Pius XI Founds Catholic Action

by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira


This year marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of the book, In Defense of Catholic Action, by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. This book denounced the germs of progressivism inside the Church in Brazil with remarkable prophetic insights.

To commemorate this book, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) will be publishing articles telling the story of this work. This article is adapted from the book, In Defense of Catholic Action, by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.

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Hopes and Triumphs

Endowed with a powerful mind and enlightened by the Holy Ghost, the immortal Pius XI beckoned to the world with the great remedy of Catholic Action and thus showed it the only means of salvation. How copious were the generous dedication and indomitable energies that the Pontiff’s appeal was able to raise up! How many secure and lasting victories were won in areas where all circumstances seemed to presage a total collapse!


The certainty that Catholic Action offered a remedy for contemporary evils and the imminence and scope of the expectations that a universal triumph of Catholic Action seemed to raise provided reason enough for much of the enthusiasm—in days convulsed by the most profound moral commotion—to be manifested in a less balanced way than would have been desired. There arose Messianisms with a highly nervous pitch and a passion for absolute action and immediate results that banished common sense far from certain environments otherwise filled with a generous fervor for Catholic Action. It would be difficult to say how much the sowing of cockle by the inimicus homo contributed to deviate so many people inspired by the most praiseworthy intentions into the field of errors already condemned by the encyclical Pascendi and the encyclical against Le Sillon. The reality is that an unwholesome Messianism started to throw the fundamental principles of Catholic Action in certain souls into delirium. And since truths which throb in delirium are ready to transform themselves into errors, it was not long before many new concepts began to assume an audacious character and ended up becoming unquestionably erroneous.


  • Regarding Spiritual Life

Therefrom came a set of principles, or rather, tendencies, which diminish or extinguish the role of human cooperation in regard to piety, sacrificing it to a one-sided conception of the action of grace. Flight from occasions of sin, mortification of the senses, examinations of conscience, the Spiritual Exercises, all ceased to be properly understood. Because of a few real excesses in the use of these salutary methods, some concluded that it was necessary to relegate to oblivion or to openly fight that which the Church’s wisdom had so clearly praised. Even the Rosary had its detractors. To enumerate the consequences following upon so many errors would be a lengthy task.

  • Regarding Apostolate

Side by side with the theological consequences and inspired by the same errors, others appeared carrying with them a good portion of truths, even providential truths. Under the pretext of breaking with routine, they talked about “apostolate of infiltration.” The necessity of this apostolate is urgent. Nevertheless, nothing warrants, in the name of this truth now in open delirium like the others, making a radical condemnation of all the open, bold, and undisguised methods of apostolate. It could be said that human respect, which leads one to be silent about or sweeten the truth and avoid any fight and any argument, has become the source of inspiration for a new apostolic strategy. And this strategy, according to the desires of certain circles, should be the only one to have an officially recognized status in Catholic Action. At the same time, a spirit of unlimited concessions in face of the outbreak of new fashions and customs began to take shape. This attitude further disguised itself in the cloak of a serious obligation to do apostolate in ambiences proscribed by moral theology for any Catholic unwilling to fall from the supernatural dignity granted him at Baptism.

  • Regarding Discipline

It must be said to the credit of our clergy that it was noted very early that the authority of the priest, if exercised freely in Catholic Action, would quickly check the circulation of so many errors. Hence there arose a series of prejudices, sophisms, and exaggerations whose systematic fruit is the elimination of priestly influence in Catholic Action. How many priestly hearts will bleed with painful memories while reading these lines! Our wise and devout clergy well deserved the honorable acknowledgement that error could only spread over the ruins of its authority and prestige.

The Reason for This Book

In view of all this, and while this sowing of errors has not found general acceptance in Catholic Action, this providential instrument Pius XI gave the Church would already risk being turned against its own ends if the action of (fortunately) small groups where error did find enthusiastic adepts were not courageously checked.

A superficial analysis of this situation would seem to indicate that it is not for laymen to initiate the refutation of such errors by means of a book especially dedicated to the subject. If, however, this is the first book on the subject, it is not the first refutation of rash doctrines about Catholic Action, nor the best among them. It seemed to us proper for the honor and defense of Catholic Action that a clear, filial and enthusiastic reaffirmation of the rights of the clergy and, implicitly, those of the hierarchy, come from a layman. Thus the eloquence of events will prove that Catholic Action is and wants to remain enthusiastically docile to authority; and that the doctrinal peculiarities we refute here will find both hierarchy and faithful united in the same repudiation, there being nothing more suitable for the requisites of the Church’s decorum and Catholic Action’s reputation.

As can be seen, this book was not written to be a treatise on Catholic Action, setting out to give a general and methodical idea of the subject. It is, rather, a work written to say what Catholic Action is not, what it should not be, and what it should not do. We willingly assumed this painstaking task, as the most unpleasant responsibilities are the ones that we should embrace with the greatest love in the Holy Church of God.