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 work. This article is adapted from the book Liberation Theology: How Marxism Infiltrated the Catholic Church written by Julio Loredo de Izcue.
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In his book on the Second Vatican Council, Prof. Roberto de Mattei writes:
“With regard to the new heterodox tendencies that were beginning to spread in the Church, the first cry of alarm came unexpectedly from Latin America, where progressivism had arrived during the thirties via the central European liturgical movement. . . .
. . . In June 1943 his [Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira] book entitled In Defense of Catholic Action was published with a preface by the nuncio Benedetto Aloisi Masella. . . . The work . . . was the first thoroughgoing refutation of the deviations that were lurking within Catholic Action in Brazil and, upon reflection, in the world.”1
At the time, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was president of the Archdiocesan Board of Catholic Action of São Paulo and already a prominent Catholic figure in Brazil. A sharp observer, he saw the deleterious action of the revolutionary process that, while diluting the influence of the Church by driving people ever further away from religious practice, undermined in their mentality the very foundations of the Faith. That process, later called secularization, was welcomed by the Catholic sectors influenced by the humanist, anti-capitalist, and anti-bourgeois new Christendom approach proposed by Jacques Maritain. On the other hand, there was the challenge posed by the equally secularized totalitarian movements, in that the solutions they offered were false and founded on nationalistic or racist ideals rather than on the restoration of Christian principles.
Faced with this double challenge, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira defended the autonomy of the Church: “Catholics must be anticommunist, antinazi, antiliberal, antisocialist . . . precisely because they are Catholic.”2 He advocated a strong and resolute apostolate that would challenge secular movements on their own ground, for example, through marches of young Catholics with lots of flags and marching bands. He thus correctly interpreted their appetite for symbols that evoked order and hierarchy, certain that they would attract scores of young idealists to the Church. However, his proposals were not taken up by the leadership, already more prone to dialogue and compromise than to teach and lead. History has recorded the archbishop of São Paulo’s prohibition for 15,000 young men to parade through the city streets during the Regional Conference of Marian Sodalities in 1935.
While it is difficult to make historical conjectures, it is legitimate to wonder (and some scholars have),3 what the outcome would have been had the hierarchy adopted the pastoral policy proposed by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. In other words, a strong, defined, and militant Catholicism that tended to a sacralization of civil society, i.e., the restoration of Christian civilization. The Catholic leader was convinced that such an approach could reverse the impending crisis. Massimo Introvigne comments that from Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s action “emerges the idea that the ‘less religion’ instead of a ‘more religion’ solution to the Church’s problems . . . does not date from 1950 and the influence of Brazilian and foreign priests enraptured with Marxism but was already very much present in the 1940s.”4
As many Catholic circles tended to engage in dialogue and succumb to modern errors (“less religion”), the infiltration of such errors grew, finding justification in new theological schools. As president of the archdiocesan Catholic Action, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira realized the vast scope of that infiltration. Initially, he tried to counter it by intervening in the movement to bring it back to the intent of Pius XI. However, his action was severely hampered. At that point, he made a decision he himself explains:
“It was precisely then that tragedy struck, provoked by the progressive germs. . . .
. . . Evil was being spread with great art, skill, and capacity to recruit. So, amid general incautiousness, we needed to sound a cry of alert to call everyone’s attention. Thus it was that . . . we published the bombshell book, In Defense of Catholic Action. It was a kamikaze gesture. Either progressivism would be blown up, or we would.”5
Without underestimating a theological and canonical analysis, to which he devotes several chapters, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was especially intent on denouncing the crisis as it was actually lived in the ranks of the Catholic movement, with special attention to the new mentality that undergird it. Of particular interest is the third part (“Internal Problems of Catholic Action”), in which the Brazilian leader denounces the growing laxity in the admission of new members and in the expulsion of those who had shown themselves unworthy. Those who subscribed to the new mentality refused to condemn erroneous doctrines or punish improper attitudes, justifying their liberalism as an obligation of charity. They explicitly rejected the Church’s militant character and adopted instead a do-good attitude tending to relativism. The author then devotes several pages to the question of fashions, ambiences, dances, manners and customs, and other similar issues, showing how much his attention was turned to tendential aspects of the revolutionary phenomenon.
In the introduction, he calls for action: “Catholic Action . . . would already risk being turned against its own ends if the action of (fortunately) small groups where error did find enthusiastic adepts were not courageously checked.”6 Unfortunately, as Massimo Introvigne observes, “The analysis of the evils of Catholic Action proposed by In Defense of Catholic Action remained unheeded. . . . by the majority of bishops and priests.”7 In this regard, we cannot fail to recall Bernardino Cardinal Echeverría’s lament at the Catholic leader’s 1995 passing, “Ah, if only that voice had been heeded!”8
- Roberto de Mattei, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story (Fitzwilliam, N.H.: Loreto Publications, 2012), 55, 56.
- Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “Pela grandeza e liberdade da Ação Católica,” O Legionário (São Paulo), no. 331 (Jan. 15, 1939).
- See Massimo Introvigne, Una battaglia nella notte: Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira e la crisi del secolo XX nella chiesa (Milan: Sugarco Edizioni, 2008).
- Introvigne, Una battaglia nella notte, 44.
- Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “Kamikaze,” Folha de S. Paulo, Feb. 15, 1969.
- Corrêa de Oliveira, In Defense of Catholic Action, 23–24. The book’s preface was by Most Rev. Benedetto Aloisi Masella, then apostolic nuncio to Brazil and later made a cardinal. In 1949, the book received a letter of praise from the Holy See, signed on behalf of Pope Pius XII by Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, then substitute secretary of state.
- Introvigne, Una battaglia nella notte, 48.
- Bernardino Cardinal Echeverria Ruiz, “Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira: Distinguished Apostle, Ardent and Intrepid Polemist,” TFP.org, Nov. 12, 1995.