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 epic work. This article is Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira’s account of the struggle and the consequences of its publication. The article was published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo on Feb. 15, 1969.
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How did the gradual formation of the nucleus of fighters which later became the TFP take place along with the germination of progressivism? Who were the members of this nucleus, what was their place in Catholic circles, and what were their hopes and first battles?
To answer these questions, albeit in broad terms, we need to consider the conditions of Church life in Brazil from 1937 to 1943.
In those years, there existed a great and shining reality called “the Catholic movement.” This general label included the whole collection of religious associations spread throughout Brazil. Naturally, as in any vast collection, there was some diversity. Thus, there were inert organizations made dominant with time and others simply obsolete due to various circumstances. However, some organizations possessed undeniable vitality and even extraordinary dynamism.
The Marian Sodalities stood out among the latter. The Marian movement expanded its influence considerably from 1925 to 1930. It was attaining its apex at this time. In a country like ours, the practice of religion before this movement was reduced to only women and a minority of aging men. Thus the Marian movement rendered the Church the incomparable service of attracting whole legions of young people from all social classes to a life of piety and apostolate.
This whole world of new and old associations—so numerous as to be called a world—was marching forward, filially united with a clergy with many figures of courage and prestige and a cohesive and profoundly venerated episcopate.
The strength of the Catholic movement proved itself on a thousand occasions. Thus, in 1933, the youngest candidate to the Federal Constituent Assembly was also the one who received the largest number of votes. He was 24 years old and obtained 24,000 votes (12,000 were needed to be elected). He owed that vote exclusively to the support of Catholic associations in São Paulo. The test caused such an impression and surprise that from that moment on, the Catholic Electoral League became known as one of the greatest powers in the country. More than 35 years later, it is with joy and gratitude to Our Lady that this candidate-elect of 1933 now recalls these events for Folha de S. Paulo readers.
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Once my action on the legislative scene ended, I returned to fight in the Catholic ranks as I had since 1928. I was then entrusted with the direction of the paper, Legionário, the mouthpiece of the Marian Sodality of the parish of Saint Cecilia. The editorial staff of that weekly publication consisted of a group of friends who gradually gathered together. We were all members of the Marian Sodalities and dedicated ourselves body and soul to Catholic journalism.
Legionário was not written for the general public but targeted that huge, somewhat closed universe of the Catholic movement. Inside that universe, its influence extended throughout the country, representing the thought of the youngest and most dynamic Catholic forces.
This influence was further reinforced by the personal situation of my associates and myself within the Catholic movement. We were part of the leadership of the most outstanding associations of Catholic youth in São Paulo, the Marian citadel par excellence. Along with other associates of exceptional valor, two young and already famous seminary professors worked with Legionário. One of them was Msgr. Antônio de Castro Mayer, our ecclesiastical assistant. The other was Fr. Geraldo de Proença Sigaud, SVD, a very assiduous columnist. Monsignor Mayer was the Archdiocese’s Vicar General for Catholic Action, and Father Sigaud was ecclesiastical assistant to the Young Catholic Workers Youth (YOC) and Young Catholic Students (JEC). I was president of the Archdiocesan Board of Catholic Action.
Of course, Legionário did run into problems and disputes, but small ones. The scuffles came from fascist-leaning readers irritated with Leginário’s unrelenting campaign against Nazism and fascism.
Everything seemed to promise a future of productive and peaceful work.
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At this precise moment, tragedy struck—tragedy provoked by progressivist germs.
From the very inception of this crisis, Legionário was subtly attacked since it was the mouthpiece of a mentality that progressivist plotters wanted to see extinguished and replaced with the present mentality contrary to tradition. Also, from the outset, we noted in our editorial staff meetings that this evil was being spread with great art, skill and capacity to recruit.
Thus, amid the general unwariness inside Catholic circles, we needed to sound the alarm to call everyone’s attention to these errors. Thus, with the full support of Msgr. Mayer and Fr. Sigaud, I published the bombshell book, In Defense of Catholic Action. It was a kamikaze act. Either progressivism and/or ourselves would be blown up in the process.
And thus, it happened. In Catholic circles, the book drew applause from some, furious irritation from others, and raised profound suspicions in the vast majority.
The thick night of heavy, complete and endless ostracism descended upon my friends who remained faithful to the book. Abandonment and oblivion enveloped us while still in the prime of our youth. It was a sacrifice foreseen and accepted. The dawn only began to return in 1947.
However, the book dealt a blow to nascent progressivism, from which it never recovered. The publication sounded the alarm, and the immense majority remained on its guard regarding nascent progressivism and did not allow itself to be deceived. If progressivism in Catholic Brazil today is reduced to a hellish ruckus made by an influential minority with great media support, and if the Catholic grassroots harbors suspicions about it, this is due largely to the precocious cry of alert of In Defense of Catholic Action. The kamikaze sacrifice was very well worth the cost.
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Nothing is more complex than writing about recent history. Of course, other names and deeds could also be mentioned regarding the reaction against progressivism. I recall, however, that I did not intend to give the pre-history of progressivism but of the TFP. Thus, I have kept my focus.