The call to action and the response

Chapter 1

The call to action and the response

Catholic Action is not only lawful and necessary—but indispensable.

Pope Pius XI, Why Catholic Action, p. 15

In the early 20th century the Catholic Church believed that it was facing a crisis; a crisis because of the rise of secularism which said that religious faith and ordinary life should be separate. It was seen as a new form of paganism which led to the rise of a number of evils such as the exploitation of workers, the rise of race and class hatred, an attack on Christian ideas and ideals and a decline in personal and collective moral values.

The response of the Church to the perceived problem is highlighted by such things as the Papal social justice encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1892 and the writings of the Popes — Pius X, Benedict XV and especially Pius XI, who wrote the encyclical, Ube Arcano — Present day evils: causes and remedies, in 1922. Pius XI said in this encyclical that all evil comes from within the person and that the main problem was that people were separated from God and Christ and that God had been eliminated from the education of youth. His remedy was to restore the 'brotherhood of man' and public and private morals toy establishing the reign of Christ in the minds and souls of individuals and in civil society. This was to be done by various organisations including Catholic Action.

The nature of Catholic Action

[The underlying logic of Catholic Action was that the Church could make two responses to the situation of living in this new pagan environment. One was to withdraw from the situation and lead a separate existence from the rest of the world or, as the early Christians did, to face the situation head on. The first was not a solution because the Church could see that the laity was part of that world. However, the Church also saw that it would be hard for individuals working alone and in isolation to make any impact. What was needed was an organised common effort by all the Church, both clergy and laity, if anything was to be achieved.

The Church reasoned that there were three main areas which needed to be addressed if finy progress was to be made. The ideas of the people, their way of life and the institutions

The Australian experience

These same differences were also a factor in Australia, with different approaches taken by Melbourne and Sydney. Sydney opted for the Italian model of lay movements organised and run by the clergy where the lay members would be at the will and direction of the parish priest for all parochial activities and not act on their own initiatives. The Melbourne diocese and the Melbourne-located Secretariat of Catholic Action opted for the Belgium/ wrench model because the Secretariat considered it more suitable for Australian conditions because Australia was not a Catholic country like Italy. Therefore all the organisations set up by the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action (ANSCA) followed the Belgium/French model and adopted the Cardijn techniques and method of operation.

Specialised Catholic Action groups didn't have a formal official place in the Australian Church until 1937 when the Secretariat for Catholic Action was established. This is not to say that Catholic Action did not have any presence in the Australian Church until then. Some Catholic clergy and laity were interested in Catholic Action from the outset and various individuals, groups and organisations concerned themselves with how best it could be incorporated into Catholic life. Only one will be discussed here and that is the Campion Society. The original director of the ANSCA, Mr Frank Maher, and his assistant Mr B. A. Santamaria had been involved in the Campion groups and the society was very involved in the lead up work to the establishment of the Secretariat. The Campion Society was a group that consisted mainly of university graduates and students concerned with developing members' understanding of the intellectual and spiritual concerns of the day and contributing to the life of the Church. The Melbourne Campion Group began in 1931 and Frank Maher was one of its founding members.

In 1937, the Plenary Council of Bishops approved the formation of an official Catholic Action organisation. An Episcopal Committee of Catholic Action (ECCA) was set up and given the power to appoint a secretariat. The committee consisted of Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne (president), Archbishop Justin Simonds of Hobart (secretary)] Bishop Edmund Gleeson of Maitland and Archbishop Norman Gilroy of Sydney (though Archbishop Gilroy played virtually no part in its operation from the outset).

In November 1937 ECCA established ANSCA. It began operation in January 1938 undei the leadership of Frank Maher. Mr Maher said that the role of the secretariat was to be an advisory one, not a directing or controlling one. It was to be funded by annual quotas levied on each diocese in Australia and New Zealand. The Sydney archdiocese did nor co-operate with ANSCA and set up its own Diocesan Secretariat of the Lay Apostolate. In 1944 ECCA was expanded to include the episcopal chairman of each specialised movement.

The first specialised movement formed was the National Catholic Rural Movement (NCRM) in 1939. In May 1941 ECCA gave official authorisation to the establishment of a number of specialised national movements. Each movement was to have a part-time lay secretary and was to be responsible to a member of the hierarchy who was to be called the Episcopal Chairman. By 1943 there were five official national specialised Catholic Action organisations, four of which grew rapidly and were very successful and one which failed. They were:

  • The National Catholic Rural Movement (NCRM) — for people in rural areas.Episcopal Chairman was Bishop Hensche of Wagga Wagga. The NCRM had 250 groups by 1944.
  • The Young Christian Students (YCS) — for senior secondary and college students. Episcopal Chairman was Archbishop Beovich of Adelaide. The YCS1 was established in 120 secondary schools by 1944.
  • The Young Christian Workers (YCW) — for young working men. Episcopal Chairman was Archbishop Mannix and then Archbishop Simonds of Hobart from May 1943. The YCW existed in 13 dioceses by 1944.
  • The National Catholic Girls Movement (NCGM) — for young working women- Episcopal Chairman was Bishop Gleeson of Maitland. The NCGM existed 11 dioceses by 1944.
  • The National Christian Workers Movement (NCWM) — for adult working B Episcopal Chairman was Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne. The NCWM was established in the Melbourne diocese but failed to take root and never develop into a fully functioning national movement.

The task facing the Secretariat in 1938 was enormous. It had to establish the specialised Catholic Action organisations from scratch in almost virgin territory with very few experienced people. However, there was a small core of priests and lay people who, though not necessarily having direct experience in specialised Catholic Action organisations, did have an understanding of Catholic Action. It was this group, together with the secretariat, that pioneered those first specialised Catholic Action movements. In the case of the YCW (Boys) it was Father Lombard from Melbourne who was the major contributor and in the case of the NCGM it was the Ladies of the Grail. Negotiations regarding the input and role of the Ladies of the Grail in setting up a national girls movement began in 1938.

Though the Secretariat had the responsibility of setting up the national movements it needed the co-operation of the various diocesan bishops. Each diocesan bishop had the right to decide whether or not he would participate and co-operate with the Secretariat's plans and what form the organisation would take in his diocese. Therefore one of the first steps the Secretariat took was to approach the bishops of each diocese and ask them to appoint a co-ordinator of Catholic Action for their diocese. The director of the Brisbane Secretariat of Catholic Action was Mr J.P. Kelly, a solicitor. Establishing the specialised movements took a great deal of organisation, tact and delicate negotiations, especially in dioceses where there were already organisations existing in the relevant spheres of influence. This was especially so for the NCGM as it was to be a national federation to which the new and existing girls youth groups would be affiliated. These negotiations took place over quite long periods of time and, in the case of the Brisbane NCGM. were not fully resolved until the beginning of 1945.

A major achievement of the Secretariat was the direct training of priests and lay people through its organisation of National Summer Schools for lay people and seminarians. Another major achievement was the publication and dissemination of general works on Catholic Action and specialised texts relevant to the training and formation of chaplains and leaders in the techniques of Catholic Action. The organisational support and encouragement they gave the movements as well as the help in the development of the early programs and leaders bulletins were invaluable. Their work ensured that highly trained and committed groups of leaders and chaplains were formed with an understanding of the principles and techniques of Catholic Action and the abilities to put them into practice.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the specialised movements became more established, the interests of the Secretariat and the individual specialised movements began to diverge. The divergence mainly centred around the nature of the relationship that should exist between the Catholic Action movements and the Secretariat as well as the concern felt, especially by the YCW and to a lesser extent the YCS and NCGM, that the Secretariat was devoting too much of its time and resources to a non-Catholic Action organisation, the Catholic Social Studies Movement (CSSM), and activities that were outside the scope of Catholic Action. This divergence of views came to a head in 1953 and ECCA had to make a decision on the future of the Secretariat and its association with the (MÍ Action organisations. This led to the disbanding of the Secretariat in March 1954. As result the CSSM continued to operate as an independent Catholic organisation and four Catholic Action organisations (YCW, YCS, NCGM and NCRM) became autonomous under the direction of its own individual episcopal chairman who reported directly to thç annual meetings of the hierarchy (see note 2 at the end of this chapter).


1. The Legion of Mary was the most persistent Catholic girls organisation. On two occasions ii made representations to ECCA to be mandated as an official Catholic Action organisation and i was refused.

Nevertheless, the archbishop of Perth declared the Legion of Mary to be official Catholic Action When the NCGM was being set up in Perth, Father H. Lalor wanted all leaders in the NCGM to belong to and be trained in Praesidia of the Legion. The national executive of the NCGM made it clear that this was not acceptable as the Legion of Mary was not one of the official Catholic Action Organisations.

It should be noted that when the term 'Catholic Action' is used today it does not mean 19 organisations are mandated as official Catholic Action organisations or that the laity are participate in the work of the hierarchy. Since Vatican II there has been a development in the understanding of the role of the laity in the Church and it is recognised that the laity has its own apostolate which is derived from their baptism.

2. There has been much written about the role of the CSMM about which C. Jory said,

On 19 September 1945 an Extraordinary Meeting of the Hierarchy granted this body a mandate (now accepted as having been un-Canonical) to function as an official, although non-Catholic Action Church 'lay apostolate 'organisation. In this way the Movement gained the best of two worlds; it enjoyed all the prestige, facilities, and episcopal support of Catholic Action; but it was impeded by none of the Canonical regulations which so tightly defined and restricted the operations of official Catholic Action associations.

For a general overview of this topic, readers could read Chapter 11, Religion and Politics in 1 section Australians since 1939, in The Centenary History of Australia. For more detailed view readers may find the following useful:

Henderson G., Mr Santamaría and the Bishops (Hale & Iremonger, 1983) Santamaría B.A., Santamaría: a memoir (Oxford University Press, 1997)