Catholic Action and Ralliement

by Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist.

In a recent postPetrus Hispanus criticized what he called the “strategy” of Catholic Action, as a form of Catholic political and social engagement  that concedes too much to liberal institutions, and is thus quasi inevitably corrupted by their spirit. Gabriel Sanchez responded at Opus Publicum, arguing that Catholic Action is a core principle of the Church’s social magisterium, and that it is nothing other than social action of Catholics aimed at restoring the sovereignty of Christ in social life. Hispanus then responded to Sanchez, doubling down on his condemnation of Catholic Action. He argues that it was a strategy of using liberal institutions against liberalism, favored by some popes for prudential reasons, but that Catholic’s are not bound to find those reasons actually prudent, and that the results have indeed shown them to be imprudent. The debate is somewhat confused by equivocation on the term “Catholic Action,” but it nevertheless raises an important question. The question could be re-formulated as a question about Pope Leo XIII policy of ralliement— encouraging French Catholics to abandon loyalty to the Ancien Régime, and take part in republican politics, in order to Christianize the Republic. Was ralliement a prudent strategy? There is no agreement about the answer to this question among serious proponents of Catholic Social Teaching, and yet the answer must have far-reaching consequences. I think that both Hispanus and Sanchez would fall on the side of those who argue that it was not prudent, and to some extent I am inclined to agree with them.

Leo XIII and Ralliement

In the encyclical Au milieu des solicitudes Pope Leo XIII emphasized that various forms of government can be considered legitimate as long as they are ordered to the public good, and that Catholics should not rebel against legitimate governments. At the instructions of the Holy See, nuncios and bishops interpreted the encyclical to mean that French Catholics should stop trying to restore the monarchy, and instead “rally” (rallier) to the Republic. These instructions were accepted by the most enthusiastic ultramontanists, who took a strong view of the binding power of prudential Papal decisions. And of course they were also supported by liberal Catholics. Étienne Lamy, a Catholic republican whom Pope Leo XIII consulted on the implementation of ralliement gives a typically liberal justification of the policy:

The pontifical instructions and their slow but continuous influence have rid us of one of the pretexts for anticlericalism. The end of a sterile struggle against the form of government makes it easier for Catholics during future elections to combat more effectively the men and the laws which are hostile to the Church. But if adherence to the established regime puts Catholics in a better position to continue the struggle against the old Republican party, it does not necessarily assure them of victory. Moreover, the voters, sure of the permanent existence of the Republic, will have to choose between different types of Republics, that is to say between different programs. The success of the Catholic program, therefore, will depend upon the degree to which this program corresponds to the general will. Catholics must choose between two policies: either to present to the public a picture of the ideal Christian State and demand for the Church all the privileges necessary to fulfill its divine mission, setting the principles of the Church against the ideals of civil society; or to attack this society on its own grounds and demand . . . the cessation of religious persecution in the name of its most cherished principles— liberty, equality, and fraternity. There would be no reason to contest the validity of the first policy if the majority in a given democracy were Catholic not only by birth but by conviction. But in France at the present time the majority of Citizens are not true Catholics. Thus Catholics can not be expected to help themselves unless they are allied with those elements in the ranks of unbelievers which are honest. These elements have good reason not to associate themselves with Catholics in an effort to restore the Church to its privileged position because by doing this they would be acting contrary to the egalitarian and liberal principles of the Republic. Catholics must appeal to the ideals on which modern society is based in order to vindicate their belief. (Quoted in Alexander Sedgwick, The Ralliement in French Politics: 1890-1898, pp. 90-91)

The Papal instructions were, however, rejected by traditionalist monarchists. To this day many Catholic Traditionalists in Europe are sore about the ralliement. Roberto de Mattei has recently given a forceful statement of their objections.

There are, however, serious exponents of Catholic Social Teaching who take a favorable view of ralliement. Alan Fimister, in his lucid exposition of the development of Catholic Social Teaching, Robert Schuman: Neo Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe, argues that the absolute monarchies that arose in Europe after 1648 were themselves fatally modern and defective forms of political life. And that ralliement properly understood was an attempt to go back to the ideal of mixed government proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas. This was to be done by accepting the external form of modern republics, but then changing them by means of Catholic principles.

Different Senses of “Catholic Action”

Hispanus identifies the strategy of “Catholic Action” with the promotion of the policy of ralliement:

Leo XIII and St. Pius X favored the strategy of Catholic Action because they came to believe, as a matter of strategy, that still-dominant Catholic majorities in many countries could be rallied under a single party in order to use democracy as a weapon against liberalism. The faithful majorities, it was hoped, would vote liberalism out of existence under the leadership of Catholic Action parties. From this miscalculation, possibly brought on by the success of German Catholics against Bismarck, would ultimately come that spectacle of progressive alignment of Catholic politicians with liberalism that was “Christian democracy.”

This is (to borrow his own phrase) “at least incomplete.” Catholic Action began spontaneously with the formation of various associations of the lay faithful, such as the Società della Gioventù Cattolica Italiana, approved by Bl. Pope Pius IX in 1867. Subsequent popes (especially Pius X and Pius XI) brought such associations under the direction of the hierarchy, and tried to use them to further their own policies.

In Italy, however, the various organizations of Catholic Action were actually forbidden from taking part in party politics on account of the non expedit which forbade all Catholics from active participation in Italian political life until the “Roman Question” should be solved. Although Pope Leo XIII considered removing the non expedit (an act which would have extended the ralliement to Italy) he did not finally do so.

His successor, Pope St. Pius X was opposed to the policy of ralliement in general. Nevertheless, he signaled the possibility of a modification of the non expedit in the encyclical Il Fermo Proposito:

For Catholic Action to be most effective it is not enough that it adapt itself to social needs only. It must also employ all those practical means which the findings of social and economic studies place in its hands. It must profit from the experience gained elsewhere. It must be vitally aware of the conditions of civil society, and the public life of states. Otherwise it runs the risk of wasting time in searching for novelties and hazardous theories while overlooking the good, safe and tried means at hand. Again, perhaps it may propose institutions and methods belonging to other times but no longer understood by the people of the present day. Or, finally, it may go only half way, failing to use, in the measure in which they are granted, those civil rights which modern constitutions today offer all, and therefore also Catholics. In particular, the present constitution of states offers indiscriminately to all the right to influence public opinion, and Catholics, with due respect for the obligations imposed by the law of God and the precepts of the Church, can certainly use this to their advantage. These civil rights are of various kinds, even to the extent of directly participating in the political life of the country by representing the people in the legislative halls. Most serious reasons, however, dissuade Us, Venerable Brethren, from departing from that norm which Our Predecessor, Leo XIII, of blessed memory, decreed during his Pontificate. According to his decree it was universally forbidden in Italy for Catholics to participate in the legislative power. Other reasons equally grave, however, founded upon the supreme good of society which must be preserved at all costs demand that in particular cases a dispensation from the law be granted especially when you, Venerable Brethren, recognize the strict necessity of it for the good of souls and the interest of your churches, and you request such a dispensation.

Il Fermo also laid out certain general principles aimed at preventing Catholic Action from falling into what St Pius X saw as the pitfalls of ralliement. These principles are certainly binding elements of Catholic Social Teaching, and if one identifies them with Catholic Action, then Sanchez is of course right to say that all Catholics must be proponents of Catholic Action.

Benedict XV and Pius XI returned to the policy of ralliement— indeed in the case of Pius XI one can speak of “a second ralliement.” Pius XI saw Catholic Action (which he organized as a unified organization with various branches for youth, women, workers, farmers and the like), as a mode of spreading the Kingship of Christ in society that was not tainted by association with reactionary monarchism. Nevertheless, he did not encourage Catholic Action to involve itself in party politics. Indeed, in the encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno, he angrily rejected the accusation that Catholic Action was in effect a political party.

It was not until after the solution of the Roman Question, and indeed after the Second World War, that Petrus Hispanus’s description of strategy of Catholic Action becomes quite accurate. After the War Catholic Action did indeed attempt to unite the faithful behind Christian Democratic parties. Despite the many successes of such parties, one cannot deny that they failed in the attempt to re-Christianize Europe.

Is Ralliement Prudent?

As far as the practical effect of the strategy which Hispanus calls “Catholic Action,” and which I call ralliement, I think that he is right. As he writes:

there is a self-radicalizing principle in liberalism that explains why and how these strategies are doomed to fail. The procedural principles liberal strategies are based on, being the only common ground, the only language anyone can use in public, quickly become the only acceptable creed.

And again:

The fact is that as a political strategy to save Christian civilization, the well-meaning attempt that was Catholic Action did not manage to recognize the threat involved in buying into the praxis of liberalism, even when done with a clear rejection of its theory. Obviously, this danger is much graver when the attempt does not even involve a clear rejection of the theory of liberalism, as has happened in the post-Vatican II Church, but the point is that the reason why both these strategies fail is the same: they subject Catholic politics and life to the pernicious liberal praxis, and in so far as they do, they manifest only the continuation and radicalization of the same error.

Nevertheless, one can question whether the approach that he proposes, beginning with a thoroughgoing anti-liberal position, expressed by such principles as monarchism, would be anymore successful. It is of course idle to speculate what the effect would have been if the Holy See had never attempted ralliement. But what are we to do now? I certainly sympathize with Hispanus’s approach. (I am, after all, a monarchist myself). But I do not have any very saguine hopes that such an approach will have much more practical success than ralliement. 

This post originally appeared at Sancrucensis.