A Tale of Two Popes

In 1905, St. Pius X issued the encyclical, Il Fermo proposito, an encyclical that reminded lay Catholics of the need for Catholic values in farming, in economics, in all aspects of society, and of the consequent need for action to bring this about. He stated: “All of these works, in which the principal promoters and supporters are lay catholics, and in which the conception changes according to the needs of each nation and the particular circumstances of each country, constitutes precisely what one has come to refer to by the special and most noble name of Catholic Action, or the action of Catholics.”

It is beyond question that the pope is calling for Catholics to impregnate all aspects of temporal society with Catholic values, according to the circumstances of any given situation. It is also evident that this task is essentially the work of the laity. It is for this reason that the pope uses the term “principle promoters and supporters,” for thereby he opens out the field of action to the laity, but conserves at the same time the indirect jurisdiction of the clergy: this is plain, for the use of the term “principle” necessarily implies a secondary component. By way of emphasising the leading role of the laity, St. Pius X adds this note of caution for the benefit primarily of the clergy: “He ought not therefore to join any association of this kind except after mature consideration, with the approval of his bishop, and in those cases only where his assistance is safe from danger and is evidently useful.”

From this we conclude:

a) Catholic Action is concerned with the temporal order only.
b) It is pre-eminently the preserve of the laity.
c) The priestly role is very restricted and defined.
d) It is in perfect accord with the doctrine of the Two Swords.

However, writing to Cardinal Segura in 1928, Pius XI states: “those who undertake Catholic Action are called to that office by a very particular grace and that vocation is not far removed from the sacerdotal mission, since Catholic Action is in short nothing else but the apostolate of the faithful bringing their collaboration to the Church under the ministry.”

Again, in a letter to Cardinal Bertram on 13th November, 1928, he writes: “that Catholic Action is nothing other than the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” In the same letter he adds that: “Catholic Action will never be of a material order, but spiritual; never of a worldly order, but celestial; never political, but religious.”

What do we conclude from these definitions?

a) Catholic Action is concerned only with the spiritual order.
b) It is pre-eminently the preserve of the clergy.
c) The role of the laity is delimited and subordinate.
d) It is in accord with the doctrine of the Two Swords.

The problem, however, is that the definitions of Popes Pius X and XI of Catholic Action are almost completely opposed to one another. Either Pius XI has redefined Catholic Action to mean something wholly different from that of his predecessor, or we are dealing with two distinct types of activity which have had the same name applied to them. However you look at it, there is a profound confusion, or source of confusion, here on the question of Catholic Action. This ought to be evident to the alert reader, for if Catholic Action is purely spiritual, as Pius XI has stated, then Pius X’s note of caution to the clergy cited above makes absolutely no sense. It would have to mean that priests could only get involved in a spiritual apostolate after deep reflection, the consent of the bishop, and then only where there was an evident use and advantage. In other words a warning concerning the very field for which they were ordained! It is surely obvious that Pius X’s note of caution could only have been directed at clergy, so as to prevent their immersion – through excess of zeal, or a lack of discernment, or ambition – in a field that belongs of divine right primarily to the laity.

Of course, if things had remained static in this position, it would have been wholly possible to give the activity conceived of by Pius X one name, and that of Pius XI another. Unfortunately, Pius XI merely adds confusion to the matter by gently widening out his definition of Catholic Action. For example, he says: “Catholic Action is the participation of the laity in the hierarchic apostolate, for the defence of religious and moral principles, for the development of a healthy and beneficent social action, under the guidance of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, above and beyond all political parties, so as to establish Catholic life in the family and in society.”

What should strike readers is the reference to “a beneficent social action” in what is supposed to be a definition of a purely spiritual apostolate. It is a curious, out of place, statement but you might be able with thought to explain it away satisfactorily. But if “Catholic Action is never political,” as Pius XI says, what need is there to say that Catholic Action “is above all political parties”? If something is purely spiritual, it is superfluous to say that it is above party politics; indeed it is wholly irrelevant.

There is here an unsettling ambivalence which is merely confirmed by the following: “Catholic Action also consists of a true apostolate in which Catholics of every social class participate, coming thus to be united in thought and action around those centres of sound doctrine and multiple social activity, legitimately constituted, and as a result, aided and sustained by the authority of the bishops.” What does this reference to “multiple social activity” mean or imply? To be consistent with his first definitions, should not the pope have referred to ‘multiple spiritual activity’ so as to preserve the spiritual framework of Catholic Action?

Or again, in a letter to Cardinal Cerejeira: “Included in the many forms of activity [of Catholic Action] there are some particularly urgent works, corresponding to needs that are more widely and more keenly felt. Amongst these we enumerate help for the working classes, and we mean not only spiritual help, which must occupy the first place, but material assistance by means of those institutions whose special object it is to realise the principles of justice.” Does this not contradict the statement that: “Catholic Action will never be of the material order”? There is, of course, no objection to the notion of helping our fellow man in need, far from it. But why should this be undertaken in subordination to the hierarchy, and on what grounds?

Let’s look at one final quotation: “We would remark, in order to forestall and destroy any misunderstanding, that associations which, while conforming their activity to the religious and moral programme of Catholic Action, employ this activity in the economic and professional domain, do alone themselves bear the responsibility of their initiative and activity in so far as they are concerned with purely economic interests, but in what is religious and moral they depend on Catholic Action, which they should serve as instruments of the apostolate.”

Several comments come to mind. First, if Catholic Action is clearly and obviously spiritual, what possible misunderstanding could arise? Secondly, Pius XI’s assertion that the economic and professional activity of Catholics is a matter for themselves alone is perfectly obvious, but what has it got to do with Catholic Action? It is like saying that a Catholic mechanic is alone responsible for his affairs – but what connection is there between this and this apostolate of Catholic Action which is supposed to be purely spiritual?

The only satisfactory answer is that Pius XI’s Catholic Action goes beyond the purely spiritual. Once this is understood, it explains the apparently curious references to the social and economic; it explains why Pius XI saw the need to forestall ‘misunderstandings’; and it explains perfectly why the Italian Fascist government accused Catholic Action of being a political organisation.

It is for this reason that we conclude from Pius XI’s several definitions that:

a) Catholic Action is concerned with the temporal and spiritual orders.
b) It is pre-eminently the preserve of the clergy.
c) The role of the laity is delimited and subordinate.
d) It appears to disagree fundamentally with the doctrine of the Two Swords.

It is obvious that there is a distortion of the doctrine of the Two Swords here, for once you accept that Pius XI’s Catholic Action was not purely spiritual, you have to accept that the governance of the social, economic and professional activity of Catholics – no matter how vaguely carried out, no matter how well-meaning, and with no value judgement being made on the activity – by the clergy is not in accord with Church teaching. It is the illegal seizure of power; it is an infringement of the rights of the laity, rights granted by Almighty God.

This conclusion also explains something else of importance. Why is it that orthodox Catholics in France, Spain and Italy of a particular generation remark that ‘Catholic Action was left-wing’ or that ‘it opened the doors of the Church to the Left’? How could a purely spiritual activity become left-wing? Has anyone ever suggested that rosary crusades, sodalities or Blessed Sacrament confraternities became left-wing? No. Yet these too are purely spiritual activities. Surely the reason for this lies in the fact that there was no point of entry for subversion in such societies until the quasi-totality of the Church moved consciously or otherwise into the field of Modernism. But the point of entry in Catholic Action was its extension to fields social and economic – and its successful penetration was due to the fact that it was all done in the name of obedience to the hierarchy!

This confusion, created by Pius XI, has blurred in a very serious manner the traditional concept of the Two Swords. Thus, for example, we find in reply to the question: “Can the Church be concerned with politics?” that Cardinal Verdier says: “It is not Her business to become involved in purely political questions; for example, in the question of what form of government a country adopts, it is not the Church’s business to become involved in the purely political arrangements a country may make for the regulation of its domestic or foreign affairs. The settlement of these matters belongs exclusively to Caesar.” This is, of course, perfectly true and traditional, yet in response to a later question: “Is a citizen obliged to vote?”, he replies: “We must say that it is every citizen’s duty to vote”. Is it not clear that the Cardinal’s reply constitutes an interference in “the political arrangements that a country may make”? What if the citizen is opposed to Liberal Democracy per se? What if there are no candidates that can be voted for in all tranquility? This certainly occurs very frequently these days with the rise of Masonic, abortionist and pro-usury parties.

Now, consider the slim volume authored by Benoit Carret, and in which he discussed the work undertaken by an association founded by Abbe Linsolas in 1788, and which arranged for young women to visit prisoners; visit and instruct the sick in the Faith; catechise the young and prepare First Communicants. Mr. Carret concludes: “It was clearly, as we can see, a movement of Catholic Action in the sense that we now understand it; that is to say, a collaboration by the laity in the apostolate of the priesthood in an organised movement.” It seems to this author that this is not Catholic Action as defined by Pius X, but rather the participation of the laity, by delegation, in the spiritual sphere; all of the works cited are clearly works that pertain to the spiritual power of the priests. What is being objected to here is not the formation of lay groups to aid the priests fulfill their priestly functions – it is obvious that helping prepare the church for Mass; participating in the choir; catechism; cleaning the church and so forth are both acceptable and commendable – but rather to designate such assistance as ‘Catholic Action’. Catholic Action involves that order where the principal authority is the laity, and by no stretch of the imagination can the commendable work initiated by Abbe Linsolas be seen as the prerogative primarily of the laity. Indeed, it appears that Mr. Carret is conscious to some degree of this confusion on this matter since he writes: “Pius XI has therefore, in the facts, really weakened that activity pertaining to lay Catholics which is political and social. Pius XI encouraged lay Catholics to put aside temporal action so as to consecrate themselves to purely spiritual activity. He thereby left open the field of temporal combat.”

It is plain, therefore, that we must admit to an irreconcilable contradiction between the Catholic Action advocated by Pius X, and the creation wrought of the same name by Pius XI. It is equally evident that Tradition is obliged to identify resolutely which of the two papal definitions of Catholic Action conforms to Tradition; and to initiate actions that logically result from the chosen definition. To remain undecided, or to ignore this reality, is merely to perpetuate confusion amongst priests and laity with attendant destructive tendencies.

From what has been said above, it is evident that it is Pius XI who has deformed the traditional teaching on the Two Swords. To acknowledge this fact is not to cast him in the role of a Modernist or Judas, nor to esoteric speculation on the possible influence of Freemasonry. It is simply to recognise a mistake. As Jesus Himself said: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, nor a bad tree bring forth sound fruit. Every tree that doth not bring forth sound fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. By their fruits, then, ye shall know them.”

In deciding between the two definitions, we need firstly to look at the persons of Pius X and Pius XI. The first is the last canonised pope since St. Pius V; in other words there was a time lapse of more than three centuries between these two saintly popes, making Pius X a remarkable pope amongst popes. The value of this fact is not to be underrated, for it is an uncontested fact that his papacy wrought only good; this is not to say that it achieved everything necessary, but simply to assert that all of his actions took place in the right direction. The fruits, therefore, were good. But what of the fruits of the papacy of Pius XI?

In dealing with the definitions cited above, some readers might have thought that the line of argument was tendentious at times, believing that whilst there were peculiarities of expression they were of no great import. Yet we need to remember that as we believe, so we act – not necessarily in every respect, but in a general way. Now, with very little reflection we can ascertain that Pius XI’s reign encompassed three major disasters for the Catholic Church and for Her people in those countries. One could put them down to mistakes, since we all make mistakes, but there is a case to be made for saying that each of the three mistaken actions are a consequence of mistaken theology in respect of Catholic Action.

The first disaster was the unjust condemnation of Action Francaise which saved the Masonic French Republic from being overwhelmed by resurgent Catholicism. The second was the silencing of Father Charles Coughlin, the Irish-Canadian ‘Radio Priest’, whose powerful weekly broadcasts and his massive National Union For Social Justice directly threatened the hold of Freemasonry and the Banks on the American Republic. Allying Catholics with Bible protestants, he created a movement that knocked at the very door of power in Washington. The response of the Freemasons was to appeal to Rome, and the Vatican silenced this gallant priest who was carrying out Catholic Action according to St. Pius X’s definition. The loss to the American people, and thereby the world, was incalculable. The third was the blasphemous betrayal of the Mexican Cristeros, the fighters for the Social Kingship of Christ, who were delivered into the hands of the Masonic Mexican government. Whilst it is said that Pius XI wept at the results reaped by what were called ‘the arrangements’, how much more did Mexico weep when 200,000 of her sons were butchered by the Masons, after laying down their weapons at the command of Rome? A human and religious catastrophe could have been avoided if the doctrine of the Two Swords had been known and understood by Rome and the Mexican Cristeros peasants.

These three examples alone demonstrate conclusively that God has not granted the priesthood an omnicompetence that embraces the social order. It can, of course, be argued in defence of Pius XI that he was quite likely manipulated by hostile forces within the Vatican, but this does not alter the fact that if he had grasped the Two Swords doctrine properly, he would have stayed out of areas that did not concern him as Pontifex Maximus, and would thereby have made this manipulation impossible. We might also add, by way of illumination from another perspective, that in the negotiations between the Vatican and Dr. Antonio Salazar of Portugal about a concordat, the claims of Pius XI were such that Dr. Salazar felt obliged to resist them, pointing out that the State too, as a perfect society, possessed rights, and that it was his duty as Head of State to preserve them in its relations with the Church. Be it remembered that Salazar was no despot or opportunist, but a statesman of profound culture and immense faith, and one, moreover, who knew the theory and the practise of the Two Swords doctrine. That he felt obliged to resist Rome on such a question throws an interesting light upon the thought processes of Pius XI.

What traditionalists must grasp, after all is said and done, is this: whilst confusion on this matter is allowed to continue, the door remains open to further such disasters, misunderstandings and rejections, both great and small.