Catholicism and the Modern State

Today, when liberalism and democracy are everywhere giving way to collectivism and totalitarianism, the significance of the change in secularized Western culture is being observed.

By H. L. RUDY, Secretary, Central European Division, Section II

With the breakdown of the capitalist order during the past twenty years, the whole social structure of the mod­ern world is undergoing a process of change invoking a new relation between society and the individual, and a new conception of the nature and function of the state. The tend­ency in Western states is toward economic nationalism. The people want state control of the economic situation—the state to safe­guard the national standard of life and to regulate trade in the interests of the home producer. All this leads toward concentra­tion of political forces, and toward national dictatorships. That is the exact explanation of the present German revolution.

The modern state in Continental Europe—and as it expands westward—brings with it the central idea of complete control of the whole human being, including religion. New spiritual ideals are being created to replace the secularism of Western society. The lib­eral Christianity of the past generation has been too colorless and dead to satisfy the needs of society. The new state is in search of a new faith. It demands some positive principle on which to base its action—some ideal which will arouse the enthusiasm of its supporters and secure the spiritual loyalty of its subjects. Christianity has long ceased to be the ruling faith of national culture, and the tendency of the new state is to look for inspiration elsewhere—to some secular sub­stitute for religion.

Today, when liberalism and democracy are everywhere giving way to collectivism and to­talitarianism, the significance of the change in secularized Western culture is being observed. The modern state, the world over, claims to dominate and control the whole life of society and of the individual. The old conceptions of the relation between church and state are no longer applicable to the new situation, and so­ciety is forced to reconsider the whole problem from this new standpoint.

The modern state lays important claims on the individual. This has come about largely through the following accepted policies: (a) universal compulsory education of children; (b) universal military education as practiced in Continental Europe, Japan, and other coun­tries; and (c) the extension of economic control by the state. In each case the individual represents the central factor ; and since both the state and the church hold important claims

on the individual and these claims greatlf overlap, it becomes self-evident that there must of necessity arise serious clashes between the two institutions. Here lies the primary cause for the existing war between the modern state and established religion.

Communism is avowedly hostile to religion. On the other hand, Fascism and Naziism are not consciously or intentionally hostile to reli­gion, i.e., antireligious. In Italy and Austria much fuller recognition has been given to the place of religion in national life than was the case during democratic regime. In Soviet Russia, communism "is a religion and a cul­ture in its own right." In Germany, the dan­ger lies in the fact that National Socialism has a religion of its own which is not that of Christian orthodoxy. Attempts toward a na­tional church have been made by National Socialists. Such a church is to be the servant of the state, for the new state will be univer­sal and omnicompetent.

In the years of democratic postwar Europe it happened that the only surviving autocracy —the Roman Catholic Church—was discarded and abandoned in all secular states. But the danger of international disruption of recent years has brought about a changed situation.

Dean Inge, characterizing this situation in his book, "The Church in the World" (1927), states that, "the real strength of the Roman Church lies in its wonderful organization." He also declares : "It is quite possible that if international revolutionary conspiracies be­came really menacing, European civilization may find no other protection than the 'Black International,'• round which all supporters of law and order may, in terror of general up­heaval, gather themselves." "If this happens," the dean continues, "the church will once more have the support of the educated portion of society, and may even ally itself again with humanism and science and so recover from the blunders of the last four centuries."—Pages 54, 55.

It is a fact that the Roman Catholic Church is the only religious institution in the world today that has been able to dictate terms to present dictatorships. Max Ascoli, formerly professor of jurisprudence in several Italian universities, gives vivid expression to this thought in Foreign Affairs for April, 1935:

"Catholic dynasties have disappeared in Central and Western Europe; new democratic orders have been tried in the countries where those dynasties ruled; and after a short lapse of time they too collapsed. The Center Party in Germany, the Popu­lar Party in Italy are remembrances of the past; the Church herself consecrated their destruction. Yet the Catholic Church is so strong that she is able to make fanatical and all-pervasive dictatorships recog­nize her universal corporate entity. In representing Catholics who are subject to dictatorial rule, she enjoys the privilege of collective bargaining, which is denied to every other national or international group. The ease with which she gives up old policies, the cool manner in which she leaves accumulated ex­periences and hard-won advantages to destruction when the fight appears hopeless, the capacity to 'ne­gotiate with the devil' as Pius XI put it—all this is a tremendous lesson to those inclined to identify a Catholic policy with the Catholic policy."—Page 441.

Turning to the relations between the Papacy and Fascist Italy, Mr. Ascoli continues:

"Direct relations between Fascist Italy and the Catholic Church should logically have brought about a clash. But the Fascist regime needed an unction, and the Catholic Church needed, in the interest of Christian Italy, to establish legal relations with the new political system. There are laws in hell as well as in heaven, and it is always possible to estab­lish norms of coordination between two legal sys­tems."—Id. p. 47.

"The Church still is not a determining force in international events," the same writer con­cludes. But he adds:

"She is an organism capable of miraculous read­justments and transformations in the struggle to preserve herself. Her sphere of prestige is enor­mously broadened now that she can deal directly with sternly organized states while retaining all her connections with her citizens. She has ceased to be a potential federation of Catholic parties or of Cath­olic national groups. She is again the universal Church of Rome."—Id., P. 455.


In order to effect an organization by means of which the Papacy can deal effectively with the new political situation, Pope Pius XI per­fected the instrument known as "Catholic Ac­tion." In 1922, when Fascism came into power in Italy, Pius XI organized the "Azione Catolica Italiana" in order to unify "the then loosely connected Catholic lay societies in Italy and to bring them more directly under his authority."

In addressing delegates from the Catholic University Students' Federation on September 8, 1924, Pius XI said:

" 'Catholic Action,' while not partaking in politics as such, intends to•teach Catholics the best way of making use of politics. It offers the training de­manded by every profession. Those who want to do good in politics cannot escape the duty of a suitable preparation."—Current History, October, 1931, p. 30.

"Primarily, 'Catholic Action' as the term is used now," says the Catholic historian, Michael Williams, "may be described as both the intensification and the more highly organized collective direction of the apostolic mission of the Church in the world, built upon the par­ticipation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.' "—"The Catholic Church in Ac­tion," 1934, P. 337.

Thus Catholicism is adjusting itself spiritually and organically to the new political situa­tion. The dissolution of the multitudinous po­litical parties of the democratic era helped to serve the purpose of Romanism. "The totali­tarian state offered the opportunity for a totalitarian permeation by the Church. Chris­tian principles could be made to irradiate in every sphere of life."


When first organized in Italy, "Catholic Action" embraced eight organizations, which in turn comprehended many subsidiary bodies, including the Catholic Men's Federation, the Catholic Women's Federation, Catholic Young Men's Society, Catholic University Students' Federation, Board of Public Morals, and the Institute of Economic and Social Activities. The same organization has been extended to other countries of Europe and the world. It is indeed the "intensification and the more highly organized collective direction of the apostolic mission of the Church in the world." This means that the Catholic Church has or­ganized a laymen's movement built upon "par­ticipation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy." Books and periodicals explaining the unity of "Catholic Action" programs, in carrying on progressively and successfully the Catholic ideal throughout all the nations of earth, are now being used in Catholic schools and societies. Even in countries ruled by all-pervasive governments, the Catholic Church has been able to introduce this special type of propaganda material.

The Catholic Church is not only interested in conducting the rites and administering the sacraments; it is also vitally concerned in edu­cating every member of its body in "the best way of making use of politics."

It might appear from the foregoing state­ments that Catholicism is marching straight toward assured victory. The ground may seem thoroughly prepared for her in present-day totalitarianism, which appears to be fer­tile soil in the thirst for universaal power. Yet no one is quicker to realize and recognize the fact that victory is not assured than the Catholic Church itself. What Rome is sure of now is a definite revival in Catholicism. Says the eminent Catholic historian, Karl Adam: "We are seeing realized before us, irresistible, unconquerable, living might of the Catholic Church. . . . That is the vision that amid the desolation of the present, holds our gaze spell­bound. We discern the immortality, the vig­orous life, the eternal youth of the old, origi­nal church."—"The Spirit of Catholicism," 1936, pp. 7, 8.

With vigor ana youthfulness Catholicism is indeed addressing itself to modern political and social problems. The question arises, as Karl Adam has stated it: "What is the source of this strong life? And can the Church im­part it, and will she impart it, to the dying Western world?"—Id,, p. 8.

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By H. L. RUDY, Secretary, Central European Division, Section II

February 1938

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