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Catholic Action


A term used to designate both a concept and an organization of laity, and having a variety of meanings depending upon the decade and the region to which reference is made. This article treats (1) the definition of the term, (2) its origins and development, (3) organizational forms of Catholic Action, and (4) its theological significance.

Definition. At one extreme Catholic Action was used to refer to any external action of a Catholic layman

inspired by his faith. This is Catholic Action only in a loose or accommodated sense. At the other extreme, Catholic Action referred only to such actions of lay groups as were so defined, and mandated by the local ordinary. In this sense, the term denotes a tightly structured organization that served as an arm of the hierarchy in lay life. The mandate is essential. Between these extremes were the multiple types of organization which may or may not have been classified as Catholic Action depending upon the concept prevailing in a particular country at a particular time.

This ambiguity of concept became apparent during the pontificate of Pius XII. As late as 1957 he acknowledged "a regrettable and rather widespread uneasiness which arises from the use of the term 'Catholic Action."' The pope proposed "to restore to the term 'Catholic Action' its generic sense and to apply it simply to all organized movements of the lay apostolate recognized as such, nationally or internationally, either by the bishops on a national level or by the Holy See for movements desiring an international status. It would then be sufficient for each movement to be designated by its name and characterized by its specific form, and not by a common term." Further, he suggested an organizational reform: "All groups would belong to Catholic Action and would

preserve their own autonomy, but together they would form, as Catholic Action, a federated unit. Every bishop would remain free to accept or reject a movement, to entrust it or not entrust it with a mandate, but he could not refuse it recognition on the ground that it does not belong to Catholic Action by its nature" [Six ans se sont, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 49 (1957) 92930].

This juridic and hierarchical concept of Catholic Action underwent further refinement after the death of PiusXII. However, John XXIII showed little concern for the tight legal categories of his predecessors. Meanwhile, during the 1950s, the term lay apostolate received wide usage. It offered a practical way of avoiding the problem of definition. It was generic. It could be used to refer to all Catholic lay activity, whether organized or unorganized, episcopally mandated or simply of Christian inspiration, without danger of quibbles over terms or ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Origins and Development. The term "Catholic Action" is a literal translation from the Italian, "Azione Cattolica," a specific national organization or movement. Saint Pius X seems to have been the first pope to use the term, stressing its importance in several encyclicals. Pius XI, however, gave to it its classical definition as "the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the Church's hierarchy." The concept was implicit in the encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 14 (1922) 695] and later the pope remarked that the definition was "delivered after due thought, deliberately, indeed, and one may say not without divine inspiration" (Discourse to Italian Catholic Young Women, L'Osservatore Romano, March 21 to 22, 1927). Through his voluminous writings and addresses, Pius XI gave Catholic Action a charter, a spirit, and an apocalyptic urgency. While he did not deny that the term could be used in a broader sense, he tended throughout his pontificate to restrict it to (1) action or work of the laity, which was (2) organized, (3) apostolic, and (4) done under a special mandate of the bishop. A spate of manuals developed each of these points. Theorists tended to be juridical and pedantic in their discussions, while the priests and laity engaged in the work of Catholic Action developed their organized activities with less rigidity as a consequence of their encounter with the needs of the world. The most outstanding practitioner was Canon Joseph cardijn of Belgium, whose work Pius XI regarded as a model of Catholic Action and whom Paul VI elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1965.

Cardinal Saliège, archbishop of Toulouse, less concerned with theory than with contemporary conditions of life that many found unworthy of human beings, viewed Catholic Action in terms of institutional change, having for its task "to modify social pressure, to direct it, to make it favorable to the spread of the Christian life, to let the Christian life create a climate, an atmosphere in which men can develop their human qualities, can lead a really human life, an atmosphere in which the Christian can breathe easily and stay a Christian." It would, he said, "lift up the mass, not a couple of individuals; the mass, prompted and set in motion by a natural leader chosen from the mass and remaining part of the mass" [Documentation catholique 42 (1945) 266].

Organization. Each country gave to Catholic Action specific and varied forms. Italian Catholic Action and Belgian jocism are probably the polar types. The former, which had its origins in movements beginning as early as 1863, was intended to overcome open hostility to the Church. Six divisions were organized, for men, women, young men, young women, male students at universities, and female students. It was viewed at times by the Italian government as a political threat and was defended by Pius XI in a concordat and an encyclical, Non abbiamo bisogno (1931). Its main concerns were to establish better relations between the Church and the government and to revive Catholic practice among the negligent. Jocism, on the other hand, was concerned with changing or Christianizing economic and social institutions through a technique expressed in the formula, "see, judge, act," applied in small groups in a specialized or like-to-like apostolate.

Between the extremes of the monolithic Italian structure and the specialized forms there developed many movements directed to specific tasks such as the teaching of religion or the amelioration of conditions in a single area, e.g., motion pictures, literature, or the labor movement. In the United States there are, on the one hand, the highly centralized National Councils of Catholic Men and Women and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine that are professedly the arm of the bishop in each diocese. On the other are activities of such diverse groups as the Christian Family Movement, the Sodality, Serra International, Labor Guilds, Catholic Interfacial Councils, and study clubs that, while usually not mandated by the local bishop, nevertheless exist with his approval. This variety of organizations, methods, and objectives compounded the confusion of those struggling with the concept of Catholic Action.

Theological Significance. Pius XI claimed that Catholic Action had its origins in the New Testament. Saint Paul, for example, referred to his lay helpers who "have toiled with me in the gospel" (Phil 4.3). Although social conditions in an industrial society call for different approaches to the world and new forms of collaboration between clergy and laity, Pius XI saw the layman essentially as an extension of the priest. He wrote that, "especially in our times, when the integrity of the faith and of morals is daily approaching a more dangerous crisis, and when we lament such a scarcity of priests that they seem to have proven unequal to caring for the necessities of souls, more reliance must be placed on Catholic Action" [Quae Nobis, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 20 (1928) 38485]. It was his genius to see that the layman's life in the world must be related in a dynamic way to the mission of the Church. Catholic Action, he insisted, "is also social action, because it promotes the supreme good of society, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. It is not unmindful of the great problems which vex society and which are reflected in the religious and moral order, but under the guidance of the hierarchy, it studies them and proposes to solve them according to the principles of justice and Christian charity" [Con singular complacencia, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 34(1942) 256]. The "Pope of Catholic Action" also developed the theology of the priesthood through his many references to the priest as "the soul of Catholic Action."

The concept that a hierarchical mandate was necessary for Catholic Action was questioned anew by the developing theology of the laity. In the militant language of Catholic Action, in the sense of Pius XI, the layman may have been said to receive his commission from his bishop. If his role was to act as a soldier whose chief virtue was obedience rather than initiative, there was no difficulty. If, on the contrary, the mark of the authentic layman was a spirit of discovery and autonomy in lay life, issuing from competence based upon the development of his natural talents, it is difficult to see how his ministry could have been conceived as an extension of the clerical or hierarchical Church.

Catholic Action as a movement or a theological concept was laid to rest by Vatican II. The Catholic Action movements were a successful accommodation or bridge between an ecclesiology that rooted all ministry of the Church in the hierarchy and a growing awareness of the gifts of each person to the world as a witness to the gospel. The major vatican II documents, on the Church, Lumen gentium, and on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes, witness the shift by omitting even any reference to Catholic Action. The shift can be found especially in chapter 4 of Lumen gentium.

Bibliography: j. newman, What Is Catholic Action? (Dublin 1958). l. mathias, Catholic Action, Theory and Practice (Madras 1952). j. fitzsimons and p. mcguire, eds., Restoring All Things: A Guide to Catholic Action (New York 1938). w. ferree, Introduction to Catholic Action (Washington 1942). t. m. hesburgh, The Theology of Catholic Action (Notre Dame, Ind. 1946).

[d. j. geaney]

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