Catholic Action defined
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This article by Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais was first published in the August 2003 issue of The Angelus magazine.
It has come to my attention that a certain amount of confusion has resulted from the juxtaposition of a portion of Bishop de Castro Mayer’s 1953 “Catechism of Opportune Truths” with a quotation from the encyclical of Pope St. Pius X, Il Fermo Proposito, in the March, 2003, issue of The Angelus. Considering the nature of the subject, with its historical and doctrinal complexities, the confusion is understandable. I hope that the following points will serve to eliminate that confusion, and I fully expect that this felix culpa will serve as the occasion for your readers to deepen their understanding of the mind of the Church concerning both the nature of Catholic Action and the proper relationship of the clergy and the laity to it.
1) Bishop de Castro Mayer states that Catholic Action is part of the “hearing Church” and not the “teaching Church” (The Angelus, March 2003, “Catechism of Opportune Truths,” §16, p.3). Obviously this is correct insofar as the laity may collaborate with the hierarchy but not share in its powers. However, some of the confusion on this question stems from the way in which Pius XI chose to define Catholic Action, as compared to the way that St. Pius X did. This point is discussed in detail below (§3b).
2) Catholic Action can never be construed as completely independent of the authority of the Church, as I pointed out in my conference on Supplied Jurisdiction of March 9-10, 1991, in Paris:
That which is constant in all of the popes is the teaching that there can be no question of giving total autonomy to the laity in their action. This is impossible. This is repugnant to the Catholic sense. This is repugnant to the sense of hierarchy in the Church.
3) Bishop de Castro Mayer defines Catholic Action as the “participation [by the laity] in the hierarchy’s apostolate” (§18, p.4), which, he points out, follows the definition of Pope Pius XI, which reads: Catholic Action “does not wish to be nor can be anything other than ‘the participation and the collaboration of the laity with the Apostolic Hierarchy.’” This is extremely problematic for a number of reasons.
a) It differs essentially from the definition given previously by Pope St. Pius X in Il Fermo Proposito, of June 11, 1905:
“To restore all things in Christ” has always been the Church’s motto, and it is especially Our own during these fearful moments through which we are now passing. “To restore all things” — not in any haphazard fashion, but “in Christ”; and the Apostle adds, “both those in the heavens and those on earth” (Eph. 1:10). “To restore all things in Christ” includes not only what properly pertains to the divine mission of the Church, namely, leading souls to God, but also what We have already explained as flowing from that divine mission, namely Christian civilization in each and every one of the elements composing it. (§6)
Since We particularly dwell on this last part of the desired restoration, you clearly see, Venerable Brethren, the services rendered to the Church by those chosen bands of Catholics who aim to unite all their forces in combating anti-Christian civilization by every just and lawful means. They use every means in repairing the serious disorders caused by it. They seek to restore Jesus Christ to the family, the school and society by re-establishing the principle that human authority represents the authority of God. They take to heart the interests of the people, especially those of the working and agricultural classes, not only by inculcating in the hearts of everybody a true religious spirit (the only true fount of consolation among the troubles of this life) but also by endeavoring to dry their tears, to alleviate their sufferings, and to improve their economic condition by wise measures. They strive, in a word, to make public laws conformable to justice and amend or suppress those which are not so. Finally, they defend and support in a true Catholic spirit the rights of God in all things and the no less sacred rights of the Church. (§7)
All these works, sustained and promoted chiefly by lay Catholics and whose form varies according to the needs of each country, constitute what is generally known by a distinctive and surely a very noble name: “Catholic Action,” or the “Action of Catholics.” At all times it came to the aid of the Church, and the Church has always cherished and blessed such help, using it in many ways according to the exigencies of the age. (§8) (Emphasis mine)
b) Pope Pius XI’s definition is partially responsible for the confusion addressed by Bishop de Castro Mayer (§18, p.4) in the first place. The bishop correctly calls “false” the notion that “Catholic Action confers on [a layman] a participation in the apostolic mandate...”; but Pius XI himself repeatedly refers to Catholic Action as “the participation and the collaboration of the laity with the Apostolic Hierarchy.” Clearly the defining of Catholic Action in this way lends itself to misinterpretation, a fact which is only too evident — for instance — from a mere cursory reading of Msgr. Civardi’s A Concise Manual of Catholic Action. Therein Civardi defines Catholic Action in numerous different ways, variously referring to it as a true “apostolate” and in other places maintaining that it has for its principal aim the reconstruction of the Christian State.
4) The definition of Pius XI is not wrong, but it certainly refers to something essentially and totally different than that which St. Pius X strove to promote. Pius XI’s idea of Catholic Action is clearly apostolic and religious, something clearly in the spiritual sphere, essentially a part of the priestly ministry, and therefore under the direct authority of the Church. St. Pius X’s notion is that Catholic Action is a temporal work principally of the layman, and insofar as it is temporal it falls under the indirect authority of the Church.
a) I have already referred to this distinction in my 1991 conference:
This morning I tried to summarize the idea of Pope St. Pius X, who distinguished two sorts of apostolic endeavors for the laity:
1) Direct participation of the laity in the priestly apostolate inasmuch as it is possible. This includes the education of youth, teaching in our schools, and special, more properly apostolic youth movements which have as their purpose the conversion of souls. It is obvious that such a movement has an essential dependence with respect to the clergy. It would be quite erroneous to say that such a movement is a movement of Catholic Action in the strict sense of the word, with a relatively loose dependence on the clergy.
From the very fact that it is for the conversion of souls, it follows that there is an intrinsic dependence on the clergy. The same applies to the Catholic Scout movement and the Legion of Mary which has as its purpose, by the intercession of Our Lady, the conversion of souls. This is, if you wish, a participation in the priestly ministry on the part of the laity, and consequently it requires a mandate. The priest gives a mandate to the laity to exercise a part of his priestly apostolate.
2) Quite different is Catholic Action understood as a work of the Catholic laity in the temporal order, so as to bring about the reign of Christian social principles in the State. It is this which St. Pius X strove especially to promote, and which can be called Catholic Action in the strict sense of the term. We cannot say that such Catholic Action, because it is not the ministry of the priest, is independent of the priest. St. Pius X, as I reminded you this morning, said that “One cannot at all conceive of this Catholic Action of the faithful independently from the counsel and higher guidance of ecclesiastical authority.”
It is an essential distinction. Pope Pius XII, following Pius XI, blurred somewhat its importance, which is not without consequences. He simply spoke of a gradation in the dependence of works of Catholic Action on the hierarchy. The more a work is properly priestly the more must it have an intimate dependence on the priest, and the more a work properly belongs to the laity, the more tenuous the link with respect to the clergy. (Emphasis mine)
b) St. Pius X himself (in Il Fermo Proposito) was very clear about the two types of activities in which Catholics may participate (Catholic Action, and more properly apostolic endeavors) and the relation of each to the direct and indirect authority of the Church:
We must touch, Venerable Brethren, on another point of extreme importance, namely, the relation of all the works of Catholic Action to ecclesiastical authority. If the teachings unfolded in the first part of this letter are thoughtfully considered it will be readily seen that all those works which directly come to the aid of the spiritual and pastoral ministry of the Church and which labor religiously for the good of souls must in every least thing be subordinated to the authority of the Church and also to the authority of the Bishops placed by the Holy Spirit to rule the Church of God in the dioceses assigned to them. Moreover, the other works which, as We have said, are primarily designed for the restoration and promotion of true Christian civilization and which, as explained above, constitute Catholic Action, by no means may be considered as independent of the counsel and direction of ecclesiastical authority, especially since they must all conform to the principles of Christian faith and morality. At the same time it is impossible to imagine them as in opposition, more or less openly, to that same authority. Such works, however, by their very nature, should be directed with a reasonable degree of freedom, since responsible action is especially theirs in the temporal and economic affairs as well as in those matters of public administration and political life. These affairs are alien to the purely spiritual ministry. Since Catholics, on the other hand, are to raise always the banner of Christ, by that very fact they also raise the banner of the Church. Thus it is no more than right that they receive it from the hands of the Church, that the Church guard its immaculate honor, and that Catholics submit as docile, loving children to this maternal vigilance. (§22) (Emphasis mine)
c) Archbishop Lefebvre also approached the question with the assumption that there were two distinct types of lay activity, one an ecclesiastically approved, hierarchically constituted and institutionalized “Catholic Action” which was essentially spiritual and religious, and another consisting of the activity of the laity in the temporal order for the defense or restoration of the Christian state.
i) That the Archbishop possessed this conception of two types of lay activity is evident from a letter of encouragement that he wrote to Jean Ousset, whose work was being opposed by liberal French bishops as detailed on p.274 of my book Marcel Lefebvre: Une Vie. [His Excellency refers to his 643-page book in French, published in English under the title, Marcel Lefebvre: The Biography —Ed.]
Are you criticized for not having the bishops’ permission? Such permission is not needed for any activity which is not properly speaking Catholic Action. All that is needed is for an activity to be fully in accord with the spirit of the Church and her discipline, and every bishop can judge that for himself in his own diocese.
Here Archbishop Lefebvre uses the phrase “Catholic Action” to indicate the spiritual activity–participation and collaboration with the apostolate of the hierarchy — which Pius XI encouraged, and he therefore concludes that the work of Jean Ousset and La Cite Catholique is not “strictly speaking” Catholic Action. This inversion of terms is a result of the prevailing situation during the early part of both the archbishop’s as well as Bishop de Castro Mayer’s lifetimes, where organs of so-called “Catholic Action” — in fact they were specifically so called — were established and constituted officially by the hierarchy as movements of the Church, following the understanding of Pius XI. This institutional “Catholic Action” is an essentially different activity (though there may be points of overlap, especially when the teaching of the Social Doctrine is involved) from what St. Pius X encouraged, which is an activity in fact quite similar to what Ousset undertook, and which, according to Archbishop Lefebvre, falls under the indirect authority of the Church; hence all that is required of it is that it “fully conform to the spirit of the Church and her discipline.”
ii) The archbishop’s understanding of the question is further illustrated by one of his interventions prior to the Second Vatican Council (related in Une Vie on p.298):
At the seventh and last preparatory meeting [for the Council], the archbishop acted decisively in support of the reign of Christ the King even over temporal affairs. On 18 June  he spoke about the lay apostolate and asked for a reaffirmation of its dependence on the priestly apostolate. Following Pius X, he distinguished two ways in which this dependence operates: the first regards the lay apostolate in the broadest sense — “the sanctification of professions and civil society” — in which the laypeople are “subject to the bishops’ vigilance”; the second is through an apostolate in the strict sense in which laypeople “unquestionably depend directly and immediately on the authority of the bishops and the priests appointed by them, since they then collaborate in the very mission entrusted by Christ to the bishops.”
Having made this enlightening distinction, Archbishop Lefebvre added that, nevertheless, one cannot separate the temporal and the spiritual domains; on the one hand the temporal is in fact subject to the supernatural order, and on the other the clergy cannot be excluded from the care and possession of temporal things. (Emphasis mine)
5) The juxtaposition of Bishop de Castro Mayer’s statement of p.5 (§21), “Catholic Action… is entirely subject to the bishop’s authority.... His authority is not only for vetoing anything contrary to faith and morals, but is also for governing all social activity,” with Pope St. Pius X’s definition of Catholic Action (§§3a and 4b above) implies an entirely incorrect notion of Catholic Action, i.e., that it is essentially a work of the laity in the temporal sphere (Pius X), and that it is entirely subject to the authority of the Bishop.
The correct notion, rather, is that Catholic Action is essentially the work of the laity in the temporal sphere, and that it has a relatively loose dependence on the clergy, who do not direct the temporal work of building the Christian State, but rather exercise their jurisdiction over faith and morals to ensure that the means and ends proposed by the laity are in conformity with Catholic faith and morals. Another way of saying this would be that Catholic Action, properly speaking, falls under the indirect authority of the Church (in keeping with the traditional teaching of the Church on the relation between the spiritual and temporal powers), and that the participation of the laity in the ministry of the priest is not Catholic Action, strictly speaking; such activity, rather, is essentially spiritual and falls therefore under the direct authority of the Church.
6) Bishop de Castro Mayer’s statement, “If the priest had over Catholic Action the simple power of veto, it would practically escape the bishop’s power” illustrates the unfortunate confusion which results from an inadequate definition of Catholic Action.
a) Over Catholic Action, strictly speaking, the Church does have only veto power — the power to correct errors in faith and morals. This “veto” power is the exercise of the Church’s indirect temporal authority and, in such circumstances, Catholic Action does not escape the bishop’s power, but is rather submitted to it in a way proper to both the nature of Catholic Action and the nature of the bishop’s authority. Put another way, this “veto” is simply an exercise, adapted to modern circumstances, of the Church’s right to intervene in the temporal sphere ratione peccati.
b) Since Bishop de Castro Mayer is referring not to Catholic Action strictly speaking, but to the essentially religious and spiritual “participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy,” it is evident that he is simply referring to the fact that the Church has direct authority over this kind of activity, and that this direct authority is (naturally) all-encompassing.
7) Following this line of thought, when Bishop de Castro Mayer maintains that, “Since organizations of Catholic Action wholly belong in the ranks of the ‘hearing Church,’ its members must normally be received by the vicar or the priest who directs the association,” it is evident that he is referring to an essentially spiritual and religious activity. When, following St. Pius X, laymen “strive, in a word, to make public laws conformable to justice and amend or suppress those which are not so” (Il Fermo Proposito, §7), it would be absurd to suggest that they need to somehow be received by the local priest in order to do so. Over this kind of activity–Catholic Action strictly speaking–the priest exercises his indirect authority by teaching the general principles of social justice and correcting the laity in the event that they pursue aims contrary to those principles or attempt to implement them in a way which would be condemned by the Catholic Faith or the Moral Law.
8) Ultimately, all the statements of Bishop de Castro Mayer are correct when understood in light of his assumption that when he says “Catholic Action,” we actually are to understand him to be speaking of the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy, and not “Catholic Action” strictly speaking, as it has been best defined by Pope St. Pius X in Il Fermo Proposito.
9) Our understanding of the question rests, finally, with the profound wisdom of St. Pius X and the subtle yet precise distinctions which he makes in his encyclical. I would like to conclude by inviting you to look closely at the following passages, in which will be found an elaboration of the general principles that form the basis of the foregoing discussion.
a) Pius X begins by pointing out the extremely wide scope of lay activity, what we might call the entire “lay apostolate,” generally and loosely so-called; his reference to the “direct or indirect” missions of the Church sets up the distinctions he will make later in his letter:
The field of Catholic Action is extremely vast. In itself it does not exclude anything, in any manner, direct or indirect, which pertains to the divine mission of the Church. Accordingly one can plainly see how necessary it is for everyone to co-operate in such an important work, not only for the sanctification of his own soul, but also for the extension and increase of the Kingdom of God in individuals, families, and society; each one working according to his energy for the good of his neighbor by the propagation of revealed truth, by the exercise of Christian virtues, by the exercise of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. (§3)
b) Following this, the Pope alludes to the difference between the goods of the soul, over which the Church has a direct mission, and the temporal goods of Christian civilization, over which the Church has no direct mission but of which she is “the guardian and protector” thanks to the “Catholic revelation,” the “evangelical counsels,” and the “doctrine and morality” which she preaches:
Over and above spiritual goods, however, there are many goods of the natural order over which the Church has no direct mission, although they flow as a natural consequence from her divine mission.... By the very nature of things, the Church has consequently become the guardian and protector of Christian society. That fact was universally recognized and admitted in other periods of history. In truth, it formed a solid foundation for civil legislation. On that very fact rested the relations between Church and State; the public recognition of the authority of the Church in those matters which touched upon conscience in any manner, the subordination of all the laws of the State to the Divine laws of the Gospel; the harmony of the two powers in securing the temporal welfare of the people in such a way that their eternal welfare did not suffer. (§4)
c) And following this distinction between the spiritual goods which it is the business of the Church’s hierarchy to foster, and the temporal goods which are fostered chiefly by the laity and which are guarded and preserved by the Church by her preaching and her doctrine, St. Pius X reminds the clergy and the laity of their respective roles in promoting those works which are “designed for the restoration and promotion of true Christian civilization”:
i) He reminds the clergy of the fact that their “proper field of action is the Church” (§25), and indicates that their participation in organizations of Catholic Action must be oriented towards “favoring and promoting” the various temporal organizations constituted to assist the masses, thus guaranteeing that their involvement will have “a truly religious purpose”:
By means of the printed and spoken word, by direct participation in the above-mentioned cases, he can labor on behalf of the people according to the principles of justice and charity by favoring and promoting those institutions which propose to protect the masses from the invasion of Socialism, saving them at the same time from both economic ruin and moral and religious chaos. In this way the assistance of the clergy in the works of Catholic Action has a truly religious purpose (emphasis mine). It will then not be a hindrance, but rather a help, to the spiritual ministry by enlarging its sphere and multiplying its results. (§26)
Notice, please, how St. Pius X completely reverses the “participation”: In this work of the laity for promoting Christian civilization, it is not the laity that share in the hierarchical apostolate but on the contrary, it is the clergy that may participate in organizations of lay action. A most significant inversion of perspectives!
ii) Additionally, he warns the clergy specifically against placing too much emphasis on temporal activity:
While pointing out the true nature of Catholic Action, Venerable Brethren, We cannot minimize the grave danger to which the clergy may find themselves exposed because of the conditions of the time. They may attach such importance to the material interests of the people that they will forget those more important duties of the sacred ministry. (§24)
iii) To the laity the Pope says that their activity–in this case, for instance, their participation in the national politics of Italy–must at all times be based upon Catholic principle, and must involve a well-informed Catholic conscience, resolved to be as Catholic in public as in private:
This concession [resumption of participation by Catholics in Italian political life] places a duty on all Catholics to prepare themselves prudently and seriously for political life in case they may be called to it. Hence it is of the utmost importance that the same activity (previously so praiseworthily planned by Catholics for the purpose of preparing themselves by means of good electoral organization for the administrative life of common and provincial councils) be extended to a suitable preparation and organization for political life.... At the same time the other principles which regulate the conscience of every true Catholic must be inculcated and put into practice. Above all else he must remember to be and to act in every circumstance as a true Catholic, accepting and fulfilling public offices with the firm and constant resolution of promoting by every means the social and economic welfare of the country and particularly of the people, according to the maxims of a truly Christian civilization, and at the same time defending the supreme interests of the Church, which are those of religion and justice. (§19) (Emphasis mine)
iv) Additionally, he indicates that the activity of the laity must be of evident worth, constructive, and useful:
It is also important to define clearly the works which the Catholic forces must energetically and constantly undertake. These works must be of such evident importance that they will be appreciated by everybody. They must bear such a relation to the needs of modern society and be so well adapted to moral and material interests, especially those of the people and the poorer classes, that, while arousing in promoters of Catholic Action the greatest activity for obtaining the important and certain results which are to be looked for, they may also be readily understood and gladly welcomed by all. (§12)
v) Finally, St. Pius X reminds the laity that to restore Christ to the family and society, to promulgate His Social Reign, they must be well-prepared and well-suited to the work at hand, by relying on divine grace and Catholic doctrine to form them in piety and in manly virtue:
Above all, one must be firmly convinced that the instrument is of little value if it is not adapted to the work at hand. In regard to the things We mentioned above, Catholic Action, inasmuch as it proposes to restore all things in Christ, constitutes a real apostolate for the honor and glory of Christ Himself. To carry it out right one must have divine grace, and the apostle receives it only if he is united to Christ. Only when he has formed Jesus Christ in himself shall he more easily be able to restore Him to the family and society. Therefore, all who are called upon to direct or dedicate themselves to the Catholic cause, must be sound Catholics, firm in faith, solidly instructed in religious matters, truly submissive to the Church and especially to this supreme Apostolic See and the Vicar of Jesus Christ. They must be men of real piety, of manly virtue, and of a life so chaste and fearless that they will be a guiding example to all others. (§11)
With these brief observations I leave you with my sincere hope that all misunderstanding of Catholic Action may be eliminated, and that, with a true harmony of mind and will, Catholics everywhere may work effectively to restore to His throne Our Lord Jesus Christ, who must reign over temporal and civil society no less than He does over the perfect spiritual society which is His Church.
In Christo Domino,
+Bp. Bernard Tissier de Mallerais
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