I here offer my translation of Pope Leo XIII’s 1899 letter Testem benevolentiae Nostrae. The below introduction to the letter is taken from an email that I wrote to a publisher, in which I proposed that a new translation of Leo’s works be commissioned:
Testem benevolentiae Nostrae, a letter that Pope Leo sent to the Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore in 1899, is, I think, interesting and valuable; but no accurate and readable modern English translation of it appears to be available to the public at present. I have come across an online preview of A Light in the Heavens: The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1903), which contains the letter; but that book is neither especially modern nor—from what I’ve seen—especially readable.
I should perhaps briefly explain my approach in translating Pope Leo’s scholarly and intricate Latin. For the most part, I have not attempted to following anything like his sentence structure; English, in my view, simply doesn’t have the syntactical resources to cope. So, instead of replicating the semantics of his language, I have committed myself more, taking a clear view on what his meaning is, and always trying to work out how an intelligent English speaker would go about conveying the same meaning clearly in his own language. (He will usually need many more full stops, and will have to repeat himself much more often). I have also tried hard to catch the nuances in Leo’s text: clearly, he chooses words very deliberately, and I have found that I have often benefited from a careful consideration of the etymology and imagery/logic behind his words’ dictionary meanings.
But why do I find this letter interesting? Well: it addresses errors that may arise within the hierarchies of the Church in very advanced and diverse societies; errors which all of us in the West are in danger of making today. Leo talks of the danger of thinking that the Church ought to relax its most difficult (and apparently peripheral) doctrines in order to win converts; the false idea that our age is blessed with a greater effusion of the Holy Spirit than previous ones, and consequently has a better understanding of right and wrong; and other concerning trends of thought.
Most interestingly to me, one of these other problems considered by him is the danger (and irrationality) of preferring the natural virtues to the supernatural, and of the contempt for the religious life that this preference engenders. I find this an especially pregnant point, because it seems to me that bishops in today’s (very diverse) Western societies, and the leaders of other ecclesial communities therein, are too often tempted to try to fulfil their peace-bringing mission merely by entering into religiously-neutral dialogues with governments and other faiths and the wider public; dialogues conducted on the level of natural law. Too much too lazy use of the concept ‘natural law’, in other words, can often disguise a cop-out from the Church’s duty to evangelize; and such lazy use was perhaps growing in the U.S. in Leo’s day, prompted not least by his own Thomist revival. (And I say this as one very interested in that ongoing revival!). Leo neatly shows the incoherence of this: we can only fully adhere to the natural law by the help of grace; nature itself points to the need of the Faith, since only with the help of grace we can perfect our natural virtues.
Lastly: since Leo notes that the cluster of errors mentioned above had been being labelled ‘Americanism’ by some, this document may be of particular interest to readers from the United States.
N.B. The original Latin is available here: https://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/la/letters/documents/hf_l-xiii_let_18990122_testem-benevolentiae.html