Exactly a century ago on August 25, Pope Saint Pius X published the Apostolic Letter, Notre Charge Apostolique (“Our Apostolic Mandate”). That document complemented, in the sociopolitical field, the Pontiff’s struggle against the philosophical and theological errors of Modernism, which he condemned in his Encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (September 8, 1907).
Although the new document was aimed directly at the errors of the leftist French Catholic movement Le Sillon (“The Furrow”), its teachings are perfectly relevant today, as the progressivist movement, like the Sillonists of old, keeps “its eyes fixed on a chimera, bring[ing] Socialism in its train.”1
As in the times of Le Sillon, based on confusing calls for “change” and on false notions of human dignity, today they seek to build an entirely new civilization opposed to Christian civilization.
The Gradual Side-Tracking of a Catholic Movement
Le Sillon was founded in 1894 by a group of Catholic students on the initiative of Marc Sagnier (1873-1950), who became their leader and top ideologue. The movement quickly spread throughout France and particularly among the youth, enjoying the support of countless bishops. Large numbers of seminarians and young priests joined its ranks.
However, it did not take long before strange aspects and dangerous doctrines began to surface in the movement, such as an egalitarian tendency to place priests and laity on the same footing during study workshops. Likewise, a kind of democratic mysticism became increasingly prominent in it, presenting democracy as the only legitimate form of government compatible with Catholic doctrine. Now, this was in blatant contradiction with the teaching laid down by the previous pope, Leo XIII in many of his encyclicals.2
As a result, the bishops began to withdraw the support they had initially given Le Sillon. By 1910, ten French archbishops and twenty bishops had forbidden their clergy and seminarians from participating in the movement.
When the Bishop of Quimper issued that prohibition, Marc Sagnier retorted that the diocese’s priests should disobey their prelate and added: “I may be accused of being an anarchist, but I don’t care a hoot about that.”3
For its part, Le Sillon increasingly abandoned its Catholic tone and assumed a sort of mystical and populist democratism pursuant to the principles of the French Revolution. Its publication went from being a “Catholic review of social action,” to a “Review of democratic action.”
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Legitimate Concept of Democracy
Criticism of the purely ideological and egalitarian concept of democracy has nothing to do with democracy as a form of government. Catholic social doctrine — and wholesome philosophy as well — teaches that there are three classical forms of government, all of which are legitimate and in accordance with the natural order: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
Also, the noun democracy is frequently used as a synonym of liberty and an antonym of totalitarianism. According to Pius XII, the word democracy, used in this broad sense, “admits the various forms [of government] and can be realized in monarchies as well as republics.” The Pontiff also says: “With its pleiad of flourishing democratic communities, the Christian Middle Ages, particularly imbued with the spirit of the Church, showed that the Christian Faith knows how to create a true and proper democracy.” 4
Echoing the concerns of the French bishops, after much hesitation and having tried to bring Le Sillon back to the right path, on August 25, 1910, feast of Saint Louis the King of France, Pope Saint Pius X sent an official letter to the French episcopate. As customary in papal documents, it became known by its opening words (the Apostolic Letter was written in French): Notre Charge Apostolique (Our Apostolic Mandate).
As in his encyclical against the philosophical and theological errors of Modernism, the Saint analyzes with great perspicacity the tendencies and errors of Le Sillon and the psychological and moral, as well as philosophical and theological causes of its deviations. The document shines in logic and clarity, apostolic zeal for souls and unparalleled care for the integrity of the Faith and of Catholic social doctrine. Since it is impossible to summarize such a substantial document here, we will merely point out some of its aspects, recommending that it be read in its entirety.5
False Concept of Human Dignity
According to Saint Pius X, the fundamental doctrinal error of Le Sillon, from which all others emanate, is a false concept of human dignity that implies a complete liberation of man from all bonds of submission to another, whether these be social, intellectual, political or economic:
The first condition of that dignity is liberty, but viewed in the sense that, except in religious matters, each man is autonomous. This is the basic principle from which Le Sillon draws further conclusions: today the people are in tutelage under an authority distinct from themselves; they must liberate themselves: political emancipation. They are also dependent upon employers who own the means of production, exploit, oppress and degrade the workers; they must shake off the yoke: economic emancipation.
Finally, they are ruled by a caste preponderance in the direction of affairs. The people must break away from this dominion: intellectual emancipation. The leveling-down of differences from this three-fold point of view will bring about equality among men, and such equality is viewed as true human justice. A socio-political set-up resting on these two pillars of Liberty and Equality (to which Fraternity will presently be added), is what they call Democracy.6
Divinize Neither the State, nor the People
Le Sillon upheld the thesis propounded by the Enlightenment7 that the origin of all authority lies in the people, who merely delegate it temporarily to someone and can depose him at any time:
Le Sillon places public authority primarily in the people, from whom it then flows into the government in such a manner, however, that it continues to reside in the people.8
In order to better understand that doctrinal error, consider the following:
Human authority is a power of a moral nature that obliges one man to obey another. But what does “obey” mean, other than the submission of one’s will to that of someone else? And how can any man impose his will on another if, everyone being equal by nature, their wills are of the same weight and value? Hence, from the strict perspective of human nature alone, there are no grounds that justify the imposition of one man’s will on another; no man has a right to exercise authority over another.
This gives rise to a problem, because if on the one hand the reasoning above is true, on the other, man being sociable by nature, he feels drawn to life in society. But life in society becomes impossible without an authority to unify, guide, and coordinate everyone’s individual efforts toward the common good, which is the purpose of life in society.
A solution to this problem is only possible if we consider that human authority is not an independent authority that originates from within human nature itself, but an authority by participation in the authority of a being with a superior nature. This higher being, Who is God, stands above all created wills and thus can oblige the human will to bend before and acknowledge His authority. Therefore, the origin of all authority is God; and this explains why some men can command others: their authority to do so derives from, and is a participation in the supreme authority of God.
Moreover, this philosophical truth, which we attain through the use of reason, was confirmed by divine Revelation. Suffice it to quote the famous teaching of Saint Paul to the Romans: “there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God.”9
Thus, those who claim that authority originates from the people or from the State are in fact deifying the people or the State. This entails a certain form of social and political pantheism10 that feeds the mystique of both populism and State-worshipping totalitarianism.
Therefore, since all authority comes from God, both those who command and those who obey must submit to the divine will and work together to achieve the ultimate end of man, which is eternal salvation, and the immediate end of life in society, which is the pursuit of the common good.
Change Mania and Scorn for Tradition
When man abandons reality to chase after chimeras, he begins to dream with nonexistent worlds and magical formulas to get there. In other words, he becomes a social reformer. His slogan and goal now become “change,” which he implements by jettisoning the country’s principles, traditions and customs.
That is what happened with Le Sillon. As Saint Pius X put it, the Sillonists, “by ignoring the laws governing human nature,” lead society “not toward progress, but toward death.” They “dream of changing its natural and traditional foundations; they dream of a Future City built on different principles; and they dare to proclaim these more fruitful and more beneficial than the principles upon which the present Christian City rests.”11
Seductive Words, Nefarious Errors
To seduce the incautious, the Sillonists present their errors and daydreaming “in dynamic language which, concealing vague notions and ambiguous expressions with emotional and high-sounding words, is likely to set ablaze the hearts of men in pursuit of ideals which, whilst attractive, are nonetheless nefarious.”12
And the Holy Pope has a special warning for priests:
However, let not these priests be misled, in the maze of current opinions, by the miracles of a false Democracy. Let them not borrow from the Rhetoric of the worst enemies of the Church and of the people, the high-flown phrases, full of promises; which are as high-sounding as unattainable.…Indeed, the true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries, nor innovators: they are traditionalists.13
Christian Civilization Must be Restored, not Destroyed
And the saint goes on to present with incisive words the great lesson of this magnificent document whose centennial we now celebrate, a lesson more valid and necessary than ever:
No, Venerable Brethren, We must repeat with the utmost energy in these times of social and intellectual anarchy when everyone takes it upon himself to teach as a teacher and lawmaker – the City cannot be built otherwise than as God has built it; society cannot be set up unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work; no, civilization is not something yet to be found, nor is the New City to be built on hazy notions; it has been in existence and still is: it is Christian civilization, it is the Catholic City. It has only to be set up and restored continually against the unremitting attacks of insane dreamers, rebels and miscreants. OMNIA INSTAURARE IN CHRISTO.14
Let Us Not Repeat the Errors of the Past
History repeats itself, as the common saying has it. And although history flows like a river, its ever changing events never turning back, new events closely resemble the old ones by the simple fact that human nature always remains the same. Hence the famous phrase in the Ecclesiastes, “Nothing under the sun is new.”15
This is why history is called the teacher of life; for while man learns from his own experience, he learns a whole lot more from the pool of experience accumulated through the ages: in other words, by knowing history.
Indeed, knowledge of past developments, above all those similar to events now unfolding, enables us to better understand the present by analyzing the right moves and mistakes of our forerunners.
The errors of Le Sillon, its populism, and craze for novelties and scorn for tradition warn us against the dangers that such tenets pose today to society and Holy Mother Church.
And the clear and incisive warnings of the great Saint Pius X – one of the greatest popes in history – should guide us on how to analyze the present situation and take a stand consistent with Church doctrine.
“To Restore all Things in Christ”
Let us close by thanking Divine Providence, on this centennial year of Notre Charge Apostolique, for that enlightening document so full of his loving zeal. The motto of Saint Pius X, Omnia Instaurare in Christo [“To restore all things in Christ”], should be our own.
- Notre Charge Apostolique (“Our Apostolic Mandate”), no. 38, (paragraph numbers are ours) at //www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=5456&CFID=3649535&CFTOKEN=23143625.
- For example, Leo XIII, Encyclical Au Milieu Des Sollicitudes, On the Church and State in France, 1892, //www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_16021892_au-milieu-des-sollicitudes_en.html.
- Adrien Dansette, Religious History of Modern France, v. II, Herder, Freiburg-Nelson, Edinburgh-London, 1961, p. 284.
- Vincent A. Yzermans, ed., The Major Addresses of Pope Pius XII (St. Paul: North Central Publishing Co, 1961), Vol. 2, pp. 80-82)
- For instance at //www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=5456&CFID=3649535&CFTOKEN=23143625.
- No. 13.
- The Enlightenment was an ideological movement propelled by the so-called ‘Philosophers’ of the eighteenth century who intended to completely secularize the world in every sphere: culture, politics, morals and so on. They denied the existence of Divine Providence and maintained that, just as a watchmaker puts together a clock and winds it up so it will work and then stops thinking about it, so also God, once having created the world and the laws that govern it, ceased to have any relationship with it. The ‘watchmaker-God’ metaphor is by Voltaire (1694-1778), the most famous representative of that group.
- No. 21.
- Romans, 13:1. Cf. Encyclical Diuturnum, by Pope Leo XIII on the origin of civil power, no. 11, at //www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_29061881_diuturnum_en.html.
- Pantheism: a philosophical-religious system that identifies God with creation: everything is ‘god.’
- No. 10.
- No. 1.
- No. 44.
- No. 11.
- Ecclesiastes, 1:10.