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Pius XI's Promotion of the Italian Model of Catholic Action in the World-Wide Church



During his pontificate, Pius xi (1922–39) vigorously promoted the ‘export’ of the Italian model of Catholic Action to the rest of the Church as the organisational blueprint for Catholic lay activism, particularly in the battle against atheistic Communism. He was assisted by Mgr, later Cardinal, Giuseppe Pizzardo, the head of Italian Catholic Action. The successes and failures of this campaign are tracked through documents available since the opening of the files of the apostolic nunciatures and delegations and the Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs section of the Secretariat of State for Pius xi's pontificate in the Vatican Archives.



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1 ASV, AdRP, referred to with the name of the country (sometimes capital city) in which the papal representative was stationed.

2 ASV, AES, IV, referred to with the name of the country, or Stati Ecclesiastici (Ecclesiastical States) which refers to miscellaneous affairs including the State of the Vatican City.

3 The best description of Azione Cattolica Italiana is to be found in M. Casella, L'Azione Cattolica nell'Italia contemporanea (1919–1969, Rome 1992, chs i, ii. In English the best account is Poggi, G. F., Catholic Action in Italy, Stanford, Ca 1967. See also Civardi, L., Manuale di Azione Cattolica, 17th edn, Rome 1934.

4 Pollard, J. F., The Vatican and Italian Fascism, 1929–1932: a study in conflict, Cambridge 1985, 35–7; Horn, Gerd-Rainer, Western European liberation theology: the first wave, 1924–1959, Oxford 2008, 3841.

5 Moloney, J. M., The emergence of political Catholicism in Italy, London 1977, 50.

6 Pollard, John, Catholicism in modern Italy: religion, society and politics since 1861, London 2008, ch. v.

7 For the text of the encyclical see Carlen, C. (ed.), The papal encyclicals, 1903–1939, Raleigh, NC 1990, 446–58.

8 Pollard, The Vatican and Italian Fascism, 157–66.

10 Lentz, Harris M. iii, Popes and cardinals of the twentieth century: a biographical dictionary, New York 2002, 146.

11 For the text of the Concordat see Pollard, The Vatican and Italian Fascism, 204–14; for a description of the de-politicisation of ACI between 1923 and 1925 see R. Moro, ‘Azione Cattolica italiana’, in F. Traniello and G. Campanini (eds), Dizionario storico del movimento cattolico in Italia, 1860–1980, i/2: I fatti e le idée, Genoa 1981, 181.

12 Griffin, R, The nature of Fascism, London 1993, 32–6.

13 Carlen, The papal encyclicals, 271–9.

14 Ibid. 235–6.

15 Ibid. 271.

16 Ibid. 276.

17 Ibid. 273.

18 Plans pour cercles d'études d'action catholique, Bruges 1927, ‘La Royauté de Christ dans la Societe Humaine’, 1.

19 See Slawson, Douglas J., The foundation and the first decade of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, DC 1992, and Boyea, E., The National Catholic Welfare Conference: an experience in episcopal leadership, 1935–1945, Washington, DC 1987.

20 Pascal's report to the secretary of state on Catholic Action, 10 Apr. 1935, ASV, AES, IV, Gran Bretagna, 252 P. O. 99, Azione Cattolica in Irlanda (in the AES, the Irish Free State was treated as part of the British Empire, which strictly speaking it still was).

21 Nuncio in Lisbon to Mgr Guiseppe Pizzardo, Dec. 1930, ASV, AES, IV, Stati Ecclesiastici, 19, 391.

22 Lannon, F., Privilege, persecution and prophecy: the Catholic Church in Spain, 1875–1975, Oxford 1987, 148–9. There is an excellent analysis of the Catholic movement in Spain in ch. vi.

23 ‘Stato dell'Azione Cattolica nel 1930’, 31 Dec. 1930, ASV, AdRP, Madrid, 884, Titolo xi, Rubrica unica: Congressi, reunioni ecc.

24 See the letters of a ‘militante catolico’, 21 Mar.1930; report on Catholic Action in Cordoba, 10 July 1934; and letter of Economic-Social Secretary of Argentine Catholic Action on the state of Catholic rural banks, 14 Apr. 1936, ASV, AdRP, Argentina (1900–22) 1159, Mgr Filippo Cortes (1926–36).

25 Nuncio to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, 24 July 1927, ASV, AdRP, Chile, fasc. 123, Azione Cattolica.

26 Carlen, The papal encyclicals, 235–6.

27 Dom Hubert Kildany to Pizzardo, 24 July 1935, ASV, AES, Inghilterra, fasc. 88, Azione Cattolica, enclosing a copy of his Catholic Truth Society pamphlets, The pope and Catholic Action: four pontifical letters; Letter to the English hierarchy, 1934; What is Catholic Action; Mons. Pizzardo, Abp. of Nicea, 1935. In his foreword, Kildany claimed that ‘it was not until the publication of his [Pius xi's] famous letter to cardinal Bertram in 1928 that a full statement (on Catholic Action) was given to the world’.

28 Civardi, Manuale.

29 KADOC, AdCH, 30, personalia, 9·5/1–2 curriculum vitae.

30 Casella argues that Pius xi made it possible for laywomen to play a key role in Catholic Acion for the first time: L'Azione cattolica, 181.

31 See (accessed 12 Feb. 2009).

32 Pro-memoria to nuncio in Berne, 29 Dec. 1932, ASV, AES, IV, Stati Ecclesiastici, 437 390–7 (1930–47), Unione Internazionale Leghe Femminili, 391; Jan de Mayer and Jan Roobruck, ‘De l'Entre deux guerres et l'entre deux papes?: organisation internationale et politique du Saint-Siege sous le pontificat de Pie xi (1922–1939)’, in Jean-Piere Deville and Marko Jacov (eds), La Papauté contemporaine (XIXe–XXe siècles): il papato contemporaneo (secoli XIX–XX), Vatican City 2009, 433–4.

33 Pizzardo to Cardinal Goncalves, patriarch of Lisbon, 30 Sept. 1930, ASV, AES IV, Stati Ecclesiastici, 19, 391.

34 Florentine Steenberghe-Engeringh to Pizzardo, 1 Dec. 1930, ibid.

35 Pizzardo to Steenberghe-Engheringh, 22 June 1933, ASV, AES, Olanda, 63, 16–20, 1933–7, Associazione ‘De Graal’.

36 Steenberghe-Engheringh to Pizzardo, 21 July 1933, ibid.

37 ‘Rapport Confidentiel au sujet de l'Action catholique dans les Pays-Bas’ to Pizzardo, Jan. 1934, ibid, Olanda, 66, 25, Azione Cattolica.

38 Mgr Schioppa to Cardinal Pacelli, 1 Aug. 1934, ibid. fasc. 26.

39 de Hemptinne, Christine, Vivante action catholique, Ghent 1939, 4.

40 AdCH, 30, Personalia, 9·1Brazil.

41 Pizzardo to nuncio in Chile, 27 Aug. 1934, ASV, AdRP, Cile, 5951.

42 Nuncio in Chile to Pizzardo, 23 Sept. 1934, ibid.

43 De Katholieke Vrouw xv, 8 Sept. 1934, no. 19, 217 (Dutch Catholic women's magazine). I am grateful to Dr Marjet Derks for bringing this to my attention.

44 Christine de Hemptinne to Pizzardo, 1 Jan. 1937, report on visit to India and Ceylon, ASV, AES, IV, 562 593–7(1929–45) Pizzardo e AC. De Hemptinne makes suggestions about the training of nuns for work on behalf of Catholic Action because ‘It is to be noted that since a large number of nuns in India are Irish, and as Catholic Action does not exist in Ireland, they are not in fact au courant of that organisation.’

45 1922 international eucharistic congress (actually planned by Benedict xv); 1925 holy year and missionary exhibition; 1926 international Catholic athletic competition (cancelled because of Fascist attacks on Catholic youth); 1927 anniversary of St Francis; 1929 celebrations of the pope's sacerdotal jubilee; 1931 fortieth anniversary celebrations of Rerum Novarum; 1932 international exhibition of sacred art; 1933–4 extraordinary holy year; 1935 exhibition of the Catholic press; 1936 international congress of Catholic nurses and peace congress of Catholic ex–combatants; 1937 international congress of Catholic doctors. There was also the 1939 international gatherings of JOC (cancelled because of the outbreak of war), and other smaller gatherings of specialist groups. Pius had also planned a congress of ‘Catholic sportsmen’ in Rome in September 1926, but it too was cancelled because of disputes with Mussolini over Catholic Action: press-cutting, Echo de Paris, 5 Sept. 1926, AdRP, Parigi, Cerretti, b. 390.

46 See Bosworth, R. J. B., ‘L'anno santo (Holy Year) in Fascist Italy, 1933–4’, History Quarterly xl (2010), 436–57.

47 Progetto di Seg. Generale per la Gioventù Cattolica nel mondo, ASV, AES, IV, 529, 552, 1935.

48 Ufficio dell'Azione Cattolica, pro-memoria of 25 Mar. 1938, ibid. 597.

49 La Civiltà Cattolica, 5 Feb. 1938, 179.

50 ‘Conferenze dell'Azione Cattolica Italiana’, L'Osservatore Romano, 16 Mar. 1935; ‘Conferenza dell'Azione Cattolica: la realtà contemporanea e l'Azione Cattolica’ (latter given by Pizzardo), 15 Feb. 1936.

51 See Stehle, Hansjakob, Eastern politics of the Vatican, 1917–1979, Athens, Oh 1981, chs i–iv, and Luxmoore, J. and Babuich, J., The Vatican and the red flag: the struggle for the soul of eastern Europe, London 1999, ch. i.

52 Carlen, The papal encyclicals, 541.

53 In addition to Divini Redemptoris these were Miserentissimus Redemptor (1928), Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Caritate Christi Compulsit (1932), Acerba Animi (1933) and Dilectissima Nobis (1933).

54 ‘Progetto di Enciclica … De Divinis Humanisque Iuribus In Russiarum Regionibus Impiissime Violatis’, ASV, AES, Stati Ecclesiastici, 1931–9, pos. 662.

55 Steenberghe-Engeringh to Pizzardo, 30 Sept. 1930, ASV, AES, IV, Stati. Ecclesiastici, 437, 390–7, Unione Internazionale delle Leghe Femminili, 390.

56 Bea, F., Qui radio vaticana: mezzo secolo della radio del papa, Vatican City 1981, 96–7.

57 Apostolic delegate, Mgr Sassuolo, to Pizzardo, 25 July 1933, ASV, AES, IV, 267 P. O. Canada, Propaganda Communista.

58 ‘Vita sociale in Canada: l'avanzata communista’, L'Avvenire, 12 July 1936.

59 de Hemptine to Mgr Panico, 28 Nov. 1936, ASV, AdRP, Australia, Box 152, 603/36, Societa Cattoliche, 1936–7.

60 Panico to Pizzardo, 6 May 1938, ibid.

61 Press cutting, ‘Communist attack on Catholic Action: accused of pro-Fascist policies’, The Record (Melbourne), 2 Mar. 1938, ibid.

62 Fitzgerald, Ross, Pope's battalions: Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor split, St Lucia, QLD 2003, ch. iii.

63 For the text of Mit Brennender Sorge see Carlen, The papal encyclicals, 525–35.

64 The text is in Passalecq, G. and Sucheky, B., The hidden encyclical of Pius XI, New York–London 1997, 169277.

65 Ibid. 113–14.

66 See, for example, circular of 25 May 1937 explaining that the pope wanted Mit Brennender Sorge to get maximum coverage in local newspapers: ASV, AdRP, Archivio della Nunziatura d'Irlanda (1929–39), Busta 4, Titolo 1, Santa Sede e Segreteria di Stato.

67 R. P. Schaepdyver sj, ‘Schema d'une lecon sur le racisme’, Plans d'Etude – Ecole d'Action Catholique, 2nd session, 1938, KADOC, AdCH, 30, Personalia, 24·1/1.

68 ‘Rapport confidentiel au sujet de l'Action catholique en les Pays-Bas’, ASV, AES, Olanda, 66, 25, 1934–7, Azione Cattolica.

69 Schioppa to Pizzardo 27 June 1934, ibid. 64, 21–4, 1933–8, Il Fascismo e il Nazismo in Olanda; text of Dutch episcopal decree, 6 May 1936, ibid. 23.

70 Pascal Robinson to Pizzardo, 10 Apr. 1935, ASV, AES, Gran Bretagna, 250 P. O. 99, Azione Cattolica in Irlanda. This was confirmed by another observer, Fr Ryan sj who, in Catholic action in Ireland, Dublin 1932, 7, claimed that ‘The Catholic laity in general restricts its religious-social activities to the confraternities and pious sodalities.’

71 Ward letter, 11 Mar. 1938, BDA, Doubleday (1920–51), L.11, Catholic Action.

72 Nuncio to Pizzardo, 4 Oct. 1933, ASV, Cile, fasc. 123, Azione Cattolica.

73 Mgr Verdier to Pizzardo, 18 Jan. 1932, ASV, AES, IV, 728 France, 275–80, 1930–4, Azione Cattolica; nuncio to Pacelli, 12 Mar. 1933, AdRP, Varsavia, 263, 280, Polonia, Azione Cattolica.

74 Apostolic delegate in Manila to Pacelli, 23 May 1935, ASV, ADRP, America, Ps 179, fasc. 24, Philippines, Catholic Action.

75 Pizzardo pamphlet, ‘L'Action Catholique et la hierarchie’, 12 Dec. 1930, AES, IV, Stati Ecclesiastici, Francia, 728 (1), 275–81, 1930–6, Azione Cattolica.

76 Fogarty, G., The Vatican and the American hierarchy from 1870 to1965, Collegeville, Mn 1985, 215, 220–8.

77 Archbishop Kelly to bishop of Hobart, 3 Dec. 1937, ASV, AdRP, Australia, Box 152, Azione Cattolica, 602/36, Società Cattoliche, 1936–7.

78 Panico, apostolic delegate to Australia and New Zealand, to Pizzardo, 6 May 1938, ibid.

79 Nuncio to Pacelli, 29 Mar. 1930, ASV, AdRP, Cile, fasc. 223, Azione Cattolica, no. 2353.

80 Letter from general ecclesiastical assistant, Fr Oscar Larson, n.d. but probably 1936, ibid. Gioventu Maschile, 6553.

81 Scottish hierarchy minute book, 13 Dec. 1936, SCHA, ED 29/91.

82 Pizzardo to de Hemptinne, 3 July 1936, ASV, AES, IV, Gran Bretagna, 267 P.O. 112, Australia, India, 1936–7, Azione Cattolica.

83 Yves Chiron, Pio XI: Il papa dei Patti lateranensi e dell'opposizione ai totalitarismi, Milan 2006, 236. See also Pizzardo to the nuncio, Mgr Micara, 5 May 1932, warning of his fears of the development of ‘a sort of laicism’ among the Jocistes and advising of ‘the need for the absolute control of individual bishops’: ASV, AES, IV, Belgium, Busta 196 AC Settembre 1932, AC della Gioventù in Belgio.

84 Cole-Arnal, Oskar, ‘Shaping young proletarians into militant Christians: the pioneer phase of the JOC in France and Quebec’, Journal of Contemporary History xxii (2008), 509–26.

85 Cardinal Hlond to Pizzardo, 11 Feb. 1937, ASV, AES, IV, 535, 558, 1936–7, AC Internazionale.

86 Mgr Micara to Pacelli, [Oct. 1935], ASV, AdRP, Belgio, busta 197.

88 Copy of Joie et Travail, 15 Sept. 1936, ASV, AES, IV, Gran Bretagna, fasc. 88, Azione Cattolica.

89 Horn, Western European liberation theology, 21.

90 Steenberghe-Engeringh to Pizzardo, 10 May 1934, ASV, AES, Olanda, 66, 25, Azione Cattolica.

91 Pollard, The Vatican and Italian fascism, 24–5, 28–9.

92 Chiron, Pio XI, 307–19.

93 See Conway, Martin, ‘Building the Christian city: Catholics and politics in inter-war Francophone Belgium.’, Past & Present cxxviii (Aug. 1990), 142–6.

94 Nuncio to Gasparri, 24 Nov. 1921, ASV, AdRP, Cile, fasc. 123, Azione Cattolica (1921–6).

95 Jennie Purnell states that ‘The Vatican neither condemned nor approved the cristero rebellion … After an agreement was reached between Calles and the episcopate in June 1929, the Vatican ordered Mexican Catholics to lay down their arms’: Popular movements and state formation in revolutionary Mexico, London 1999, 224 n. 88.

96 Quoted in Cavagna, A. M., La Parola del papa su l'azione cattolica, Milan 1937, 176.

97 Pacelli circular letter, 23 Mar. 1936, 923/35, ASV, AES, IV, America, Ps. 179, fasc. 24, Philippines, Catholic Action.

98 Fr Anthony Dragon, sj, Maria de la Luz, proto-martyr of Catholic Action, London 1938.

99 Robinson to Pizzardo, 10 Apr. 1935, ASV, AES, IV, Gran Bretagna, 252, P. O. 99, Azione Cattolica in Irlanda.

100 SCHA, DE/162 (Archibishop Andrew J. McDonald), 1894–1952, files 52–6, Protestant Action, all relating to the riots.

101 Press cutting, ‘Manifesto of Protestant workmen’ (a long conspiracy theory diatribe), Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 22 Mar. 1923, ASV, AdRP, Australia, Box 45 Questioni Varie.

102 For examples of Protestant reactions to Catholic Action see A. Pigott, Catholic Action: the pope's propaganda machine, London n.d., and A. Stewart, The world menace of Catholic Action, London n.d.

103 Pamphlet containing the text of the talk, ASV, AES, IV, France, 728(1), 275–78, 1930–4, Azione Cattolica.

104 Pizzardo to Verdier, 21 Mar. 1931, ibid.

105 Pamphlet Naczelny Instytut Akcji Katolickiej (National Institute of Catholic Action), Poznań n.d., ASV, AdRP, Varsavia, 263, 280, Polonia, Azione Cattolica, 234, 1931.

106 Ibid.

107 Bishop of Nottingham to Pizzardo, 10 Dec. 1935, and Pizzardo to bishop of Nottingham, Dec. 1935, AES, IV, Gran Bretagna, fasc. 88, Azione Cattolica.

108 See the whole file at BDA, Doubleday (1920–51), L.11, Catholic Action, but especially the report of Miss Tidmarsh, Romford branch of Women's Catholic Federation, 10 Oct. 1934.

109 Downey to parochial clergy, 8 Dec. 1936; Pacelli to Downey, n.d. conveying the pope's blessing; and Downey to Pacelli, 13 Dec. 1937, ASV, AES, IV, Gran Bretagna, fasc. 88, Azione Cattolica. According to a report ibid. P. O. 99, Azione Cattolica in Irlanda, Mgr Waters, vicar-general of Dublin, October 1937, Liverpool was being copied by a number of Irish bishops.

110 Ibid.

111 Nuncio to Tardini, 7 Mar. 1937, ASV, AdRP, Chile, fasc. 223.

112 Padre Apiazu report, ‘Stato dell'Azione Cattolica’, 31 Dec. 1930, ASV, AdRP, Madrid, 884, fasc. 1.

113 Nuncio Orsanego to Pizzardo, 15 May 1933, ASV, AES, IV, Germania, P. O. 612, 129–30, 1931–6, Azione Cattolica.

114 Lewy, H., The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, London 1964, 169–70.

115 See Proceedings of the congress of Catholic Action held at Karachi, 1931, Karachi 1931, esp. p. 12.

116 Report on 7th congress of Moroccan Catholic Action, 6–7 Mar. 1937, Chronique Bimestrelle, 15 May 1937, ASV, AES, IV, 535, 558, 1936–7, Azione Cattolica Internazionale, Section Jeunesse de l'U.I.L.F. C.

117 Report on Catholic Action meeting, 20–1 July, 1 Sept. 1934, ibid.

118 Report on Catholic Action in China, Indochina and Japan, 15 Mar, 1936, ibid.

119 Mgr Valeri, nuncio in Paris, letter, 2 Feb. 1938, in response to Secretariat of State circular regarding procedure for nomination of bishops, ibid.

120 See Pollard, John F., Money and the rise of the modern papacy: financing the Vatican, 1850–1950, Cambridge 2005, ch. i.

121 Padre Dito op, memo on Radio Catholique aux Pays Bas (KRO), 25 Aug. 1936, ASV, AES, IV, Stati Ecclesiastici, 472, 473–4, 1931–7, Ente Radiofonico Cattolico.

122 Horn, Western European liberation theology, 21.

123 Slawson, The National Catholic Welfare Conference, 286.

124 Ibid.

125 John Pollard, ‘American Catholics and the financing of the Vatican during the Great Depression: Peter's Pence collections from US bishops in the late 1930s’, unpubl. conference paper.

126 See, for example, Lamberts, E. (ed.), The Black international/L'international noire, 1870–1878: the Holy See and militant Catholicism in Europe, Leuven 2001.

127 Pollard, The Vatican and Italian Fascism, chs v, vi.

128 Emma Fattorini, Pio XI, Hitler e Mussolini: la solitudine di un papa, Turin 2007, 187–192. For the theory and practice of ‘sacralised politics’ see Gentile, E., ‘The sacralisation of politics: definition, interpretations and reflections on the question of secular religion and totalitarianism’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 1 (2000), 1855.

129 Pollard, The Vatican and Italian Fascism, 190–1.

130 See P. Hebblethwaite, ‘Pope Pius xii: chaplain of the Atlantic alliance’, in C. Duggan and C. Wagstaff (eds), Italy and the Cold War: politics, culture and society, 1948–1958, Oxford 1995, 72–5.


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