Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira


Masses or Elites?








  Bookmark and Share

Masses or Elites?

A problem of truly fundamental importance is to be found here. Is Catholic Action a movement of the masses or one of elites? The Holy Pontiffs have insisted so frequently on the idea that it should be a movement of elites that no one dares to contest them. This notwithstanding, some commentators opt for a solution that, without clashing with the papal instructions head-on, is nevertheless opposed to them.

They maintain that Catholic Action should be simultaneously a movement of masses and elites. In other words, that together with the choice elements, people of little formation should be accepted as full-fledged members, with formal promise and all, so they would be gradually influenced and transformed by the elite.

In order to better apprehend the error contained in this seemingly logical idea, we must clarify well the terms of the problem. MASS denotes a great number of people, and, at least in theory, we should accept the possibility of the existence of elites so numerous as to constitute a multitude. Thus, it certainly would be ideal if Catholic Action were composed of a countless multitude of really well formed people, of first rate individuals in the Catholic Church. In this sense we gladly concede that in the future, Catholic Action could become at the same time a mass movement and one of elites. It is evident, however, that in this context, the word "mass" has to be understood in a much narrower sense than it usually is.

A Fundamental Alternative

Nevertheless, it is not always possible to achieve such brilliant results, nor is such a fortunate situation attained in the first few years of work. No matter how virtuous and wise the ecclesiastical assistants, leaders and activists may be they will often find people’s hearts closed to the apostolate. In this regard let us not deceive ourselves with any apostolic romanticism by imagining that Catholic Action has a magic wand that will open all hearts without fail. No matter how good an apostle we may be, we will never be able to match Our Lord; and yet, how many hearts closed themselves to His voice! How many closed themselves to the voice of the Apostles and the innumerable saints that the Church has produced! Every day experience shows us what hagiography also teaches: there are persons, families, social classes and at times entire cities that remain deaf to God's voice.

The Savior Himself said:

For God sent not His Son into the world, to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by Him. He that believeth in Him is not judged. But he that doth not believe, is already judged: because he believeth not in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment: because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God. (8)

Further on, the Lord continues saying of Himself: "And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth: and no man receiveth his testimony." (9)

And because of this, the Master says of the blindness of the Pharisees:

For judgment I am come into this world; that they who see not, may see; and they who see, may become blind. And some of the Pharisees, who were with him, heard and they said unto him: Are we also blind? Jesus said to them: If you were blind, you should not have sin: but now you say: We see. Your sin remaineth. (10)

It is most understandable, therefore, that Saint John wrote in the preface to his Gospel: "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it." (11) And the Apostle added: "that was the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." (12)

Let us retain from all of this an important conclusion. Not even the greatest miracles performed by Our Lord prevailed over the obstinacy of certain souls. Catholic Action should not, therefore, expect that it will overwhelm every obstacle and that it will not, in its turn, be confronted with hardened souls.

Let us listen to Saint John and his commentary on the hardening of some souls, even in face of the greatest miracles of Our Lord:

And whereas he had done so many miracles before them, they believed not in him. That the saying of Isaias the prophet might be fulfilled, he said: "Lord who hath believed our hearing? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed.” Therefore they could not believe, because Isaias said again: "He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart, that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be  converted, and I should heal them.” These things said Isaias, when he saw his glory and spoke of Him. However, many of the chief men also believed in him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, that they might not be cast out of the synagogue. For they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God. (13)

The same can happen to Catholic Action. And even if not all doors are shut against it, it will find a large number of them locked, as happened to Saint Paul, who speaking in the Areopagus, attracted only a few souls. In this case the alternative imposes itself inexorably. And just as so many bishops and zealous pastors have faced this alternative, so also Catholic Action must humbly acknowledge that it too will often face the same alternative: to pick either masses or elites.

Indeed, it would be futile to allege that contemporary man has a much less hardened heart than that of Jews in Christ's time. His Holiness Pope Pius XI, whose opinion we have already quoted that our times are similar to the most abominable ones of the AntiChrist, affirmed in the encyclical Divini Redemptoris that today's world reached such degradation, that it is in danger of falling even lower than it was before Christ!

Irreplaceable Fecundity of the Elites

To this inevitable alternative, we respond by resolutely opting not for the masses, but for the elite. To this we are led by the most fundamental principles of apostolate. Anyone who has read the admirable book of Abbot Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate, will have undoubtedly noticed that the fecundity of the apostolate comes much more from the apostle's degree of virtue than from the talent and natural gifts he may develop, or from the number of assistants he can enroll in his association. It is the grace of God that, in final analysis, works conversions; and man is no more than a channel. And the less obstructed he is by his vices and sins the more useful he will be. Thus, a generous person can bring a much greater number of souls to God than a multitude of apostles with little formation. The life of a Saint Francis of Sales, of a Saint Francis of Assisi, of a Saint Anthony of Padua, proves abundantly the truth of this affirmation. It is, therefore, in the interest of the masses themselves, so as to make the diffusion of grace as extensive as possible, that we should prefer Catholic Action to become a handful of true apostles rather than a vast but inexpressive crowd.

While the idea of making Catholic Action a movement for both masses and elites at the same time is illusory—the movement will end up being only for the masses—the idea stems at times from a generous desire to spread the spiritual benefits of Catholic Action quickly. Forgotten, however, is the fact that God "desireth not a multitude of faithless and unprofitable children." (14)

But it is very doubtful that a quick and pell-mell recruiting of great masses really brings about a distribution of great spiritual benefits if such benefits are not based on a slow, gradual and steady leavening.

The experience we have right under our eyes clearly proves that movements which grow excessively fast quickly diminish in fervor.

Little by little, after a totally fictitious enthusiasm has waned, these masses dissolve, without any noticeable improvement in their members. And thus God's punishment for their proud hastiness is confirmed: "Substance got in haste shall be diminished, but that which by little and little is gathered with the hand shall increase." (15)

From the very beginning, the Church always preferred having a small but holy clergy to a large and less holy one. However great the lack of priests among us might be, no one ever thought of solving the problem by relaxing the conditions for promotion to the priesthood, much to the contrary. The same argument is valid in every sense for Catholic Action. In sum, Catholic Action must be selective and become an "elite" such that it may always fulfill the fatherly and lofty affirmation of Pius XI, that its members "are certainly some of the best among the good." (16)

The Middle Ground Is Impossible

But, could not Catholic Action be both a movement for masses and elites in the sense of containing indistinctly in its midst first rate spiritual souls and a large multitude of others, mediocre or lukewarm?

We consider so unfounded the opinion that Catholic Action should be opened even to individuals who habitually live in a declared state of mortal sin, that it is superfluous to discuss it.

Furthermore, we maintain that not every Catholic who fulfills the most elementary demands of the law of God and of the Church should join Catholic Action, but only those who, by their frequent reception of the Sacraments, exemplary life and edifying attitudes, really make up a select group.

Matters like this should not be solved in a purely theoretic way, but with one’s eyes focused on the concrete reality. And the first lesson this reality offers is that no one, or almost no one, in our day and age succeeds in keeping the practice - albeit minimal - of the commandments of the Law of God, without frequently approaching the Holy Sacraments. This truth is valid for almost all ages and conditions. Consider for example, a young student, measure the violence of the fight he has to develop in order to prevail over the tumult of his passions; the thousand and one evil solicitations being made to him at every moment by all the modern factors of corruption, and ask yourself if he can win this fight without a true Eucharistic life. The head of a family, who so often has to choose between a dishonest transaction or misery for his household; the housewife who so often fulfills the duty of motherhood at the risk of her life, can say better than anyone else if they would be able to fulfill their duties with a simple yearly Communion.

Thus, it is rash to affirm that the mere practice once a year of duties imposed by the Church is the yardstick to differentiate the Catholic who can be an apostle because he habitually possesses the state of grace from one who does not.

Hence, if Catholic Action uses the simple practice of annual Communion and confession as the criterion for selection, it cannot avoid becoming one of those inexpressive crowds which, at times, are more difficult to ferment than one can imagine.

Furthermore, as we have said in a preceding chapter, one of the most important duties that befall Catholic Action is undoubtedly to provide for its members, particularly the young, a social center for their leisure hours. If Catholic Action does not want to fail it must necessarily employ this means of action, which was so advantageous to Fascism and Nazism under the names of Dopolavoro and Kraft durch Freude. This is the great lever used by totalitarian mysticism. Now, imagine the colorless atmosphere, the sometimes dangerous ambience that would exist in the Catholic Action center of a parish where all Catholics of annual communion and confession were admitted to its ranks. With lax consciences imbibed with naturalism and the infiltration of so many secular errors, and with minimalist and accommodating mentalities, such individuals would serve no purpose except to create a stifling atmosphere that would make any initiative to uplift souls harmful or sterile.

As a consequence, it is quite obvious that only first rate individuals who meet the best criterion—always an exemplary life linked to the frequent practice of the sacraments (and the more frequent the better)—can be members of Catholic Action.


8) John 3:17-21.

9) John 3:32.

10) John 9:39-41.

11) John 1:4-5.

12) John 1:9-11.

13) John 12:37-43.

14) Ecclus. 15:22.

15) Prov. 13:11.

16) Pius XI, Encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno, June 29, 1931, no. 10, at


Table of Contents


Bookmark and Share