A Study of Catholic Action

From the Irish Press, September 20th, 1958:

by Rev. Kevin Smith, S.J.

“CATHOLIC ACTION” at once reminds us older folk of a famous flare-up between the late Pope Pius XI and Mussolini in 1931, only two years after the signing of the Lateran Pacts which ended the long cold war between the Vatican and the Italian State.

In one of the most vigorous of his encyclicals, Non Abbiamo Bisogno, Pius XI denounced the campaign launched by the Fascists against the Catholic youth organisations of the Italian Catholic Action.The breach between Fascism and Catholicism, thus revealed to a startled world, was all the more astonishing because the Concordat of 1929 had established “Catholic Action” as a legitimate function of Catholic life. What had Catholic Action done in two years to provoke the hostility of the Dictator?

There was certainly nothing objectionable in the definition of “Catholic Action” laid down in the Concordat. The definition comprised four points: a form of lay apostolate: under the direction of the Hierarchy: above and outside party politics: intent only on the discussion and propaganda of Catholic principles.


The Fascists however claimed that the definition, and the organisation which it covered, were only screens for a movement subversive of the Fascist State. They even accused Catholic Action of being the refuge of the leaders of the old political “Popular Party,” and went into action by commandeering the meeting-places of the Catholic Youth and finally dissolving their associations.

The real issue was put plainly by Mussolini in a speech of the same year: “The child, as soon as it is able to learn, belongs to the State and to the State alone.”

This however was more than he was prepared to stand over, and after long negotiations, the Catholic youth associations were restored — through forbidden to play football. They were to restrict themselves to “recreational and educational activities having a religious purpose.” The nation-wide organisation of Catholic Action survived Fascism, to form a bulwark against the great Communist threat in post-war Italy.

According to a special correspondent of the London “Times”, much of the hard work and agitation against Communism is left to the quiet but insistent efforts of Catholic Action.

Thus Catholic Action always seems to be involved in some political issue. In Belgium and in Holland there are strong Catholic political parties: Christian Trade Unions, there as in France and Germany. Catholic professional organisations impinge on all elements of social activity.

In France the “lay apostolate” took the strange and, as it proved, unworkable form of the “Worker Priests” who took jobs in factories and lived in tenements with their fellow-workers. Some went so far in France, home of freak fancies as much as Oxford is the home of lost causes, as to maintain that all purely religious and apostolic activity should be practically suspended till a radical solution was worked out for social ills. Nation-wide organizations of Catholic Action were viewed with suspicion in many quarters, as being an effort to provide the Church with another sort of “secular arm.”

But in spite of all the difficulties, the notion of Catholic Action could not be abandoned, as it was simply the demand that the layman should recognise that he had not done his full duty if he merely concentrated on saving his own soul and left all apostolic work to the priest.

The new elements, introduced particularly by Pope Pius XI, were simply that such apostolate should be organised and united in some way, and to some extent given a mandate by the Hierarchy.

It is with these perennial principles and needs that Dr. Newman’s book is concerned.


Avoiding as far as possible the rough and tumble of the history of Catholic Action, Fr. Newman traces the development of the theory behind it from the earliest outlines in the encyclicals of Leo XIII, to the various modifications which have been envisaged by the competent spokesmen of the post-war period.

His opening chapter on the meaning and importance of the lay apostolate, lays the foundation for an understanding of the primarily religious role of Catholic Action.

Catholic Action is a complex and delicate subject. As Mgr. Leon-Joseph Suenens, Auxiliary Bishop of Malines, says in the Preface which he wrote for the book: “These pages bring out the complexity while at the same time indicating the broad lines of the subject and opening up safe avenues of investigation. They will help the laity to understand better the beauty of an apostolic vocation so closely linked to the mission of the Hierarchy”.

Christian Trade Unions, Catholic political parties, where they exist, are not Catholic Action. Their objects are strictly temporal welfare, the means they take, while conforming to Christian principles, are not within the direct scope of Church teaching.

They demand “a competence and experience of the relevant economic factors that is normally possessed only by the laymen.” Such judicious remarks will recommend the book to all who are fearful of undue “clericalism” and will give matter for thought to those who wonder if there is enough Catholic Action in our own country.


Posted on December 12, 2010, in Irish Church-State Relations, Irish History, Media Archives, Vocationalism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hello Shane,

    yes, the turbulent relationship between Azione Cattolica and Fascism is well known and widely studied in Italy, even at school.

    The fact is that Azione Cattolica was at that time a big influence in the formation of the youth involved and Fascism, which had its own formation program, didn’t want the Azione Cattolica as competition. When AC was restored, it was with a more clearly defined religious remit rather than, as it had been before, an all-encompassing formation duty and every child, member of AC or not, was expected to enter the Fascist youth organisation “career” (Figlio Della Lupa/Balilla/Giovane Avanguardista/Avanguardista).

    It must also be said that it is widely believed that the Vatican knew the Azione Cattolica would suffer in some way, as its scope was clearly in competition (albeit, I daresay, certainly not in conflict) with Fascism’s educational aims.
    Mussolini wanted to get along with the Church, but everyone knew he wasn’t an easy client at all. I think Pope Pius took the good with the bad; he certainly is not known for changing his mind about Fascism and remained, to put it mildly, supportive to his death.


  2. Thanks Mundabor for that very informative comment. It’s always interesting to get an Italian perspective, especially on this. Can I suggest to you that, whatever about Pius XI, your own sympathies here are quite transparent. 😉

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