by Dr. John Rao
"Rediscovery" is a good word to characterize the experience of committed Catholics of the 1800’s. Thinkers and activists demonstrated a desire to learn and put into practice themes and customs which had been buried by over a hundred years of Jansenist and Enlightenment neglect. This drive led them back to the Fathers of the Church, to the medieval scholastics, and to a mystical, devotional and liturgical life rich in lessons for both the Catholic community and individuals alike. The centers of rediscovery—German, French, Italian and Belgian for the most part—were mixed lay-clerical circles, religious orders restored after the devastation of the Revolution, university and seminary faculties, and the editorial offices of the journals and newspapers that seemed to spring up everywhere in the course of the nineteenth century.
Revival of the Catholic spirit entailed renewed recognition of the need for spiritual interaction with the political and social world as well. Zealous thinkers argued that the influence of Catholic belief was especially important to their own confused and rapidly changing century. Crucial to development in this respect was the work of the Savoyard writer, Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), and his disciple, the Abbé Félicité de Lamennais (1782-1854), both of whom were convinced that secularist modern society could not help but self-destruct. Equally important work was done by thinkers exploring the consequences of the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Mystical Body of Christ, such as Johann Adam Möhler (1796-1838) and a myriad of anti-Enlightenment intellectuals and artists stirred by the Romantic Movement. Germany was particularly significant in this regard, the circles which had grown up in Mainz, Tübingen, Landshut, Munich, and other cities having an impact in fields ranging from catechesis to politics. Though less known, the numerous Italian Amicizie cattoliche were producing similar fruits.
Social Catholicism, in the sense of a movement addressing the problems of economic dislocation and pauperization connected with the Industrial Revolution, had many sources. Commentaries on migrations and urban riots, observations of dechristianization among workers, studies of prison conditions, and repeated efforts of ordinary Christians to improve the effectiveness of traditional concepts of charity all played their role in its gradual emergence. Here, too, international cross-fertilization was common, with German Protestant activities in what was referred to in Evangelical circles as the "Inner Mission" exercising a certain influence as well.
Among those active in the early stages of such developments were, in France, the Viscount Jean Paul Villeneuve-Bargemont (1784-1850), author of the Traité de l’économie politique chrétienne (1837), Frédéric Ozanam (1813-1853), one of the founders of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Frédéric Le Play (1806-1882), with his Société internationale des hautes études d’économie sociale, and Armand de Melun (1807-1877), promoter of innumerable social initiatives; in Germany, the Baden activist, Franz Josef von Buss (1803-1878), author of Fabrikrede, Adolf Kolping (1813-1865), who was deeply concerned with the conditions of migrant workers, and Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (1811-1877) of Mainz, whose Die Arbeiterfrage und das Christentum (1864) was seminal for many Catholics throughout Europe; in Italy, Frs. Carlo Curci (1809-1891), Matteo Liberatore (1810-1892), and Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (1793-1862), the Jesuit editors of La Civiltà Cattolica, which dedicated hundreds of pages to systematic critiques of existing economic conditions; and, in the Lowlands, Eduoard Ducpetiaux (1804-1868), one of the founders of the independent Kingdom of Belgium.
All those convinced of the necessity of spiritually influencing social life emphasized the urgency of escaping the web of controls preventing freedom of political action established by enlightened absolutists, revolutionaries, and the Napoleonic system alike. They did so often at the price of bitter confrontations with the police. The arrest and imprisonment of Archbishop Clemens August von Droste zu Vischering (1773-1845) of Cologne in the 1830’s was one of the most significant of these causes célèbres.The reality of continued state restrictions explains why Pope Pius IX’s (1846-1878) amnesty to political opponents, and the anti-absolutism of the Revolutions of 1848 were greeted with such enthusiasm by Catholic activists. Both portended an end to regulations and a new era of freedom from which they believed a revived Catholicism could not help but benefit. Nevertheless, the Revolutions of 1848, rather than working unfailingly for the benefit of Catholics, uncovered more problems that the youthful movement had to face, both internal as well as external. Discussion of three of these will allow us to grasp the shape of European Catholic Social Thought through the 1920’s.
First of all, the Revolutions of 1848 made it clear that the word "freedom" was defined differently by Catholics than by other opponents of absolutist restrictions, such as liberals, democrats and nationalists. Political and social consequences of these differences had to be clarified by competent authorities, the Papacy being called upon to address the issue. The end result of this process of clarification was not simply the "negative" condemnations of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), but also the more "positive", elaborated work of the whole corpus of Social Encyclicals and related pronouncements of Leo XIII (1878-1903), Pius X (1903-1914), Benedict XV (1914-1922), Pius XI (1922-1939) and Pius XII (1939-1958). Here, one finds reiterated, in varied forms, two basic themes of the entire Catholic revival: the need to deal with all human actions with reference to man’s simultaneous natural-supernatural and individual-social character, and the self-destructive flaw of all types of naturalist thinking. These themes are developed with reference to a myriad of specific political and social issues. Along with this process of clarification came the work of definition of the Petrine Power underlying such efforts, symbolized, most importantly, by the First Vatican Council’s definition of Papal Infallibility in 1870.
A second factor placed in higher relief by the Revolutions of 1848 and their aftermath were the differences of approach within the Catholic Movement itself. Here, the figure of Lammenais is of crucial significance. Lamennais’ growing conviction that the catholicization of society required guidance by "the People", aroused by charismatic teachers to an energy and activity revealing the unquestionable presence of the infallible Spirit of God, led to the French priest’s condemnation by Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846). Nevertheless, his importance for developing initiatives and attracting enthusiastic followers made him the spiritual and intellectual father of large numbers of nineteenth century activists throughout Europe. Liberal Catholicism, represented most illustriously by a former follower, the Comte Charles de Montalembert (1810-1870), although steering clear of acceptance of Lamennais’ principles, retained, in practice, much of his spirit of openness to vital contemporary movements, and impatience with those critical of them, such as Louis Veuillot (1813-1883) and his Parisian daily, l’Univers.
A third battle involved the question of the structure of the Catholic Movement. One pathway it followed was that of the creation of a network of pressure groups which could be mobilized for political combat whenever clear issues of spiritual importance emerged. Action by mobilized lay pressure groups had the benefit of keeping the Church’s hands clean of everything but the dogmatic and spiritual guidance which her charism justly involved, and evoking that guidance only when the religious and political spheres truly touched one another. Thus, should pressure groups prove to be engaged in battle for their own particular causes in self-interested or less spiritually charged matters, the prestige and mission of the Church and clergy would not thereby be compromised.
Some tentative steps towards the formation of Catholic political parties were taken already in the years after 1830. Loose organization characterized all such groups. Still, despite their growth, the Church authorities, and with them, conservative forces in general, were frightened by mass confessional political parties. A severe crisis was usually required as a spur to the acceptance of militancy. These crises were offered aplenty in the course of the second half of the nineteenth century. Sometimes, they were set off because of one particular issue, especially freedom of education. Very frequently, however, the crisis was a general one, striking not only at education, but at the existence of the religious orders engaged in it, the ability of Church authorities to control their parishes, priests and seminaries, communication of bishops with the Papacy, marriage regulations, the right to form charitable organizations and the general freedom of association and right to speak out on any political matter whatsoever: in short, to use the German term, due to a full-scale Kulturkampf, or "culture war".
Catholic associations seeking to overturn liberal legislation often first approached existing conservative parties as their agents. Such parties would be offered what were in essence contracts: the network of active Catholic associations would do much of the propaganda and legwork for the election of conservative deputies to parliament, with the proviso that these, when winning office, would do Catholic bidding on state matters touching upon religion. Results rarely matched the expectations, convincing many that the time had come to seek direct control of the State. One of the most important models for outright political action was the German Catholic Centre Party, which earned much of its prestige fending off the worst of Bismarck’s attacks on the Church in the course of the 1870’s. Belgian, Dutch, and Austrian Catholics took much inspiration for their own political movements from its early militancy.
Major problems plagued the Catholic association and political movement with greater intensity from the 1870’s onwards. One of these was the rivalry between the leadership of Catholic political parties and that of the associations that aided them. Certainly the Catholic Centre Party and the Volksverein für das Katholische Deutschland, founded in 1890 and developed under the able leadership of Franz Hitze (1851-1921) as an umbrella for a myriad of subsidiary groups with literally millions of adherents, sometimes eyed one another suspiciously. This was partly due to the fact that the association movement gave Catholic voice to an ever greater variety of social groups with different interests, many of which were at sword point on a purely natural level. Pressure was thus placed upon a Catholic Party to take up positions which might satisfy one part of its clientele and horrify another. Especially problematic was the confusion created by the diversity of Catholic associations concerned with economic issues.
Basic, troubling questions were posed from the very beginning of the history of this type of Social Catholicism: whether one’s activities on behalf of the poor was curative or preventive; should they be aimed at stirring individuals or institutions to labor on behalf of the needy; which institutions, sacred and secular, might be involved in such a charitable enterprise; and if one could cooperate in this venture with non-Catholics, should these happen to express ideas that coincided with certain concerns of orthodox believers. Three basic positions, all of which continued to be supported well into the twentieth century, quickly were established.
One of these was conservative, presuming that the existing liberal capitalist system, reformed to deal with the problems of chronic European pauperism, would continue to be the normal framework for economic life. Charles Perin (1815-1890), Professor of Economics at the University of Louvain from 1845-1881, and author of De la richesse dans les sociétés chrétiennes (1861), as well as Bishop C.E. Freppel of Angers (1827-1891) were significant defenders of this approach.
A second group considered the liberal capitalist system to be so vitiated by the Enlightenment as to require its radical overhaul. Some of these "radicals" urged the elaboration of a more socially minded "corporate" order, inspired by medieval economic life, though expanded and adapted to the exigencies of an industrialized age. Among the proponents of such radical revision were, in Italy, the editors of La Civiltà Cattolica; in the German world, Karl von Vogelsang (1818-1890), editor of the Viennese newspaper, Vaterland (1874), his Austrian collaborator Alois zu Liechtenstein (1846-1920), the German Karl zu Löwenstein (1834-1921) and the Berlin journal, Germania; and in France, Albert de Mun (1841-1913) and René de La Tour du Pin (1834-1924), both of whom became influenced by German Catholic social thought while prisoners during the Franco-Prussian War.
These more radical attacks on the existing liberal capitalist system also involved recognition of the reality of a "working class". Such an awareness can be found in Henry Cardinal Manning (1808-1892), who was often called upon as a negotiator in labor disputes, the wealthy French entrepreneur, Léon Harmel (1829-1915), author of Catéchisme au patron (1889) and De Mun and La Tour du Pin, with their Cercles catholiques d’ouvriers (1871). Numerous clerical activists in Belgium and the Netherlands, and men like Hitze in Germany, began to understand the necessity of a truly independent labor movement as well. The Syndicat des Employés du Commerce et de l’Industrie (1887), out of which later emerged the Conféderation Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens, and the Christliche Gewerkvereine Deutschlands, sought to organize workers without upper class assistance.
An outrightly socialist vision provided a third, and even more revolutionary approach to economic issues, which flourished in the border regions of the acceptable and the heretical. This fringe of the Catholic movement emerged from religious minded Saint-Simonians, some of the followers of Lamennais, and a number of the Polish emigrées who fled to France after the rebellion against Russia in 1830. It grew in conjunction with the theory of palingenesis, taken from the words "born" and "anew", which argued that the external representation of the "seed" of Christianity, contained in the Gospels, had periodically "died", merely to be revived in new and better form, Socialism representing its latest and best expression.
By the latter nineteenth century, newspapers, study groups, mutual aid societies and elaborate organizations of bewildering variety were pressing the Church as a whole for approval of their respective approaches. Their fervor was heated still further in the late 1880’s an early 1890’s, due to the Marxist-Trades Unions alliance creating the Second International and Social Democratic Parties, the commitment of the German Imperial Government to far ranging social and economic reforms, and the pro-labor statements of the young Wilhelm II. Entities like the Fribourg Union catholique d’études socials et économiques put together sessions which tried to resolve the most serious of divisions so as to build a united Catholic front on such matters.
Rerum novarum (1891), the great social encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, emerged out of this potpourri. Clearly the work of a committee, on which Matteo Liberatore and others struggled, it tried to reconcile a variety of viewpoints. Rejecting all economic solutions that did not recognize man’s joint natural-supernatural and individual-social character, it could thus be seen to be critical of both liberal capitalism and Marxist socialism. It admitted the right of the State to enter the economic arena, as well as the possibility of workers organizing for their self-protection. Rather than stifling debate, however, Catholics interested in social issues became still more eager to determine the limits of government intervention, the suitability of denominational or non-confessional unions, and the permissiblity of going out on strike. Pius X found himself regularly confronted with these issues and attempts to resolve them.
Such divisions troubled Catholic political parties, whose leaders were, moreover, painfully aware of being outside of the mainstream of European society. Thoughtful political activists wanted to advance beyond a minimal protection of basic Catholic needs to an exercise of a real Christian influence over the whole of life. The important question in the long run was to prove to be whether or not this influence could be gained without losing the soul of the Catholic Social Movement. For entering the mainstream involved creating a party bureaucracy with an elite of parliamentary representatives whose primary concerns were often merely gaining and retaining power, and finding ways to appeal for the votes of people inspired by democratic, Marxist, nationalist, and racist issues which many prelates and believers thought might involve an abandonment or redefinition of the Faith. "Confessional party leaders such as Julius Bachem (1845-1918)", Kalyvas notes, "were repeatedly attacked for setting aside the Catholic basis of the most important organization of German Catholicism in order to substitute a so-called non-denominational Christian basis as the party’s guiding philosophy" (Kalyvas, p. 232). An Austrian Christian Social spokesman confirmed their fears when he succinctly noted: "in politics the only thing that counted was success" (Ibid., p. 232).
Italy was prey to special tensions. Here, the non expedit policy, the papal prohibition of Catholic participation in national political life, had barred the creation of a political party. It did so because the government had clearly refused to allow Catholic deputies who rejected the Kingdom’s liberal nationalist program to be seated in Parliament anyway. Italian Catholics, like Giuseppe Toniolo (1845-1918), founder of the Unione cattolica per gli studi sociali, were active in the Opera dei congressi e dei comitati cattolici (1874), where they prepared, in what was a kind of shadow government, for future guidance of a better disposed country. By the 1890’s and 1900’s, some activists, either worried or encouraged by the advance of Socialism, wished for a modification of the non expedit in order to enable them to join, depending upon their viewpoint, either with pro-government liberals or worker movements in a joint battle against a common perceived threat. Others, horrified by what seemed to them to be the temptation to accept the anti-Catholic economic principles inspiring both of these groups, thought that the time had come for the creation of a distinctly Catholic political party appealing democratically to the voters at large.
It was at this point that the Papacy intervened, first under Leo XIII, with the encyclical letter Graves de communi (1901), which condemned the idea of a political party and limited the use of the term "Christian Democracy " to "a beneficent Christian action in favor of the people", and then with Pius X’s Il fermo proposito (1905). This completely restructured the Opera, creating what was now called Catholic Action, and allowing for resort to the kind of contractual agreement with conservatives utilized, usually unsatisfactorally, in other countries. It was only after the war, in 1919, with the creation of Don Luigi Sturzo’s (1871-1959) Partito Popolare, that a distinct partisan movement was created. This, too, however, was chastised for succumbing to secularizing tendencies, and abandoned by Rome when a seemingly friendly fascist government sought resolution of outstanding ecclesiastical problems, culminating in the Lateran Accords of 1929.
The collapse of traditional monarchies, the influence of Marxism-Leninism, the competing corporative theories of fascist governments, and the double blow of inflation and depression stimulated Catholics to still more concerted efforts in political and social matters in the interwar period. Expansion was aided by a noticeable increase of papal interest in current issues, as witnessed by Pius XI’s allocutions and his renowned encyclical letter, Quadragesimo anno (1931). This latter document, like Rerum Novarum, gave encouragement to both liberal reformers and corporatist pathfinders, while warning against Soviet Communism and the bureaucratic heavy-handedness accompanying fascist efforts to build national solidarity. Certain of the smaller European nations, such as Portugal and Austria, were guided by men and movements who had themselves been shaped by Catholic corporatist thought. Papal disdain for outrightly Catholic political movements had to be nuanced in the Austria of Engelbert Dollfuss (1892-1934), since an insistence, here, upon the letter of the law could lead to a deadly victory of National Socialist enemies of the Church.
Exceedingly important in the interwar period was a new debate over the structure of Catholic Action. Hierarchical Catholic Action, based on parish and diocesan organizations, controlled by pastor, bishop, and Pope, had been promoted by Pius X and Pius XI, and was the rule in countries like Italy. Pius XI sought to protect the work of ecclesiastically-controlled lay groups against governmental assault by means of Concordats. Quite different, though also supported by the Papacy, was what was referred to as Specialized Catholic Action, which argued that re-christianization could only succeed by approaching distinct groups in distinct ways, a favored slogan being that of "like evangelizing like". Specialized Catholic Action’s most famous representative was the Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne, founded by Fr. Joseph Cardijn (1886-1967) in Brussels in 1924, and expanding from Belgium into France swiftly thereafter. This initiative was thrown into shock at the outbreak of the Second World War, when believing soldiers confronted the almost overwhelming lack of Christian spirit among troops of all nations. That shock was intensified by the brutality of the experiences of many activists in labor and concentration camps, including their appreciation of the self-sacrifice and altruism of Marxist and ordinary Russian inmates.
Personal experience contributed to a linkage with the philosophical school called Personalism. Personalism, promoted by a wide variety of often clashing thinkers ranging from Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) to Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950), emerged from principles familiar to the student of Lamennais, including a favorable judgment of all cultures and movements reflecting a special "energy" or "mystique" indicating the presence of the fount of all vitality, the Holy Spirit. The increasingly radical arguments of many Personalists was that the Christian activist had to abandon his distinct intellectual and cultural training in order to dive enthusiastically into the work of the group to which he believed himself to be called. Fears concerning fragmentation and secularization were allayed by arguments coming from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who emphasized the spiritual movement of all such activities towards a common God-directed purpose.
Many Personalists were at first attracted to the energy of the fascist youth movements, although never to their racist arguments. In France, they were enthusiastic about the National Revolution promoted by the Vichy government. The Mission de France, established by the French episcopacy in 1943 to deal in unique ways with the wartime working class population, and stimulated still further by Henri Godin’s (1906-1944) book, France: Pays de Mission? (1943), also attracted their attention. Personalism played a major role in justifying the Worker Priest Movement, which, after the war, led a number of clerics so to dedicate themselves to contemporary European labor activities as to take a leading part in "energetic" communist union activity. Their apostolate was suspended by Pius XII in the course of the 1950’s, a suspension confirmed by John XXIII soon after ascending to the throne of Peter, but lifted by Paul VI shortly thereafter.
A number of those who emerged out of the junction of specialized Catholic Action with Personalism, such as Louis-Joseph Lebret (1897-1966), were crucially important for building the Liberation Theology movement in South America, which became especially important in countries like Brazil by the 1960’s and favorable to the "energetic" model of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution. This juncture was then popularized in European universities and seminaries. Considerations emerging from the union of Specialized Catholic Action and Personalism also helped shape John XXIII’s encyclical letters Mater et Magister (1961) and Pacem in terris (1963), the Constitution Gaudium et spes of Second Vatican Council, Paul VI’s Popolorum progressio (1967) and the social teaching of John Paul II.
In any case, while the main lines of historical Catholic Social Thought are still reaffirmed in papal pronouncements, the idea that openly confessional organizations could not penetrate and understand contemporary energies and mystiques played an enormous role in their voluntary postwar abandonment of the label "Catholic". This process was encouraged by certain European episcopacies which had long before criticized influential organizations which called themselves "Catholic", but managed to escape direct diocesan control. Much "Catholic" social thought and action, today, therefore, continue not under the banner of the Church, but as sub-categories of broader philosophical, political, and sociological studies and movements.
John C. Rao
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