Conservative Social Catholicism

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Conservative Social Catholicism
Conservative Social Catholicism

The following article is adapted from the book Liberation Theology: How Marxism Infiltrated the Catholic Church written by Julio Loredo de Izcue.


This book is not about conservative social Catholicism, faithful to the Magisterium. For the sake of completeness, though, we will devote a few lines to it. Representatives of this tendency maintained that the problem was one of morals, not institutions. The solution, in their view, had to start with a profound strengthening of the Catholic faith and moral principles, not social engineering.

Still, realizing that the root cause of the proletarian problem was the breakdown of organic society, they proposed solutions based on the recovery of organic institutions such as the family, the guilds, and corporations. Since the downfall (or at least weakening) of those institutions had eliminated the intermediate bodies between the individual and the State, there was a twofold revolutionary trend: either the State tended to swallow everything (State Socialism), or rampant individualism tended to dissolve the social fabric (social anarchism). Only the restoration of intermediate bodies could protect people from that double danger and restore balance to society. This is the principle of subsidiarity, cornerstone of Catholic social doctrine. In this matter, it is worth noting the works of Italian Jesuit Fr. Luigi Taparelli (1793–1862), co-founder of the magazine Civiltà Cattolica in Rome.1

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Opposed to both Socialism and Liberalism, conservative social Catholics were often associated with sectors then called intransigent, counter-revolutionary, or ultramontane, that is, with the political right. Among its best-known representatives in France were Frédéric LePlay (1806–1882), Charles Périn (1815–1905), and Emile Keller (1828–1909). There was also a school led by Most Rev. Charles Emile Freppel, bishop of Angers (1827–1891). This school upheld the rights of private property and vindicated a greater role for free enterprise, limiting the role of the State to the protection of individual rights and the correction of abuses. Suspicious of labor unions, often infiltrated by socialists, it proposed instead a constant cooperation between management and labor to solve the social question. In sum, it steered closer to capitalism than other segments of social Catholicism, though it rejected its liberal inspiration and laissez-faire excesses.

In Italy, social Catholicism arose in a peculiar historical context. In 1868, the anticlericalism of the Savoy monarchy had driven Pius IX to enact the policy known as non expedit (it is not convenient), which declared it unacceptable for Italian Catholics to participate in political elections and, by extension, in political life. Pope Leo XIII reiterated that provision in 1886. Excluded from politics, many Catholics devoted themselves to charitable initiatives and educational and social works. That was the era of great social saints like St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo (1786–1842), St. John Bosco (1815–1888), St. Leonard Murialdo (1828–1900), St. John Piamarta (1841–1913), St. Louis Guanella (1842–1915), Blessed Bartolo Longo (1841–1926), St. Hannibal of France (1851–1927), Blessed Contardo Ferrini (1859–1902), and many others. Social initiatives often came from the aristocracy, as was the case with the Servant of God Giulia Falletti Colbert de Maulévrier, Marchioness of Barolo (1785–1864).

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They lived their social commitment not only with dutiful works of charity toward the poor, but also as defiance in the face of the liberal persecution against the Church, an affirmation of Catholic spirit in opposition to the new political class, and a tool to organize the Catholic masses and especially the young.

As the growing Catholic social movement coalesced, the Society of Italian Catholic Youth was founded on June 29, 1867. Attorney Giovanni Acquaderni (1839–1922) assumed its presidency. His police record classified him as a “clerical reactionary.” Later, Count Mario Fani Ciotti (1845–1869) joined him. Pope Pius IX approved the new association in 1868, with the brief Dum filii belial. The Society defended Pius IX and his anti-liberal policy. The sovereign pontiff reciprocated with a phrase that became a motto:

“Together we will fight error. . . .”

“. . . You are with me, I am with you.”2

The Society’s program, published on January 4, 1868, began with an attack on Freemasonry (“those men without faith and without God that have invaded and corrupted everything”), and stressed the urgency of religious education for the youth. In the social sphere, it proposed a society based on family, morality, and faith.

The first national Catholic Conference was held in Venice in June 1874. Presided over by Giovanni Acquaderni, the five hundred delegates agreed to safeguard Italian religious traditions against liberal society. In their speeches, they strongly attacked the Revolution, “this snake that poisons, this tiger that dismembers, this she-wolf that devours, this dirty witch.”3 At a second conference, held in Florence in 1875, they created the Opera dei Congressi, entrusting the presidency to Acquaderni. The climate was one of great enthusiasm. Giovanni Spadolini spoke of “King’s heralds of militant Catholicism.”4

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  1. See Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, Esame critico degli ordini rappresentativi nella società moderna, 2 vols. (Rome: 1854). Fr. Taparelli developed his thought in over two hundred articles in Civiltà Cattolica, all of them with such a tenor that he was called the “hammer of liberal concepts” (Antonio Messineo). He opposed the unification of Italy. While defending the primacy of society over the State he criticized the centralizing tendency of the Savoy government. For him, living organisms as the family, the community, and the village were foreign to the liberal, nationalist ideology.
  2. Giacomo De Antonellis, Storia dell’Azione Cattolica dal 1867 a oggi (Milan: Rizzoli, 1987), 56–57. On Acquaderni and Fani, see Paola Dal Toso and Ernesto Diaco, Mario Fani e Giovanni Acquaderni: Profilo e scritti dei fondatori dell’Azione Cattolica (Rome: AVE, 2008); Mario Agnes, ed., Giovanni Acquaderni: Ricordi ai suoi amici (Rome: AVE, 1977).
  3. Gabriele De Rosa, Il movimento cattolico in Italia: Dalla restaurazione all’età giolittiana (Bari: Editori Laterza, 1988), 59. During the Spanish civil wars of the 1800s between traditionalists and liberals, the Catholic Youth Society unwaveringly sided with Catholics. See Lorenzo Bedeschi, Le origini della gioventù cattolica dalla caduta del governo pontificio al primo congresso cattolico di Venezia su documenti inediti d’archivio (Bologna: Cappelli, 1959), 102.
  4. Giovanni Spadolini, L’opposizione cattolica da Porta Pia al ‘98 (Florence: Vallecchi, 1964), quoted in De Antonellis, Storia dell’Azione Cattolica, 17. The Camelots du Roi (King’s Heralds) were a monarchical and anti-liberal militant youth sector linked to Action Française.

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