Roberto de Mattei
7. In defence of Catholic Action
Em Defesa da Ação Católica,60 with the preface by the Nuncio Benedetto Aloisi Masella and with the imprimatur of the archdiocese of São Paulo, was published in June 1943. It was signed by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira as president of the archdiocesan council of the Catholic Action of São Paulo. The book, divided into five parts, was the first wide-ranging confutation of the progressivist errors spreading within the Catholic Action of Brazil and, by reflection, in the world.
The work was not a treatise destined to offer a general idea of Catholic Action. “It is first of all”, wrote the author in the introduction, “a work to say what Ação Católica is not, what it should not be, what it should not do”.61
1) The first basic problem that the author dealt with was that of the “nature” of Catholic Action. He had written in the Legionário, “As regards Ação Católica there is nothing more important than its juridical nature”.62 The new theories attributed to Pius XI the intention of granting the laity enrolled in Catholic Action a new “mandate” within the Church. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira examined the legal nature of the association in order to demonstrate how the “mandate” granted to Catholic Action by the Pontiff did not alter in any way its juridical essence, which was identical to that of numerous other Catholic groups that came before and after its birth. The appeal of Pius XI to the laity, although grave and solemn, was no different to the invitations addressed to them by the hierarchy throughout history.
In the Church, the Paulista leader points out, the laity have always collaborated with the hierarchy from the earliest times.
“Which Church historian would dare to state that there was a century, a year, a month, a day when the Church renounced asking and using the co-operation of the laity with the Hierarchy? Without speaking about the Crusades, a typical example of militarized Catholic action, most solemnly summoned by the Popes; without speaking about Chivalry and the Orders of Knighthood, where the Church invested the knights of extensive faculties and apostolic roles; without speaking about the numerous believers who, attracted by the Church towards the apostolic associations founded by it, co-operated with the Hierarchy, let us examine other institutions in which our reasoning is particularly founded. Everyone knows that there are many religious orders and congregations in the Church which only accept people without the priestly charism. First and foremost among these are all the female religious institutes, but there are also some male Congregations, for example that of the Marist Brothers. Secondly, there are many religious who are not priests, but who are admitted as coadjutors in the priestly religious orders. One cannot deny without being reckless, that, generally speaking, the members of these orders or congregations have received a vocation from the Holy Spirit.”63
2) A second problem, of similar importance, regarded the nature of the relationship between the laity and the ecclesiastic hierarchy. What is the difference between the mandate given by God to the Hierarchy and the activity carried out by the faithful? Can it be said that Catholic Action as such has a mandate? Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira replied in this way:
“1) Yes, if by mandate we mean a duty of apostolate imposed by the Hierarchy.
“2) No, if by mandate we mean that Catholic Action is in some way an element that integrates the Hierarchy and, thus, is part of the mandate which is direct and immediately imposed by Our Lord on the Hierarchy.”64
If by “mandate” is meant every order legitimately imposed by an authority on a subordinate, then both the Hierarchy and the laity receive it. However, this does not exclude the existence of a fundamental difference of powers granted in one or the other case on the two different subjects. “The Hierarchy received the task to govern from Our Lord. The laity receive from the Hierarchy not functions of government but tasks that are essentially belonging to the subjects”.65 It is at this point that Dr Plinio deals with the delicate problem of the “participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy”, according to the famous definition of Pius XI. In fact he warns seriously of how the new concept of participation and of mandate implies a new “theology of the laity”, that aims at upsetting in the egalitarian sense the actual government structure of the Church.
In this regard Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira has no doubts: “participation”, in the sense given to it by the Pope and, before that by the Magisterium of the Church, is equal to “cooperation”. The “mandate” of Catholic Action does not come directly from God to the faithful, but passes through the Hierarchy. It is the latter that must direct the action of the faithful and therefore also Catholic Action.
“The mission of the faithful consists in fact in exercising, within the mission of the Hierarchy, the role of instrumental collaborators. In other words, the faithful must participate in the hierarchical apostolate as instrumental collaborators.66
“By affirming that Catholic Action is a participation in the hierarchical apostolate, Pius XI wishes to say that it is purely and simply a collaboration, an essentially instrumental activity, whose nature does not at all differ, essentially, from the apostolic task exercised by organizations outside the sphere of Catholic Action and this is an organizationsubordinate, as any and every organization of the faithful”.67
3) The third point dealt with, above all in the remaining part of the book, considered the deviations of Catholic Action with respect to the liturgy, to spirituality and the methods of apostolate and action.
Without entering into the problem of the “dialogued Mass”, which lay outside the subject of his book, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira mentioned the doctrines that distorted the traditional teaching of the Church.
From the point of view of interior life, the Liturgicism that was spreading seemed to involve a “new ascesis”, linked to a specific “grace of state”, belonging to Catholic Action.
According to the new theory, the liturgy would have exercised a mechanical or magic action over the faithful, that would render superfluous every effort at co-operation between man and God.68 The most common devotional practices69 and every effort of will, from the examination of one’s conscience to the practice of the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius, were systematically discouraged, because they were considered to be useless and outdated. The origin of these errors, according to Dr Plinio, was to be found in the spirit of independence and the search for pleasure that would free man from the burden of sacrifices imposed by the work of sanctification. “Having eliminated the spiritual struggle, the life of the Christian appears to them as an uninterrupted series of spiritual pleasures and consolations.”70 Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira recalls the phrase of Leo XIII according to which “the perfection of Christian virtue lies in that disposition of soul which dares all that is arduous or difficult”71 and the words of Pius XI in the letter Magna Equidem of 2 August 1924:
“The unrestrained desire for pleasure, by weakening the strength of the soul and corrupting morals, gradually destroys the conscience of duty. In fact today there is an increasing number of people who, attracted by the pleasures of the world, abhor nothing more strongly, nor avoid anything with greater attention, than the sufferings that arise or the voluntary afflictions of the body or soul and they normally behave, according to the words of the Apostle, as enemies of the Cross of Christ. Now nobody can obtain the eternal beatitude if he does not renounce himself, if he does not pick up his cross and follow Jesus Christ.”72
Together with the spirit of prayer, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira further observes, the apostolic spirit is also required. But this starts with our neighbour and extends, in concentric circles, to those who are furthest away.
“We do not hesitate to affirm that first of all one must desire the sanctification and the perseverance of those that are good; in the second place, the sanctification of Catholics that are far from religious practice; finally, and in the last place, the conversion of those that are not Catholics.”73
The Paulista leader also stressed the importance of the “methods” of apostolate. At a time when the politics of the “outstretched hand” had begun to permeate Catholic circles, he confirmed the heroic and supernatural character of the Catholic apostolate.
“It is necessary to clarify that, if an apostolic language imbued with love and gentleness, on the one hand, and one that instils fear and vibrates with holy energy, on the other hand, are equally just and should both be used in any epoch, it is certain that in certain epochs it is better to emphasize more the austere aspect and the gentle in others. However, this concern would never lead us to the extreme — which would be imbalanced — to only speak of one and to abandon the other. Which is the case today? The ears of contemporary man today are evidently fed up with the exaggerated sweetness, with the accommodating sentimentalism, with the frivolous spirit of prior generations. The great movements of the masses, today, have not been obtained through the mirage of easily obtained ideals. On the contrary, it is in the name of the most radical principles, appealing to the most absolute dedication, pointing out the hardest and steepest paths of heroism, that the principal political leaders have generated enthusiasm in the masses to the point of delirium. The grandeur of our day is precisely in the thirst for the absolute and heroism. Why not satiate this praiseworthy craving with the fearless preaching of the absolute Truth and of the supernaturally heroic morality which is that of Our Lord Jesus Christ?”74
With the term of “white heresy”, he then indicated a sentimental attitude that was demonstrated above all in a certain type of mawkish piety and masked as “charity” towards one’s neighbour.
“Say the truth with charity, make charity a means to arrive at the truth, and do not use charity for any kind of diminution or deformation of reality, nor for obtaining applause, nor for avoiding criticism, nor for vainly attempting to satisfy everyone. Otherwise, through charity you will not arrive at the truth but at error.”75
“Another error consists in hiding or systematically belittling what is evil in heresies, to convince the heretic that the distance that separates him from the Church is small. In the meanwhile, in this way one ends up hiding the malice of the heresy from the faithful and the barriers that separate them from apostasy are opened! This is exactly what will happen with wide-scale or exclusive use of this method.”76
“Try to find common ground? There is a risk of getting bogged down in ambiguity, of favouring those we want to fish from murky waters. Let us not make the strategic retreat, the invariable use of ambiguous terms, and the constant habit of hiding our Faith, a rule of conduct that, in final analysis, brings the triumph of human respect.”77
At the end of the long list of points concerning deviations in the doctrines and mentalities of the circles of Catholic Action, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira concluded: “All these are linked, closely or remotely, to the following principles: a denial of the effects of original sin; the consequent idea of grace as an exclusive factor of spiritual life; and a tendency to disregard authority, in the hope that order will result from free, vital and spontaneous combination of intelligences and wills. The doctrine of the mandate, supported moreover by European authors, many of whom merit consideration for various reasons, found a fertile ground in our environment, producing fruits that many of its authors did nor foresee.”78
In an apparently united and homogeneous religious environment, the book had the effect of a bomb. It contributed to waking up the sleepy majority, and to warn it against the progressivist current, whose insidious manoeuvres were checked. “This book” wrote Bishop Sigaud “was a cry of alarm and a cauterizing iron. A cry of alarm that stopped thousands of faithful from following, in good faith, the errors and excesses of the Liturgical Movement that advanced as an overwhelming wave.”79
“In the history of the Catholic Church” the same prelate commented subsequently “there are books that were graces given by God to His people. (…) They are graces because their content enlightens the intelligence with extraordinary lights. They are graces because they encourage the will to act in a way as to fulfil the will of God.” Among these books, after having recalled the Confessions and The City of God by St Augustine, the Imitation of Christ and the Spiritual Exercises by St Ignatius, the Treatise of true devotion by St Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, Archbishop Sigaud was to also mention the work of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira on the twentieth anniversary of its appearance: “On our own national level, and in due proportion, one can say that In defence of Catholic Action was a book-grace”.80
60) Cf. P. Corrêa de Oliveira, Em Defesa de Ação Católica, São Paulo, Ave Maria, 1943.
61) Ibid, p. 14.
62) P. Corrêa de Oliveira, “Rumos de Ação Católica sob o Pontificado de Pio XII”, O Legionário, no. 510, 21 June 1942.
63) P. Corrêa de Oliveira, Em Defesa de Ação Católica, pp. 41-2.
64) Ibid, p. 49.
65) Ibid, p. 52.
66) Ibid, pp. 63-4.
67) Ibid, p. 64.
68) Ibid, p. 94.
69) “These devotions — Cardinal Palazzini observes — offer precious advantages (indulgences, etc.) and special graces of a spiritual and even material nature. All produce moral and social effects of the greatest interest. It is in the practice of these devotions, so stupidly despised or neglected by short-sighted or blind spirits, that great and small, young and old, learned and ignorant, have learnt and continue to learn to raise their souls above the vulgarity and baseness of this world” (Pietro Palazzini, term Devozione, in EC, (1950), vol. IV, col. 1514).
70) P. Corrêa de Oliveira, Em Defesa de Ação Católica, p. 97.
71) Leo XIII, Enc. Auspicato concessum of 17 September 1882.
72) Cit. in P. Corrêa de Oliveira, Em Defesa de Ação Catolica, pp. 102-93.
73) Ibid, pp. 184-5.
74) Ibid, p. 238.
75) Ibid, p. 230.
76) Ibid, p. 196.
77) Ibid, p. 213.
78) Ibid, p. 337.
79) Archbishop Geraldo de Proença Sigaud, A Encíclica “Mediator Dei e um pouco de história da Igreja no “Brasil”, O Legionário, no. 803, 28 December 1947.
80) Archbishop G. de Proença Sigaud, “Um livro que foi uma graça para o Brasil”, Catolicismo, no. 150, June 1963.