Catholic Action and Protestant Missions

From a missionary standpoint, Catholic Action poses a problem. The governments of younger nations are still in the infant state of free and democratic development. Political parties are numerous, and racial-religious pressure groups complicate every issue. In many of the newly independent countries it is not yet certain whether democracy as it is known in the West, will survive for very long. Extremists from both the Communist Left and the Nationalist Right threaten to topple the democratic government institutions. In the midst of this unstable situation stands Catholic Action, organized and vigorous, with chameleon-like characteristics which make it difficult to identify, oppose, or evaluate.

Protestant missionaries and church leaders cannot be indifferent to Catholic Action since in the minds of non-Christian nationals, Protestants are often identified with the Catholics in “what the Christians are doing.” Moreover, Protestant laymen sometimes join with Catholic Actionists in undertakings even as serious as an attempted overthrow, by violence, of the existing government. Sympathy and admiration for Catholic Action is frequently expressed by Protestants whose convictions on other subjects place them far away from Catholicism. The Protestant leader, consequently, is obliged on various occasions to express an opinion regarding Catholic Action when often he does not feel qualified to do so.

The aim of this series of articles is to define and describe the character and operation of Catholic Action, with special attention given to the official pronouncements of Rome in regard to this movement, thereby safeguarding ourselves from the accusation that we are describing a kind of “Catholic action” which does not really exist. From this inquiry we seek to answer the question: Does Catholic Action constitute a menace to democratic governments in countries where Catholics are a small but unified minority and where Catholic Action is vigorous?

It is important to recognize immediately that Catholic Action is “a whole made up of varied, adaptable and alterable organizations….Even looked at in its most general aspect, its common denominator, Catholic Action is very diverse, with various possibilities and opportunities for its members.”1 Our examination of Catholic Action will be along broad lines and will take into account the attitude of the non-Christian national. In this series of articles, we will take up four main propositions which will progressively lead us to the answer of our initial question.

Proposition I: Catholic Action is the Mission Work of the Roman Catholic Laity under the direction of the Hierarchy.

Pope Pius XI, in 1927, gave Catholic Action its classic definition when he called it “the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the Church’s Hierarchy.”2 The Pope went on to say that his opinion had been “delivered after due thought, deliberately, indeed, and one may say not without divine inspiration.”3 By this statement Pope Pius XI ‘canonized’ the strict meaning of Catholic Action. Broader definitions may be given, and indeed Pope Pius’ successor, Pius XII, preferred more broad and inclusive descriptions. Nevertheless, Pius XI plainly stamped the Catholic Action movement as belonging to the lay apostolate and having its meaning and direction determined by the Hierarchy of the Church.

“Apostolate” means mission. The Greek word from which “apostolate” is derived, means “to send,” and in Christian tradition this term has come to have a special reference to the work of evangelism. It is important to observe that in Roman Catholic thought, the Great Commission, as given to Peter and the Apostles, is restricted to Hierarchy and is not directly applicable to an Christians in general. Newman says:

…this special mission to spread the Gospel was given by Christ to the twelve and to them alone. In giving it He was not speaking to His followers in general; it is not the business of all Christians, at least in the same way. In other words, what is called the ‘official apostolate’ in the Church was assigned solely to the Apostles and their successors. To them alone Christ communicated the powers necessary for spreading the Gospel—the powers of teaching, of ruling, of sanctifying. It was to them that He addressed the command to go and “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”4

Now we can see why Pope Pius XI spoke of the “apostolate of the Hierarchy” and not of an apostolate of the laity or an apostolate in general. The laity, according to Roman Catholic theology, have no mission mandate of their own. The apostolate belongs to the Hierarchy, and specifically, to the bishops. The bishops are the successors of the Apostles to whom Christ gave the command to evangelize the world. Laity participate in the work of the Hierarchy, thereby sharing in the apostolate which belongs to the institutional Church. “The lay apostolate is of service to the apostolate of the bishops, having no independent raison d’etre of its own.”5

There is a real danger, and Catholic leaders recognize this, that the emphasis upon the bishops as being the sole recipients of the apostolic mandate may leave the laity with a feeling that they have no part to play in missions. Popes and leading spokesmen for the Hierarchy have made it plain, however, that in their opinion many avenues do exist by which the laity can help in spreading the Gospel and defending the Church of Christ, which they identify with Rome.6 All laymen are obligated to unofficial apostolic work, and in addition, when bishops make special requests for organized lay activity it takes the form of a certain ‘participation’ in the official apostolate of the Hierarchy. Lay activity which is specifically directed and planned by one or more bishops is called “mandated” lay apostolate, and it is this form of Catholic Action that is looked upon with the most favor by the Hierarchy.

While on the one hand the Hierarchy of Rome is desirous that laymen feel that they have a place in the apostolic activity of the Church, nevertheless the lines of demarcation are clearly drawn so that the laity will not overstep the limits which Catholic theology determines. A definite fear is evidenced on the part of some Catholic clergy that Catholic Action tends to allow laymen to get out of hand. The authority of the Hierarchy is emphasized in a number of Papal and quasi-official pronouncements by the Hierarchy. Newman says:

Laymen have neither the duty nor the right to start official organizations on their own initiative. Indeed they could not do so even if they tried. Unless they are accorded this status -by an individual bishop for his own diocese or by all the bishops for a whole country—lay organizations cannot claim to act in the name of the Church as institution.7

All Catholic Action, and particularly that of the “mandated” variety, is subordinate to the Hierarchy and is under its direction. Each bishop governs his own diocese and his permission is an absolute requirement before any Catholic Action movement may begin in that diocese. Pope Pius XI said: “The right and the duty of establishing Catholic Action, of organizing it and of directing it in his diocese, pertains to the bishop.”8 This is an essential point to remember and it must not be forgotten in our later discussion of the Hierarchy’s responsibility for the concrete activities of Catholic laymen.

Not only does the Hierarchy permit and direct the affairs of organized Catholic Action within each diocese, hut there is also actual participation by the clergy in the Catholic Action programs. Priests are urged to regard this as part of their duty. In his Encyclical Fermo Proposito, which dealt with Catholic Action, Pope Pius X said:

Let the clergy exert itself to improve, within the the limits of justice and charity, the economic condition, too, of the people, favouring and promoting all institutions that lead thereto…Thus the assistance of the clergy in the works of Catholic Action has a sublime and religious aim in view.9

Moreover, the Papal Encyclical, Ubi Arcano, says that Catholic Action “must be considered by priests as a definite part of their ministry, and, by the faithful, as a duty of the Christian life.”10

In the matter of assisting in the work of Catholic Action, parish priests act as the agents of the bishops. The priests are closest to the people, and they are the nearest interpreters of the ecclesiastical teaching. Parish priests play quiet but important roles in every Catholic Action program.

We have seen how the Hierarchy keeps a firm hand on the affairs of Catholic Action. This control stems from theological formulas which are authoritative and unchangeable. They involve the entire conception of the Church, and the role and status of Hierarchy and Laity, within the Roman Catholic system.

Someone might well ask, On what basis is the laity under obligation to involve itself in an apostolate which belongs essentially to the Hierarchy? This question was answered at the First World Congress for the Apostolate of the Laity, which met at Rome in 1951. There the following four grounds were given for lay apostolic endeavour:

(a) Membership in the Mystical Body of Christ implies responsibility for the welfare and growth of that Body throughout the world.

(b) Reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation fits the recipient for apostolic work. He now enjoys the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and increase of sanctifying grace, and these combine to form the source of apostolic zeal and ability in the faithful Catholic.

(c) The Implications of Charity. which obligate the recipient of God’s love, to show that love to all men. God loves unto the salvation of the world. Out of gratitude for that love revealed to us, we should seek our neighbor’s good, not only in his material needs, but even more in his spiritual poverty.

(d) The requirements of the Church, its Popes, bishops, and councils, are plainly directed toward making the laity understand its obligation to strive for the salvation of all men by bringing them into the fold of the Church.11

It is with organized Catholic Action that we are mainly concerned, but Catholic writers have made it plain that all laymen, men and women, have a role in apostolic activity. One’s personal example, family living, quiet testimony—all form a part of the lay mission to the world. No Catholic should regard himself as being free from responsibility. But if at all possible, the Catholic layman should engage in some form of organized, specific, form of apostolic work. The Hierarchy depends on this official Catholic Action to extend its influence most effectively in society.

1. Yves M. J. Congar, Lay People in the Church (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1957) page 361.

2. Pope Pius XI, Discourse to Young Women’s Section of Italian Catholic Action, March, 1927. Quoted by J. Newman, What is Catholic Action? (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1958) p.38.

3. Ibid.

4. J. Newman, What is Catholic Action? (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1958) p. L

5. Newman, op. cit., p. 3, quoting C. K. Murphy, The Spirit of Catholic Action (London: 1943).

6. The identification of Christ and the Church or Rome is a basic concept in Catholic Action thinking. The lay apostolate is “missionary” in that it aims at extending the influence of the Hierarchy and its teaching.

7. Newman, Ibid., p. 53.

8. Pope Pius XI, Letter to the Bishops of the Philippines, 18th January, 1939.

9. Luigi Civardi, A Manual of Catholic Action (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), p. 176.

10. Ibid., p. 179.

11. Newman. Ibid., page 7 and following pages.