The Popes on Catholic Action

© Copyright 2009, T. Stanfill Benns (All emphasis within quotes added by the author)

Reading the many exhortations issued by the vicars of Christ urging Catholics to take up the banner of Catholic Action, it’s hard not to wonder why this movement was cast by the wayside by Traditionalists. Even before the false V2 council, however, it sadly went awry, high-jacked by liturgical innovators who largely succeeded in almost exclusively directing its focus to liturgical, even doctrinal change. Yet the message of the popes remains clear: Catholic Action is not an option but a solemn duty. These are the men who Christ appointed to speak to us in His name. Through them Christ is telling us to establish His kingdom, yet the soldiers are leaving the battlefield. Pope Pius XII called this effort the new crusade and spoke more on Catholic Action than any other Pontiff. Although some might assume that these papal documents represent only outdated appeals, the Church does not operate on the same set of rules or principles as the world. Because She is eternal, these appeals of the popes are as urgent today as they were 50 or 100 years ago. The Church never changes, unlike the world; which often seems to be in a state of frenzied and perpetual evolution. Especially because these papal requests went largely unheeded, Catholics today must pick up wherever our errant Catholic forbearers left off. As one priest remarked in the late 1940s, if there is yet hope for this world, the answers will come from the laity. Pope Pius XII firmly believed this. Coming from the last valid pope, a vicar yet to be obeyed, we may take this as gospel. We have received our mandate and all that remains is to join hands, hoist the banner once again and march forward.

”When necessity compels, not only those who are invested with the power of rule are bound to safeguard the integrity of the faith, but as St. Thomas maintains, “Each one is under obligation to show forth his faith, either to instruct and encourage others of the faithful or to repel the attacks of unbelievers.” To recoil before an enemy or to keep silence when from all sides such clamors are raised against truth is the part of a man either devoid of character or who entertains doubt as to the truth of what he professes to believe. In both cases such mode of behavior is base and insulting to God, and both are incompatible with the salvation of mankind-Nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good-After all, no one can be prevented from putting forth that strength of soul which is the characteristic of true Christians; and very frequently by such displays of courage our enemies lose heart and their designs are thwarted. Christians are, moreover, born for combat whereof the greater the vehemence the more assured, God aiding, the triumph. Jesus-needs the help of men-The chief elements of this duty consist in professing openly and unflinchingly the Catholic doctrine and in propagating it to the utmost of our power. “How shall they believe Him of whom they have not heard and how shall they hear without a preacher? Faith then cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ,” (Rom. 10:14, 17).

“No one must entertain the notion that private individuals are prevented from taking some active part in this duty of teaching, especially those on whom God has bestowed gifts of mind, with the strong wish of rendering themselves useful. These, so often as circumstance demands, may take upon themselves-the task of communicating to others what they have themselves received. Such cooperation on the part of the laity has seemed to the Fathers of the Vatican Council so opportune and fruitful of good that they thought well to invite it. ‘All faithful Christians, but those chiefly who are in a prominent position, or engaged in teaching, we entreat, by the compassion of Christ and enjoin by the authority of the same God and Savior, that they bring aid to ward off and eliminate these errors from Holy Church, and contribute their zealous help in spreading abroad the light of undefiled faith,’ (from POPE PIUS IX, Vatican Council Constitution Dei Filius).

“Each one should preach the Catholic faith by the authority of his example and by open and constant profession of the obligations it imposes…It should be borne earnestly in mind that in propagating Christian truth and warding off errors, the zeal of the laity should, as far as possible, be brought actively into play-They who cherish the “prudence of the flesh” and who pretend to be unaware that every Christian ought to be a valiant soldier of Christ; they who would fain obtain the rewards owing to conquerors while they are leading the lives of cowards, untouched in the fight, are so far from thwarting the onward march of the evil-disposed that, on the contrary, they even help it forward-A sublime reward is in store for the labors of a Christian life. On the other hand, to refrain from doing battle for Jesus Christ amounts to fighting against Him: He Himself assures us “He will deny before His Father in Heaven those who shall have refused to confess Him on earth,” (Luke 9:26).

(Sapientiae Christianae, Jan. 10, 1890)

“It is the duty of all Catholics worthy of the name…to endeavor to bring back all civil society to the pattern and form of Christianity…It is not an easy matter to lay down any fixed method by which such purposes are to be attained, because the means adopted must suit places and times widely differing from one another. Nevertheless, above all things unity of aim must be preserved and similarity in all plans of action must be sought. Both these objects will be carried into effect without fail, if all will follow the guidance of the Apostolic See as their rule of life…” (Immortale Dei)

”Catholic Action consists in acting in the face of the world in conformity with the faith which we profess, so that the majesty of God may be respected and His Divine laws obeyed. Catholic Action consists especially in affirming the rights of Jesus Christ who is truly Our King. Because Jesus Christ is represented by His Church, Catholic Action consists in being affectionate children of this perfect society, which does not depend on other powers for the right to live and exercise Her ministry, because She has all power from God…Because moreover this Church is not built in the air, but does Her work in this our sublunar world, having a Supreme Head, Bishops and priests, Catholic Action is directed toward the defense of and revindication of the rights of the Roman Pontiff, who is to the Church of Jesus Christ what the head is to the body, what the foundation is to the building, for where the Pope is there is the Church. The more open the war against the Pope is the more active, the more resolute should Catholic Action be in defending and maintaining the inviolable rights of the Sovereign Pontiff…

” Catholic Action is properly lay in character for another reason also, which is obvious even to the most undiscerning, but which must not be forgotten. At one time the rights of Jesus Christ, of the Church and of the Pope entered into the legislation of all Christian states, and no one dared to deny to the hierarchy, the Church and the Pope those immunities and those privileges which they received from Christ, recognized by so many centuries of State law.

“Now it is no longer so. The Church, the Pope are no longer recognized as such and no longer form part of the social organism; they are relegated to the sphere of common rights; nay, they are even considered as enemies; they are ranked with evildoers. Since these things are so, who is it that must bestir himself to defend the violated rights and insulted dignity of the Pope, the Bishops and the Church? In other times it was the Pope and Bishops who intervened in the defense of their children, threatened by the savage invasions of the barbarians; today it must be the children who will rise up in defense of their Father, the laity in defense of the Hierarchy…Catholic Action will not please certain timid souls. Who, though good living, are so attached to their habitual quiet and so afraid of every innovation that they believe it is quite sufficient to pray because God knows best how to defend the faith, humiliate His enemies and make the Church triumphant.

“But these good people whom I would call optimists will wait in vain for society to reChristianize itself simply by the prayers of the good. Prayer is absolutely necessary, because in the ordinary economy of salvation God does not concede graces except to him who prays. India and Japan would never have been converted by the prayers alone of Xavier; the Apostles would never have conquered the world if they had not done the work of heroes and martyrs. It is necessary, therefore, to join work with action.” There are others on the other hand, who in order to justify their inertia, give up the world for lost, since they see in it so many evils. These people, whom I would call pessimists, say that it is so much wasted time to talk of committees, circles, chairs, societies that will never accomplish anything. It is sufficient to remind these weary and dispirited souls that this kind of work in Catholic Action has been commanded by the pope, who has signified his own mind in so many ways, and that it is enough for us to be sure that it is the will of God also. One would need, then, a pretty dose of temerity and pride to say that a work, which has been commanded by the Pope and is the will of God, is useless and of no avail…

“True it is that in promoting Catholic Action, difficulties will be found. But what good work has there ever been which has not encountered difficulties and obstacles?…Where there is good will, all difficulties will vanish, and even when it seems that we are face to face with the impossible, if there is a will, there will be a way…Up to the present we have been like rabbits, too frightened of everything and everyone to institute the Parochial Committee, in order not to give offense. To whom should the committee give offense? To two classes of people only: to the bad, and if we gave way to them we would have to stop all good works; and to those good people who shrink from innovations. We must tell these last clearly and distinctly that these innovations are both beautiful and good; that as the bad unite, so also must the good; that if they are innovations they are desired by the Vicar of Jesus Christ, and that he who does not obey the Pope does not obey God.” (“Taken from Restoring All Things: A Guide to Catholic Action,” by John Fitzsimons and Paul McGuire, Sheed and Ward, 1938.

POPE PIUS XI: “Nowadays, as more than once in the history of the Church, we are confronted with a world which, in large measure has almost fallen back into paganism…Catholic Action is the renewal and continuation of that which was done IN THE EARLY DAYS OF CHRISTIANITY and the first proclamation of the realm of Our Lord. To have proof of this, it is sufficient to take a look at the literature of the early Church, to see that a great part of the marvelous success of the apostolate was due to the cooperation of the laity with the Apostles,” (June 12, 1929 discourse, “Fundamental Principles of Catholic Action,” by F. Lelotte, S.J.)

In another pronouncement on Catholic Action, Pius XI wrote: “Catholic Action ought to be a universal and harmonious action of all Catholics, without exception of age, sex, social condition, culture, social and political preferences.” (Letter of Nov. 13, 1928). Commenting on the pope’s words, Msgr. Civardi wrote: “All laymen are called to share in Catholic Action. It is like the vineyard in the Gospel where all the workmen are invited to labor, (Matt. 20:1-16). Not one Catholic can exempt himself with the excuse, ‘No one has hired us,’ The father of the family, Jesus Christ in the person of his vicar has invited all: ‘Go ye also into my vineyard.’ The excluded, the unemployed have none but themselves to blame,” (“Fundamental Principles of Catholic Action” by F. Lelotte, S. J.).

• And from “A Guide to the Lay Apostolate,” compiled by Catherine Buehler, Pope Pius XI is quoted as saying: “The greatness and difficulty of our times does not allow any true disciple of Christ to be satisfied with mediocrity.”

” Catholic Action is almost as indispensable as the priestly ministry: all should contribute to it at least a minimum,” (Discourse by Pius XI, Dec. 4, 1924).

• And finally Pius XI assigns sin to non-participation. “All are bound to collaborate in spreading the Kingship of Christ, since all are the favored subjects of this tender King…To exempt oneself is a SIN OF OMISSION, which, in certain cases, could be SERIOUS.” And elsewhere,” Catholic Action is nothing else than the exercise of Christian charity, which is obligatory upon all men,” (Discourse of Sept. 29, 1927).

• “Catholic Action is an apostolate for which it is necessary to prepare oneself by a COMPLETE religious, moral and intellectual FORMATION…Without this DILIGENT and PROFOUND preparation, the organization of the individual Christian life and of Catholic Action is impossible…The profoundly Christian formation of the members of Catholic Action is a necessary condition for its fruitfulness,” (taken form various letters of Pope Pius XI as cited by Lelotte, Ibid.).

• Thus a profound and complete religious formation must be based, Pius XI said, “on solid piety and a great love for the Church and the Sovereign Pontiff, for it is understood that it will not be possible to procure an effective and generous cooperation with the apostolate of the Hierarchy except from persons leading an irreproachable Christian life, well convinced and enlightened on the truths of Faith and animated by an ardent love for Our Lord Jesus Christ and for the souls purchased by his Precious Blood, ” (Feb. 14, 1934 papal letter).

• Addressing bishops and priests, Pius XI wrote in a Sept. 28, 1935 letter: “We exhort you to devote the greatest care to the FORMATION of those who fight in the ranks of Catholic Action: the religious, moral and social formation which is INDISPENSIBLE to one who wishes to do effective apostolic work in the midst of modern society.”

Pius XI warned of what would happen if groups independent of hierarchical supervision engaged in Catholic Action: “It would be an error and serious nuisance if there arose in parishes and dioceses associations of the faithful which had SIMILAR ends to those of Catholic Action but yet remained INDEPENDENT of Catholic Action without any coordination or, what would be even worse, in conflict with it. The advantages of a particular nature, or limited to a small circle of the faithful would be entirely nullified by the damage they would cause by dividing, disaggregating and even setting Catholic forces against the other, …forces which ought to be powerfully organized in obedience to the hierarchy and at the service of the Church,” (Oct. 28, 1935 letter, Ibid.).

”The faithful, and more precisely the laity are stationed in the front ranks of the life of the Church, and through them the Church is the living principle of society. Consequently, they must have an ever clearer consciousness, not only of belonging to the Church, but of BEING THE CHURCH, that is, of being the community of the faithful on earth under the guidance of their common leader, the Pope, and the bishops in communion with him. THEY ARE the Church, and therefore even from the beginning, the faithful, with the consent of their bishops, have united in associations directed to the most diverse types of human activity. The Holy See has never ceased to approve and praise them,” (The Catholic Church in Action, by Michael Williams, quoted from an address delivered by Pope Pius XII Feb. 20, 1946, to the newly made cardinals).

But from the very first moments of his election, Pope Pius XII must have made the decision to add to his predecessor’s legacy concerning Catholic Action, for it was the topic of the concluding remarks of his first encyclical. “At a moment when one is forced to note with sorrow the disproportion between the number of priests and the calls upon them, when one sees that even today the words of Our Savior apply: ‘The harvest indeed in great, but the laborers are few,’ (Matthew 9:37; Luke 10:2), the collaboration of the laity in the Apostolate of the Hierarchy, a collaboration indeed given by many and animated with ardent zeal and generous self-devotion, stands out as a precious aid to the work of priests and shows possibilities of development which justify the brightest hopes. The prayer of the Church to the Lord of the Harvest that he send workers into his vineyard (cf. Matt.9:37 Luke 10:2) has been granted to a degree proportionate to the present needs, and in a manner which supplements and completes the powers, often obstructed and inadequate, of the priestly apostolate. Numbers of fervent men, women and youth obedient to the voice of the Supreme Pastor and to the directions of their bishops, consecrate themselves with the full ardor of their souls to the works of the apostolate in order to bring back to Christ the masses of peoples who have been separated from Him.

“To them in this moment so critical for the Church and for mankind go out Our paternal greeting, Our deep-felt gratitude, Our confident hope. These have truly placed their lives and their work beneath the standard of Christ the King; and they can say with the Psalmist: ‘I speak my words to the King’ (Psalm 54:1). ‘Thy Kingdom come’ is not simply the burning desire of their prayer; it is besides, the guide of their activity. This collaboration of the laity with the priesthood in all classes, categories and groups reveals precious industry and to the laity is entrusted a mission which noble and loyal hearts could desire none higher nor more consoling. This apostolic work, carried out according to the mind of the Church, consecrates the layman as a kind of “Minister to Christ” in the sense which Saint Augustine explains as follows: ‘When, Brethren, you hear Our Lord saying: where I am there too will My servant be, do not think solely of good bishops and clerics.’ You too in your way minister to Christ by a good life, by almsgiving, by preaching His Name and teaching to whom you can.

“Thus every father should recognize that it is under this title that he owes paternal affection to his family. Let it be for the sake of Christ and for life everlasting, that he admonishes all his household, teaches, exhorts, reproves, shows kindness, corrects; and thus in his own home he will fulfill an ecclesiastical and in a way an episcopal office ministering to Christ, that he may be for ever with Him…In promoting this participation by the laity in the apostolate, which is so important in our times, the family has a special mission, for it is the spirit of the family that exercises the most powerful influence on that of the rising generation. As long as the sacred flame of the Faith burns on the domestic hearth, and the parents forge and fashion the lives of their children in accordance with this Faith, youth will be ever ready to acknowledge the royal prerogatives of the Redeemer, and to oppose those who wish to exclude Him from society or wrongly to usurp His rights.

“When churches are closed, when the Image of the Crucified is taken from the schools, the family remains the providential and, in a certain sense, impregnable refuge of Christian life. And We give thanks to God as We see that numberless families accomplish this, their mission, with a fidelity undismayed by combat or by sacrifice. A great host of young men and women, even in those regions where faith in Christ means suffering and persecution, remain firm around the Throne of the Redeemer with a quiet, steady determination that recalls the most glorious days of the Church’s struggles,”

(delivered by Pope Pius XII Oct. 20, 1939 from Castle Gandolfo).

”We believe that the first point to be remembered is the need for action, action clearly conceived and strongly desired. You must reject every attitude of PASSIVE ACCEPTANCE OR INDIFFERENCE, every form of APATHETIC QUIETISM. You cannot in any way expose yourselves to the reproaches of the Master who takes His servant to task because he has buried his talent in the earth instead of making it bear profit, (Matt. 25:24-27). Imitate rather the Good Samaritan of the parable (Luke 10: 30-37) who understands his duties to his neighbor and whom the Lord set as an example to his questioner saying: ‘Go and do likewise.’

” …The Apostolic See does not simply tolerate your action; it enjoins you to exercise the apostolate, to devote your efforts to fulfilling the Christian’s great missionary duty, that all the lost sheep may be assembled in one fold and under one shepherd, (John 10, 16).” Pius XII here reiterates what Pope Pius XI said on the subject during his pontificate: “Apostolate is nothing else but the exercise of Christian charity…What would the Twelve have done, lost in the world’s immensity, if they had not called aloud to others and said, “Let us carry forth the treasure of heaven; help us to distribute it? ”

“The initiate of the lay apostolate is perfectly justified even without a prior explicit ‘mission’ from the hierarchy…Personal initiative plays a great part in protecting the faith and Catholic life, especially in countries where contacts with the hierarchy are difficult or practically impossible. In such circumstances the Christians upon whom the task falls, must with God’s grace assume all their responsibilities…Even so, nothing can be undertaken against the implicit or explicit will of the Church, or contrary in any way to the rules of faith or morals, or ecclesiastical discipline,” (The Mission of Catholic Women, Sept. 29, 1957). Pope Pius XII lists three main responsibilities of those engaged in Catholic Action: “The first of these is the formation of lay apostles to compensate for the shortage of priests engaged in pastoral work. In certain countries where communism is in power, it is reported that religious life has been able to continue underground thanks to the works of lay apostles, even after the arrests of the priests,” (The Lay Apostolate).

An Apostolic Nuncio on Catholic Action

The Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Msgr. Romolo Carboni, directed by and answerable only to Pope Pius XII, has commented further on the formation necessary to commence Catholic Action. “Prayer and adequate intellectual formation are indispensable requisites to any efficacious apostolate…There are, unfortunately, many who fritter away their leisure time in a round of sports or social life, in pleasure, laziness and ease, while the world is crashing about our ears. (Catholics) are called by their Baptism to be apostles. This is a basic and universal duty insisted on by the Popes,” (An Apostolic Delegate Speaks, 1961). Carboni goes onto explain that the immediate aim of Catholic Action is “the education of minds and formation of conscience…(this group must be) intimately acquainted with the doctrine of the Church.” And according to Pope Pius XI, such groups “will assuredly be served by study circles, conferences and lecture courses.”

While Carboni admitted that not all have the aptitude to be “intensely” active lay apostles, he did not excuse even busy wives and mothers or working fathers of families from contributing to Catholic Action in some routine and meaningful way. This is consistent with the teachings of Pope Leo XIII (previous section) and Pope Pius XI on this topic. “Catholic Action is almost as indispensable as the priestly ministry: all should contribute to it at least a minimum,” (Dec. 4, 1924). Pope Pius XII urged wives and mother of families to promote Catholic Action in general, not only in the family circle, stating, “The Apostolic See simply does not tolerate your action: it enjoins you to exercise the apostolate, to devote your efforts to fulfilling the Christian’s great missionary duty, that all the lost sheep may be assembled in one fold…You must reject every attitude of passive acceptance or indifference, every form of apathetic quietism…Especially in countries where contacts with the hierarchy are difficult or practically impossible, the Christians upon whom this task falls, must with God’s grace, assume all their responsibilities (the hierarchy’s)…”

A most heavy burden, that: to assume all the duties of the hierarchy in their absence. If today’s lukewarm Catholics realized the true extent of those duties, not even practiced by priests and bishops according to the commands of the Popes reigning prior to Vatican II, they would faint. And these duties weigh most heavily on those laymen and women especially equipped for such activity, who desire to emulate the previous works engaged in by Third Orders. In a speech to Australian Third Order Members in 1955, Msgr. Carboni said: “The Third Order of St. Francis is therefore rightly justified in regarding itself as a fruitful nursery of militant lay apostles and an expression, also, of all that is essential to the intrinsic nature of Catholic Action at its richest and best.” Carboni stated that Catholic Action can be nurtured only by “sacrifice and prayer” and necessarily demands of its members “an attitude totally different from that of the Christian content with his comfortable mediocrity.” In an impassioned plea, Carboni beseeched Third Order members for their cooperation as follows: “I beg you, I pray of you, to become true leaders of a great reawakening to the demands of our Christian vocation. Awaken your fellows from their unchristian apathy; stir them from their lifeless indolence, their anemic inertness, and their terrifying passiveness. Awaken them from their ‘fatal lethargy,’ as Pope Pius XII has described it, lest that lethargy should become the death to freedom and to faith.”

Pope Pius XI prophetically described what would happen if such lethargy were not overcome. “All who do not want anarchy and terrorism to replace decent civilization should line up with the forces of Catholic Action.” We have merited both plagues today because the popes’ commands have been ignored and Catholic Action gravely neglected. None need complain of the catastrophic consequences, then, that will eventually result from these pests since it is punishment for the failure to act when they could freely do so. The remedy, if God is merciful and yet allows time for its application, is contained in Msgr. Carboni’s final comments to Third Order Franciscans: “Like St. Francis, look to the Vicar of Christ…A campaign of action has already been proposed to you by the living Vicar of Christ…” (“An Apostolic Delegate Speaks,” Most Rev. Romolo Carboni, 1961). And while there may be no visible vicar reigning today, we have a wealth of papal teachings on Catholic Action to draw from.

Christ’s Vicar may not be living among us at this moment, but his words and those of his predecessors live on in these encyclicals and addresses. Their commands are no less compelling and binding today than they were in the 20th century. They apply to us even in these times, for as Pope St. Pius X taught in his Oath Against Modernism, “I accept sincerely the doctrine of faith, transmitted from the Apostles through the orthodox fathers, always in the same sense and interpretation, even to us,” (DZ 2145).

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