Catholic Action: It’s Organizations and Outreach

Catholic Action is an Organized, Planned, and Worldwide Program for the Extension of the Hierarchical Power at the Roman Catholic Church.

The degree to which Catholic Action is organized both on the local and international levels is amazing. Cardinal Gracias of Bombay has said that part of the genius of Catholic Action lies in the degree to which it is organized and can act as the strong and flexible arm of the Church.1

In 1931, Pope Pius XI laid down the broad lines of organization which he intended that Catholic Action should follow. His plan was presented primarily to the Italian bishops, but the Pope indicated that he desired that Catholic Action should develop along these same lines everywhere. The structure of the Italian Catholic Action should have become the model for Catholic Action groups worldwide. This plan has succeeded in some countries, and was followed even in China, but in many countries a great deal more individuality has been allowed.

The Italian system deserves attention, for it displays the kind of organization which in one way or another is characteristic of the entire Catholic Action movement. The Italian system is extremely complex. It begins on the parish level, with separate groups for adult men and adult women, young men and young women. Newman describes it as follows: “Each of these (parish level groups) has its own directive council, with a president and an ecclesiastical assistant. To unify them all, each parish, in addition, has a parish council, with a president, and an ecclesiastical assistant nominated by the bishop. In turn they are unified by a central diocesan council, again with a president and an ecclesiastical assistant nominated by the bishop.

“At the national level, the same pattern is followed. There are national councils for men, women, boys and girls, each with a president and an ecclesiastical assistant, this time nominated by the Pope or his representative. At the very top is a supreme national council of Catholic Action, composed of the presidents and ecclesiastical assistants of the four national councils and some presidents of central diocesan councils, under a general president and an ecclesiastical assistant named by the Pope or his representative.

“In this way the whole of Catholic Action is coordinated and uni6ed to the greatest degree. It is an official form of the lay apostolate. organized like an army and embracing all apostolic Catholics, irrespective or age or social class.”2 A far greater measure of specialization has taken place in Catholic Action movements than Pope Pius XI ever envisioned would occur. The professional and labouring classes have developed various organizations within the areas of their everyday occupation, and in most countries today, general Catholic Action and the specialized Catholic Action organizations work side-by-side. The ‘specialized’ groups have a limited scope, but like the ‘general’ they seek to carry out the principles taught by the Hierarchy in their respective areas of interest.

It is time that we say something about the plan or procedure by which Catholic Action operates. Catholic Action does two things; It forms and develops the Catholic mind in its adherents, and it leads to concrete action in the outside world. Some writers stress the didactic purpose of Catholic Action, and minimize what Catholic Actionists are doing in industry, politics and society in general. But sufficient evidence can be brought forward to prove convincingly that Catholic Action never intends to make the formation of Catholic thought an end in itself. Catholic Action is apostolic—its mission is to the non-Catholic world which surrounds the Church.

Pope Pius XI said; “Catholic Action must consist of two things—it must fall into two parts not necessarily successive ones; two divisions, ideal and moral. A work of formation, in any case. Catholic Action must have as preliminary the individual sanctification of each one of its members; so that the supernatural life abounds and superabounds within them. But after this first and formative element, comes the second—the distribution of this life, the action of apostolate, which means putting into practice, in all its extension, and in all its possibilities, the first apostolate of all, that of the Twelve Apostles.”3

“The supreme or general aim of Catholic Action,” said Pope Pius XII, “is to spread the Kingdom of Christ in private and public life.”4 “Catholic Action thereby provides an apostolate whereby Catholics, without distinction of age, or sex, or class, or party, may promote whatever pertains to religion or morality.”5 Catholic Action covers all action by laymen to spread the teachings of Christ and to secure suitable conditions for the practice of the Catholic religion. It includes also the training of Catholics, instruction of inquirers, and the restoration of those who have separated themselves from the Church. This type of Catholic evangelism is certainly legitimate, and within the prerogative of any religious group.

But Catholic Action goes further than evangelism. Rome claims for itself the right to speak and act on matters which Protestants would regard as lying outside the purview of the Church. “It must not be thought that the activities of Catholic Action extend only to the purely religious field. They ‘extend to the entire religious and social field covered by the mission and work of the Church.’ For ‘it is well known’ continues His Holiness Pope Pius XII, ‘that the normal growth and increase of religious life presuppose a certain measure of healthy social and economic conditions. Who can resist a pang of emotion upon seeing how economic misery and social evils render Christian life according to the command of God more difficult and too often demand heroic sacrifices?…The Church has always been solicitous in the defence and promotion of justice. From the days of the Apostles…by the sanctification of souls and the conversion of inner feelings she has also sought the cure of social evils, persuaded as she is that the power of religion and Christian principles bring about this cure better than any other means’.”6

Here we see how forcefully Rome asserts the right to express itself, and promote its interests, in the economic, social, and political spheres. Catholic Action is the Church’s principle means of asserting its claim in these areas. Its aim is to make the whole of life conducive to the practice of the Catholic religion and the advancement of its interests. “Catholic Action is the collaboration of the lay people with the Hierarchy…covering the entire apostolate in the social and in the religious field.”7

This is basic to our consideration of the question as to whether Catholic Action poses a threat to non-Christian governments in mission field countries. Such governments are seldom solicitous of Catholic interests. On the contrary, there is usually a great deal of outright antagonism, dating back to colonial days. A wide variety of legislative matters can easily fall into the category of those things which Rome may consider as touching on religious or moral issues. Elections, appointments, committee membership, as well as bills for parliamentary debate, will be viewed as affecting Catholic interests in ODe way or another, and therefore involve the Catholic Action movements which exist in the country. Given the Roman Catholic presuppositions, only a pro-Catholic government can escape conflict with Catholic Action.

Catholicism nurses no compartmentalism, and the authority of the Church and its Hierarchy knows no limitations. Catholic Action, in carrying forward the mandate of the Hierarchy. enters into many fields outside the strictly religious. Everything of human concern falls under the jurisdiction, directly or indirectly, of the Church. The most incisive statement of the Church’s authority and right to speak on all matters relating to human life was made by Pope Pius XII:

“The power of the Church is not bound by the limits of ‘matters strictly religious; as they say; but the whole domain of the natural law, its foundation, its interpretation, its application, so far as their moral aspects extend, are within the Church’s power. For the keeping of the Natural Law by God’s appointment, has reference to the road by which man has to approach his supernatural end. But on this road, the Church is man’s guide and guardian in what concerns his supreme end…Hence, even though to someone certain declarations of the Church may not seem proved by the arguments brought forward, his obligation to obey still remains.”8

Pius XII was reiterating the teaching of Pope Pius X who said in his Encyclical Singulari Quadam of 24th September, 1912:

“Whatever a Christian man may do, even in affairs of this world, he may not ignore the supernatural, nay, he must direct all to the highest good as to his last end, in accordance with the dictates of Christian Wisdom; but all his actions, so far as they are morally good or evil, that is, agree with or are in opposition to, divine and natural law, are subject to the judgment and authority of the Church…The social question and the controversies underlying that question…are not merely of an economic nature, and consequently such as can be settled while the Church’s authority is ignored; on the contrary, it is most certain that it (i.e., the social question) is primarily a moral and religious one, and on that account must be settled chiefly in accordance with the moral law and judgment based on religion.”

This point that almost everything relating to government comes under the attention of the Roman Catholic Church is a crucial one in our discussion. The Hierarchy claims for itself a divine right to interfere in social, economic, and political issues if the broad interests of the Roman Church are in any way at stake. Pope Pius XII has made this more explicit than any other modern Pope.

“Many and serious are the problems in the social field—whether they be merely social or socio-political, they pertain to the moral order, are of concern to conscience and the salvation of men: thus they cannot be declared outside the authority and care of the Church. Indeed there are problems outside the social field, not strictly ‘religious,’ political problems, of concern either to individual nations, or to all nations, which belong to the moral order, weigh on the conscience and can, and very often do, hinder the attainment of man’s last end. Such are: the purpose and limits of temporal authority; the relations between the individual and society, the so-called ‘Totalitarian State,’ whatever be the principle it is based on; the ‘complete laicisation of the State’ and of public life; the complete laicisation of the schools; war, its morality, liceity or non-liceity when waged as it is today, and whether a conscientious person may give or withhold his cooperation in it. the moral relationships which bind and rule the various nations.

“Common sense and truth as well are contradicted by whoever asserts that these and like problems are outside the field of morals, and hence are, or at least can be, beyond the influence of that authority established by God to see to a just order and to direct the consciences and actions of men along the path of their true and final destiny. This she is certainly to do, not only ‘in secret,’ within the walls of the Church and sacristy, but also in the open, crying ‘from the rooftops’ (to use the Lord’s words, Matt., X, 27), in the front line, in the midst of the struggle that rages between the ‘world’ and the Kingdom of God, between the prince of this world and Christ the Saviour.”9

As we analyze these pronouncements by the Popes, we see a number of areas of controversy with non-Christian governments. First of all, Rome claims for itself the right of ultimate authority and judgment on all matters falling under the category of the “moral order” (things governed by natural law) as well as things directly related to divine law. Rome bases its claim on its own pretension of being the “Voice of God,” established by God on earth to arrange the affairs of men for their eternal welfare. Quite obviously, non-Christian governments will not recognize the validity of these claims, and even the presence of so proud a religious organization will cause resentment.

Furthermore, the majority of the younger nations are seeking to establish either a purely secular state, with religion divorced from government and education as much as possible, Or a Totalitarian State. such as in Indonesia. Cuba, and parts of Africa (and the Pope’s statement recognizes that this may he done under various disguises). or a religious State of a non-Christian character, such as in Burma where the State religion is now Buddhism. Rome, and Catholic Action, will be against all three of these. The attempted coup d’etat in Ceylon, in January of 1962, which was commonly designated the “Catholic Coup,” is an illustration of the lengths to which Catholic Actionists will go when religion in schools, Catholic influence in government and the armed services, and the customary exercise of Catholic worship, are threatened.

In the light of the papal declarations of what. according to Rome, is legitimately included in the scope of Catholic interests, the following statement concerning the aims of Catholic Action is important.

“Co-operation in the life of religion by helping priests prepare for religious functions, missions, courses of instruction, and by the teaching of Christian doctrine; the diffusion of Christian culture; the Christianization of family life; the defence of the rights and liberties of the Church; co-operation in the Scholastic field especially for the rights of Catholic schools; the press; the moralization of manners; the apostolate of public opinion; the provision of recreational centres; the betterment of social disorders and misery; the Christian solution of the social question; the Christian inspiration of all public life.”10

“The Christian inspiration of all public life” means the management of the affairs of a nation according to the teachings of the Catholic Hierarchy. No government, except a Catholic government such as that of Portugal, would accept this. Nevertheless it is the task of Catholic Action to promote such “inspiration” by instructing Catholic laymen in the teachings of the Hierarchy, directing them in their professional activities, and by every means possible advancing the interests of the Roman church.

1. Cardinal Gracias, Address to the First Women’s Congregation for the Apostolate of the Laity. Rome, 1951.

2. Newman, op. cit., p. 110.

3. Pope Pius XI, Speech to the Directors of the Catholic Action of Rome, April 19, 1931. Quoted by Civardi, op. cit., page 44.

4. Pope Pius XII Letter to the Indian Hierarchy, 30th January, 1948.

5. Pope Pius XII, loc. cit.

6. Newman, pages 81-82. Newman is quoting Archbishop Carboni, in his address to the Australian Catholic Men organization, 15th August, 1955. Carboni quotes Pope Pius XII, in his address to ltalian Catholic Action, 1951.

7. Archbishop Carboni, Address to Presidents and Executives of the Christchurch Movement, New Zealand. November, 1956. Quoted by Newman, p. 82.

8. Pope Pius XII, Address to Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops, at Rome, 2nd November, 1954.

9. Pope Pius XII, Address to Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops, Home, 2nd November, 1954. Quoted by Newman, pages 97–99.

10. Archbishop Carboni, Address to Australian Catholic Men, Sydney, 15th August, 1955. Quoted by Newman, p. 84.