Ch. 1: The Catholic Church and the modern world

For the Catholic Church in Europe, the French Revolution introduced a century of disorientation, persecution, and outward decline. Already weakened by its struggle to maintain its universality and independence against the absolutist monarchs of the eighteenth century,1 it was now confronted by a new and more far-reaching kind of absolutism — the State-absolutism of the disciples of Rousseau, Robespierre and Hegel. Its experience during the Revolutionary decade in France left it with no illusions as to the treatment it could expect from the self-proclaimed apostles of liberty, democracy and enlightenment. It entered the post-Napoleonic period desperately clinging to the skirts of its monarchical tormentors of a generation before.

The new age found its distinctive character not in the towns and village communities of traditional Europe, but in the burgeoning industrial cities. For the Church, its thought and institutions geared to the old rural order, the cities were both alien and menacing. Not only were they ugly and squalid; they bred irreligious masses whom the Church had great difficulty reaching. Furthermore, the new urban bourgeoisie formed the backbone of anti-Christian Liberalism; and the industrial proletariat, as it sought leadership and class-identity, gravitated towards equally anti-Christian Socialism. Similarly threatening, at least in Germany and Italy, was the new Nationalism, which found substantial support among the Liberals. Pervading all three political movements was the Hegelian metaphysic, with its idealisation of the State as the ultimate source and object of identity, allegiance and authority among men. Implicit also in the new ideologies was the equation of social progress with material prosperity. Such ideals of society were anathema to Christian thinking on the nature of man and the purpose of earthly life.

In practice Liberalism showed its greatest persecuting zeal in those countries where the Church was most closely identified with the old social order. Thus in France, the Italian States, Spain and Portugal the establishment of Liberal governments was usually followed by the nationalisation of, or discrimination against, Church schools; the confiscation of Church property; the banishment of monastic orders; and the withdrawal of legal recognition from Church marriages. In Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and the Prussian territories, moves to liberalise the State were at first to the advantage of Catholics, and thus a more tolerant relationship initially obtained between the Church and the Liberals in those countries. Nowhere, however, did this congenial state of affairs last. In the 1847-48 Swiss Civil War the Catholic cantons fought unsuccessfully for greater autonomy against Liberal and Protestant armies; and from 1871 the German National Liberals fully supported Bismark in his anti-Catholic Kulturkampf. In Belgium and Holland in the 1870s Liberal regimes established secular schools, withdrew State financial support from Church schools, and nationalised parochial school premises. Only late in the century, when it found itself seriously threatened by revolutionary Socialist movements, did Continental Liberalism mute its intolerance towards Christianity; and even so, it was not until 1905 that the last notable drive against the Church by a Liberal government in a major European country was launched; the nation in question being France.2

Associated closely with, and providing the intellectual sustenance for, the Liberal political movements, were a variety of related literary and philosophical schools, among them rationalism, ‘scientism’, and religious Modernism. Thus, in addition to political harassment, the Church in the nineteenth century had to endure wholesale attacks on its intellectual and cultural foundations.

The initial reaction of Rome to this situation was one of extreme defensiveness. Popes Pius VII (1800-23), Leo XII (1823-29), Pius VIII (1829- 30), and Gregory XVI (1831-46) were all staunch upholders of the Metternich system. Pope Pius IX (1846-78) began his pontificate in a liberal mood, but after being forced to flee Rome during the 1848 Revolution, he became an uncompromising conservative. In his famous Syllabus of Errors (1864) he listed most of the major tenets of contemporary Liberalism, and condemned the proposition that the Church should accommodate itself to all or any of these. He thus dissociated the Church entirely from the social thinking of the age; and in so doing caused considerable consternation among those Catholic intellectuals, bishops, priests and laymen, who viewed Liberalism not as a totality, but as a conglomerate of distinct elements, and who were seeking to construct a Christian social synthesis which would incorporate the best of these elements:

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to regard the pontificates of Pius IX and his immediate predecessors as being entirely disastrous for the Church. These years also witnessed a great missionary upsurge; the Oxford Movement conversions in England; the expansion of Irish Catholicism to America and Australasia; an unprecedented multiplication of teaching orders of priests, brothers and nuns; and a remarkable consolidation of the religious authority and prestige of the Papacy, culminating in the 1870 definition of Papal Infallibility. By 1850 no sign remained of the flabbiness and anti-centralist tendencies which had ebbed the vitality of the Church during the eighteenth century. However, it was above all the re-emphasising of the Papal supremacy which, during the reign of Pius’ successor, Leo XIII, enabled a momentous advance in official Catholic social thinking to occur, and to take hold throughout the Church.

Pope Leo XUI (1878-1903), unlike Pius IX, was both an accomplished diplomat and a rigorous intellectual. From the beginning of his pontificate he worked incessantly to determine how the Church, while developing in a manner consonant with its basic principles, could relate positively to the conditions, institutions and movements of the new age. As a first step in this process of re-assessment he sponsored a Church-wide revival of Thomistic studies, seeing in the Natural Law philosophy of Thomas Aquinas the only viable conceptual framework from which a comprehensive system of Christian social ethics could be evolved. In the more immediate context, he found his inspiration and guidance in the school of German Catholic social thought which had been effectively begun in 1848 by Father (later Bishop) Emmanuel von Ketteler. Leo’s social philosophy was propagated as the official teaching of the Church through a succession of Encyclicals, the most far-reaching and famous of which was Rerum Novarum – ‘On the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour’ (1891).

Rerum Novarum, like all statements of Catholic social principles, proceeded from certain fundamental assumptions about the nature of man and society. God had made the world, was the ultimate source of all rights and duties, and was the rightful object of man’s earthly endeavours. He had ordained, for man’s good, an ideal order of life, which man, despite the Fall, could perceive in progressive degrees through reason; and only if, and insofar as, men and societies recognised and approximated to this ideal order would true individual happiness and communal harmony on earth be attained.

The Encyclical asserted that man was naturally sociable, and that the family was the basic social unit. Being ‘antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of man into community5, the family had ‘rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature’ (article 13).3 The father had the right to maintain his family, to provide a secure environment for his children, and to supervise their education and upbringing (arts. 13-14).

The State, regardless of its form of government, acquired its authority from God (vide Romans 13:1-7), and a political system could be regarded as legitimate if it was ‘conformable in its institutions to right reason and natural law’ (art. 32). A government, however, should perform only those functions necessary for the general good which lesser social organisms could not effectively perform.4

Every man had the right to private property, although not necessarily to its unregulated use.

The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether (art. 47).

Ownership of land was particularly accordant with man’s nature, as ‘he makes his own that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates – that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality’ (art. 9). The law ‘should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners’ (art. 46).

Socialism, the ideology which maintained that the State should appropriate to itself all the means of production, distribution and exchange, was unjust, unrealistic, and debasing. It ‘would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community’ (art. 4). It would leave men, like brutes, dependent for their whole welfare on forces beyond their control; and it denied them the degree of independence which was necessary to the realisation of their human dignity, and which property-ownership alone could provide (art. 6). It cultivated illusions of a future world of utopian equality, and ignored the fact that inequality ‘in capacity, skill, health, strength’ was an ineradicable feature of human life. Where it incited class warfare, it destroyed the harmony which should exist between capital and labour, and threatened to propel mankind into ‘confusion and savage barbarity’ (art. 19). Its ‘lying promises’ would ‘one day bring forth evils worse than the present’ (art. 18).

Employers were duty-bound to be just in their dealings with their workers, and to help safeguard the workers’ material and spiritual welfare. Defrauding an employee was ‘a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven’ (art. 20). The worker was entitled to a just wage, sufficient for him not merely to sustain himself and his family in reasonable comfort, but to ‘put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income’ (art. 46).

The workman, furthermore, had a right to join associations to advance his economic interests (arts. 45, 49); and if by such means he was unable to secure his entitlements as an employee, then he could licitly call on the State to intervene to ensure that justice obtained (art. 45).

The Encyclical encouraged the formation of trade unions, co-operative organisations, benevolent societies, and in particular vocational corporations akin to the medieval Guilds, wherein employers and employees would be united in furtherance of their mutual interests (arts. 48-60). The State was not entitled to interfere with such private associations except insofar as good order demanded, ‘for both they and it exist in virtue of the like principle, namely, the natural tendency of men to dwell in society’ (art. 51).

Rerum Novarum was to have a more profound effect on Catholic thinking than perhaps any other papal document in history. Intellectual remedies, however, were not of themselves sufficient to restore Christian values to an increasingly pagan Europe. To reach the masses, organisational means were required; and thus in the second half of the nineteenth century the parishes and the religious orders, hitherto the Church’s primary means of spreading its message, were supplemented by a vastly expanded network of Catholic schools, and by a new institutional phenomenon — the mass lay association.

The organisation of the laity to help defend the Church’s interests, maintain its solidarity, or extend its social influence, occurred initially in a spontaneous fashion in many parts of Europe. The most prolific activity took place in Germany, where, from 1848, the ‘year of Revolutions’, Catholic workers’ associations and rural alliances, Catholic electoral associations, Catholic educational and recreational societies, and regular Catholic Conventions, became common features of Church life. At the forefront of the overall movement was Bishop von Ketteler of Mainz. After the completion of German unification in 1870, the highly effective Catholic political party, the Centrum, was established. In Belgium, Holland and Switzerland, Catholic political and industrial groupings were in evidence from the 1840s.5 In France the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, an organisation of social relief, was founded in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam, a Sorbonne academic and peripheral member of the ill-fated liberal Catholic circle which had grown about the Abbe de Lamennais. In the 1870s Albert de Mun and the Marquis of La Tour du Pin founded a Workmen’s Club movemem; and in 1886 de Mun established the Association Catholique de la Jeunesse Francaise, a study group movement.6

In Italy the development of any kind of Catholic political alliance was prevented by the Papal policy of non-recognition of the newly-formed nation. This policy had been introduced as a standing protest against the Piedmontese-Sardinian invasion and annexation of the Papal States, including Rome itself, which had constituted the final stage of Italian unification. Since Catholics were forbidden by the Church either to vote or to stand for parliament, the Church in Italy, if it wished to exert a social influence, had to find non-political means of doing so. From 1874 regular Catholic Congresses were held, and from these sprang various associations to spread Catholic literature and newspapers, or to do charitable work. In 1881 a formal co-ordinating body was established in the Opera dei Congressi e dei Comitati Cattolica or Congress Movement. Sub-sections of the Opera dealt with Catholic education, charity, the press, culture, and economic problems. An affiliated ‘Catholic Union for Social Studies’, founded in 1889, helped institute Catholic banks, Mutual Help societies, co-operatives, insurance societies, rural associations, and housing schemes.7

Out of the Opera dei Congressi and the general Italian situation there emerged the conception of a unique kind of lay movement which came to be known as Catholic Action. The term was first put into official usage in Leo XIII’s 1898 Encyclical Spense Volte, but the theory was only developed extensively during the pontificate of Leo’s successor, Pius X (1903-14), receiving its most important early enunciation in the Encyclical Il Fermo Proposito (1905). ‘Catholic Action’ became a technical term applying only to a special type of lay association with a formal mandate from the Hierarchy to function as a Catholic Action body. Such associations were to operate under the direct pastoral authority of the bishops, who could use them to assist with any kind of religious work. Other lay organisations, by contrast, such as Catholic charitable, political or sporting bodies, had the right to direct their own affairs, and were subject only to the ordinary teaching authority of the bishops – i.e., to the (negative) right of the episcopacy to prevent Catholics or Catholic associations from propagating views on faith or morals contrary to those of the Church.

Being part of the Church’s formal structure, Catholic Action bodies were forbidden to engage in political or pressure-group activity. They were, however, given the special charge of cultivating a sense of Christian social mission. Those whom they educated in the Church’s social principles were expected to apply these autonomously in their ordinary lives, and in their political, economic and social deliberations and actions. Thus Catholic Action, while itself remaining strictly within the realm of God, was designed to mobilise well-trained lay forces on the borders of Caesar’s realm, and to send them forth to function as independent Catholic activists in the secular world. Catholic Action was defined as ‘The participation of the laity in the apostolic mission of the Hierarchy’; and its motto, derived from Ephesians 1:10, was ‘To restore all things in Christ’.

In Italy the Opera del Congressi, crippled by internal factionalism, was dissolved by Papal decree in 1904, and in 1906 it was succeeded by a loose federation of formal Catholic Action movements. In keeping with the strongly authority-centred ecclesiastical policies of Pius X, Italian Catholic Action from this point onwards was decentralised and kept firmly under the control of the individual bishops in their various dioceses. Re-organisations in 1915 and 1923 provided for greater centralisation and cohesion, but the parish and the diocese remained the basic units of the movement.8

From Italy, Catholic Action spread throughout Europe, taking different forms in different nations. The most notable variation from the Italian scheme was the Belgian-French, which owed its distinctive structure and methods to a Belgian priest, Canon (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn, who shortly before the First World War began forming circles based not merely on parishes but on occupational groupings among parishioners. From these grew the movement which eventually took the name of Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne (Christian Working-Class Youth).

Cardijn developed his scheme on the principle that in modem conditions the ordinary man did not find his primary source of identity and interest within the parish, but in his employment and his economic class. If the Church were to realise its ambition to extend its influence to the alienated industrial proletariat, it needed to have cells of trained, militant Catholic workers operating in factories, workshops, and working-class suburbs. In this way a Christian influence would gradually permeate modem society, from the bottom upwards. In Cardijn’s group meetings Catholic social principles were not merely discussed in the abstract, but were related to the concrete problems and situations which the members encountered in their everyday lives.

Initially the main Belgian Catholic Action body was not Cardijn’s small organisation, but the Association Catholique de la Jeunesse Belge, which had been formed at the instigation of Cardinal Mercier in 1912. However, during the post-War years the expansion of the former was so rapid, and its methods proved so popular, that in 1924 it was induced to merge with the larger association, and subsequently its technique became standard throughout the ACJB, The same period also saw the J.O.C. (or ‘Jocist’) theory and methods being adopted by the French A.C.J.F. In 1927, in a Papal message to an A.C.J.B. Conference at Liege, the J.O.C. was singled out for special praise.9

During the pontificate of Pope Pius XI (1922-39) Catholic Action was emphasised as never before. No longer was Liberalism the dominant threat to the Church; instead, totalitarian Communism, Nazism and Fascism vied for the allegiance of the European masses. From Rome there issued a stream of Encyclicals dealing with the problems of the times, the most important of them being Quadragesimo Anno (1931), which reaffirmed and extended the social principles propounded by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum.

Time and again, the Pope called the Catholics of the world to a massive campaign of Catholic Action, Only by this means, he insisted, could the West be secured against the encroachments of a new age at barbarism.

In the English-speaking nations in the inter-war years a further factor was contributing to the growth of Catholic vitality, in the English Catholic Literary Revival, A long-term extension of the Catholic upsurge which had begun in the 1830s with the Oxford Movement, this Revival carried into the popular culture much of the vision and conviction which had been propagated at a more exclusively scholarly level by Newman, Ward, and their associates. At its forefront was the partnership of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, humorist, journalist and prose-writer, a master of the paradox and the aphorism; and Hilaire Belloc, historian, sociologist, poet, critic, and parliamentarian. While Chesterton sought to turn the laugh against Voltaire, Belloc strove to destroy the orthodoxies of secularist historiography.

In the wake of these two came, among others, the popular theologian Father Ronald Knox; the historians Christopher Dawson and C. C. Martindale, S.J.; and the publicists Arnold Lunn, Owen Dudley, Halliday Sutherland, Christopher Hollis, and Douglas Woodruff. Corresponding with this English Revival was a European Catholic literary resurgence, leading figures of which were the Norwegian Sigrid Undset; the Germans Wust and Adam; the Italian Fanfani; and the Frenchmen Huysmans, Peguy, Gheon, Barres, Mauriac, Maritain, and Gilson. Many of the works of these writers were published in English translations, mostly by the Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward.

It is evident, then, that by 1929 the position of the Catholic Church in relation to modem society was much more assured than it had been a half-century before. In the new Catholic social synthesis, in the militant lay associations, and above all in Catholic Action, the Church had found viable intellectual and organisational means with which to meet the major social challenges of the age. In the English-speaking world a further source of strength and confidence existed in the Catholic Literary Revival. Thus when the onslaught of the ’thirties struck the West, it encountered in the Universal Church a power no longer weak and disorientated, but poised and ready to meet whatever new problems the era should generate.

1For a concise account of the conflicts of the period, see Philip Hughes, A Short History of the Catholic Church (London, 1967), Ch. 8.

2See Michael P. Fogarty, Christian Democracy in Western Europe 1820-1953 (London, 1957), passim.

3I am here quoting from the translation of Rerum Novarum in Etienne Gilson (ed.), The Church Speaks to the Modern World: The Social Teachings of Leo XIII (New York, 1961).

4This principle, subsequently known as the ‘principle of subsidiarity’, is assumed but not stated in Rerum Novarum. It is more explicitly dealt with in Quadragesimo Anno (1931).

5See Michael P. Fogarty, op. cit.

6See Rev. J. Fitzsimons, ‘Catholic Action in France’, in John Fitzsimons and Paul McGuire (ed.), Restoring All Things: A Guide to Catholic Action (London, 1939).

7See Rev. J. Carroll-Abbing, ‘Catholic Action in Italy’, in Fitzsimons and McGuire, op. cit.


9See Rev. J. Fitzsimons, ‘Catholic Action in Belgium’, in Fitzsimons and McGuire, op. cit.