. No Catholic can in conscience defend such an idea of freedom of religious worship. For, according to Catholic principles, the only religion that has a genuine right to exist is the religion that God revealed and made obligatory on all men; hence, man has a natural and God-given freedom to embrace only the one true religion. One who sincerely believes himself bound to practice some form of non-Catholic religion is in conscience obliged to do so; but this subjective obligation, based on an erroneous conscience, does not give him a genuine right. A real right is something objective, based on truth. Accordingly, a Catholic may not defend freedom of religious worship to the extent of denying that a Catholic government has the right, absolutely speaking, to restrict the activities of non-Catholic denominations, in order to protect the Catholic citizens from spiritual harm.

American Catholics may indeed uphold the feasibility of complete freedom of religious worship as far as the United States is concerned. For, all things considered, the most practical policy for our land is equality for all denominations; and Catholics would strenuously oppose any violation of this feature of the Bill of Rights, no matter what religious denomination might be the victim. Hence, we may surely advocate the right of every one to worship as his conscience dictates, if we refer to a right given by our civil laws. But to say that every one should have the right by the laws of the country to accept whatever religion he chooses is very different from saying that every one has an inherent, God-given right to select whatever form of worship he wishes.

Personal tolerance and Christian charity should be extended by Catholics toward those of other religious beliefs. They are the sheep who are not of Christ's fold, yet they are very dear to His Heart. But those fundamental Catholic principles — the exclusiveness of the Church's claim to be the one true Church, the sinfulness of putting Catholicism on a parity with other religions, the solemn duty of Catholics to preserve their faith from harm — may never be compromised, however kindly we may feel toward those who are not of our faith.

It would be well for the clergy to bear in mind the positive suggestions of Pope Leo XIII regarding assemblies of Catholics for the discussion of religious topics, to which non-Catholics may be invited. Nowadays, when the sects are losing their hold on great masses of our fellow-citizens, and many sincere persons are seeking a religion that will satisfy both intellect and heart, a plan such as that advocated by the great Pontiff could not fail to contribute substantially toward the fulfilment of our Saviour's desire, that there may be one fold and one shepherd.


1 Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. XIII, p. 395.

2 Will, A. S., Life of Cardinal Gibbons, Vol. I, p. 569.

3 Biblical World, Vol. II (1893), p. 147.

4 Neely, F. T., History of the Parliament of Religions, p. 444.

5 Mercer, L. P., Review of the World's Religious Congresses, p. 135.

6 Neely, op. cit., p. 509.

7 Neely, op. cit., p. 133.

8 WILL, A. S., Life of Cardinal Gibbons, Vol. I, p. 571.

9 Will, op. cit., p. 573.

10 Zwierlein, F., Life and Letters of Bishop McQuaid, Vol. III, p. 235.

11 Bacon, L. W., History of American Christianity, p. 419.

12 Biblical World, Vol. VII (1896), p. 59.

13 Ibid.

14 Canon 1325, §3. 15 Jones, J. L., A Chorus of Faith, p. 520.

16 New York Times, Dec. 25, 1942, p. 8.

©1943 American Ecclesiastical Review

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