Rorate Caeli

Taming the Action - I

Exactly 85 years ago, in September 1926, Pope Pius XI began to make public his careful move to extricate the Church in France from the complex matter of the Action française (the "French Action"), the all-encompassing movement guided by Charles Maurras - the final stages in a matter that had been simmering in the Sacred Halls for nearly two decades. In a response to a letter written by the Archbishop of Bordeaux, Cardinal Andrieu, to the youth of his diocese, in which several aspects of the movement were condemned, the Pope made clear that he was on the Cardinal's side against the totalizing view of a political movement - and much more was to come from Rome in the following months, as we will see in the next posts of this series.


To the most eminent Cardinal Andrieu, Archbishop of Bordeaux, whose letter is approved and praised.

Dear Son, greetings and apostolic blessing.

We have gladly read the response of Your Eminence to the group of young Catholics who questioned you on the matter of the "Action française". We have found in it a new and high testimony of the pastoral care and fatherly vigilance of Your Eminence for the good of souls and, particularly, of youth, threatened ceaselessly in our days. Your Eminence indicates, in fact, a danger that is as grave in this case as it touches, more or less directly, and without it appearing so, upon the Catholic faith and morals;

it could unwittingly cause the deviation of the true Catholic spirit, the fervor and the piety of the youth, and, in writings as in words, offend the frailty of their purity; in a word, it could lessen the perfection of Christian practice and, even more, the apostolate of a true "Catholic action", to which all the faithful, the youth most of all, are called to aid actively for the extension and the consolidation of the kingdom of Christ in individuals, in family, and in society.

It is thus very appropriate that Your Eminence leaves aside purely political questions, as for instance the form of government. On that, the Church leaves to each one his own just liberty. But he is not equally free, on the other hand, Your Eminence rightly remarks, to blindly follow the rulers of the "Action française" in matters related to faith and morals. Your Eminence rightly lists and condemns (in not only ancient publications) the signs of a new religious, moral, and social system, for instance regarding the notion of God, of the Incarnation, of the Church, and, generally, of Catholic dogma and morals, mainly in their necessary relations with politics, which is logically subordinated to morals. In substance, there is, in these manifestations [of Action française], traces of a rebirth of Paganism, to which is linked the Naturalism that these authors have placed, unconsciously, we believe, as so many of their contemporaries, in the public schooling of this modern and secular school, poisoner of youth, against which they themselves fight often so ardently.

Always anxious in the light of the dangers appearing from all parts to this dear youth, particularly from these detrimental tendencies, even if inspired by a good that undoubtedly is the praiseworthy love of country, we are pleased with the voices that, even outside of France, have arisen to caution and warn about it; we also do not doubt that all these young people will listen to your voice of Bishop and of Prince of the Church; in it and with it, they will listen to the very voice of the common Father of all the faithful. It is with this trust that We heartily grant to you, as well as to your Clergy and your faithful, the Apostolic Blessing.

Granted in Rome, next to Saint Peter's, on September 5, 1926, the fifth of our Pontificate.

Pius PP. XI


  1. My worldview could hardly be further removed from that of Action française but I think this was a mistake. Whatever one thinks of the Action, their beliefs/leadership hardly imperil faith and morals any more than, say, the various (freemasonic) centre-left parties -- and Catholics were never banned from joining them, no? Abp Lefebvre always regarded this as a mistake --- it was clearly motivated by a desire to reconcile with the 3rd Republic (...a laudable aim in itself, but this was OTT).

  2. Joe B1:14 PM

    Perhaps someone more intimately familiar with this era could keep me straight on this issue, but wasn't this movement from the political right and designed to counter the growing leftist movement in France? Perhaps the Holy Father, in squashing this movement instead of just identifying its excesses, could have kept alive the counter movement to the left, which ran rampant after this with such disastrous results for France and Europe.

    Admittedly not an expert, just seem to recall some concerns about the church's left-leaning political involvement at this time.

  3. Papal actions throughout Church history are replete with bad judgments and horrible mistakes and this one was in that category. Both Shane and Joe B offer perceptive remarks about this.

    And one doesn't have to always concentrate on recent Papal missteps to realize that this kind of thing is all too common. A study of Papal dithering during the time of Luther is far more depressing than Pius XI's ill-advised action toward Action Francaise.

    Even our beloved St Pius X was not above one catastrophic blunder: his willful promotion of Della Chiesa, cohort of Rampolla, in the face of strong evidence against his suitability for a Cardinal's hat.

  4. Anonymous7:09 PM

    The essential problem with Action Français, as I understand it, was that some of Maurras' ideas were not thoroughly Catholic. One must remember that, at this point in his life, Maurras was an agnostic (he returned to the Faith at the end of his life). As such, his ideas on the place of the Church in society were more pragmatic than anything else. His antisemitism led him to view the Gospels with suspicion because they were written by Jews. His political approach to religion also savored of a revival of Gallicanism.

    The most conservative of French Catholics, those generally allied with the legitimist position, had largely abandoned politics at this point, just as those in Italy had. Maurras was an Orleanist, and the followers he drew were mostly Orleanists and Bonapartists - the liberals of a century earlier.

    It must be remembered that the condemnation of Action Français as an organization came only after Maurras had ignored, for some twelve years, the action of Pius X in placing several of his works on the Index. Had Maurras and Action taken steps in the interim to correct their course, the condemnation might have been avoided.

    That said, much of what Action Français stood for was essentially good, and, as with the Falange in Spain, it was the best opposition that existed against the Marxists. Its condemnation essentially doomed France to be abandoned to the left.

    I will not go so far as to call Pius' condemnation a "mistake," but it does seem unfortunate when viewed with the hindsight of history. The fact that Pius XII saw fit to revoke it suggests that he viewed it as at least inopportune.

  5. John L1:42 AM

    'Not fully Catholic' scarcely does justice to Maurras' views. He was a convinced follower of Auguste Comte, the 19th-century founder of the positivist religion of science and humanity. He hated monotheism, and hated the Jews because they had promoted monotheistic belief. He held that the Catholic church had in practice rejected monotheism by substituting the authority of the Church for that of God, and approved of Catholicism for that reason. He thus accepted the worst Protestant slanders against Catholicism as true - but thought that they constituted praise of the Catholic faith; he hated Protestantism because he thought that it was monotheistic. Obviously Catholics could not follow or associate with such a man, whose movement was not simply a practical political one but was explicitly based on his ideology. Pius XI's condemnation of the movement was in keeping with his courageous defiance of non-Catholic ideologies.

    You will not hear these facts about Maurras admitted by French apologists for him, but they are not in doubt; descriptions of them can be found in Victor Nguyen's standard work 'Aux origines de l'Action Francaise' (the standard work on the subject, by a man by no means hostile to Maurras), and Michael Sutton's 'Nationalism, Positivism and Catholicism: The Politics of Charles Maurras and French Catholics, 1890-1914' (the latter highly recommended for anglophone monoglots).

  6. Well, one could say so much. One thing that I will bring to the fore is what I was recently told by a Traditionalist stalwart, whose name would be recognized by most here, that the condemnation of the AF was the straw that broke the camel's back for T.S. Eliot, who had been on the cusp of conversion until then. He remained an Anglo-Catholic (and monarchist) for the rest of his life.

    Archbishop Lefebvre said that Pius XI's judgment here was seriously deficient, as a prudential matter, as it was also when Pius ordered the Cristeros to lay down their arms, thus ensuring their deaths.

    On the side of gallows humor, however, is the great story (apparently true) of the leftist Academicien who was approached by a friend after Maurras had been elected to the French Academy and asked if he had voted for Maurras. He replied, "But of course, how could one resist the opportunity to vote against the Pope, the King and the Republic all in one vote?" [The part about the King is due to the fact that the Orleanist pretender had repudiated AF, the others should be obvious.]

  7. Anonymous9:11 PM

    @ John L

    Pius XI's condemnation of the movement was in keeping with his courageous defiance of non-Catholic ideologies.

    Quite true, which is why I stopped short of calling it a "mistake." Maurras was clearly wrong, and his views posed a potential danger to Catholics who associated with him - even those who were drawn more by the appearance of a viable monarchist movement than by philosophical positivism.

    The only question that can be fairly raised would be whether it was inopportune or imprudent, as Abp. Lefebvre professed. As I said, it seems that Pius XII was of the same mind. Otherwise, why would he have lifted the condemnation?

    One can ask conversely, though, whether perhaps Pius XI displayed more courage in being unwilling to compromise where the Faith was at stake, despite the menace of International Socialism? In the '20s, it must have seemed like the greatest danger was violence form revolutionary Communism. Surely the danger to the lives of Catholics would be outweighed by a danger to their souls. Would it not be better, then, to protect their souls, even at the cost of their lives? Or is this shortsighted? Does it overlooks the insidiousness of Marxist ideology, and the danger to souls in the future that would come from living in a world dominated by Marxists?

    I honestly cannot claim to know the answer, and I thank God that it was not my decision to make.

    At any rate, it is undeniable that, despite Maurras' personal views, there were a number of more-or-less decent Catholics were associated with Action Française before the condemnation. It is certainly most unfortunate that these were never able to form a cohesive movement without the heterodox elements.


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