In December 1922, Pope Pius XI issued Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, an encyclical letter that introduced the terms “Catholic Action” and “lay apostolate” into the literature. Technically, Catholic Action is the work of the laity in support of the hierarchy. However, over the next half century this more restrictive definition would be broadened through the efforts of numerous individuals and groups who in varied ways sought to manifest the social teachings of the church through direct service to the poor and those who lived on the margins of society.
The Grail Movement, the Young Christian Workers, and the Christian Family Movement
Catholic Action groups, especially in the United States, were quite prominent beginning in the interwar years and continuing to the onset of Vatican II. The Grail Movement, originally founded in Holland in 1921 by Jacques van Ginnecken, migrated to the United States in 1940 and was headquartered at Loveland, Ohio. This worldwide spiritual renewal assisted women exclusively in three specific areas. First, participants were encouraged to actively engage ecumenical dialogue. Secondly, women were educated to help them realize their full potential. Lastly, the Grail Movement promoted international and intercultural cooperation.
The YCW and CFM used a threefold system to effect social change:observe, judge, act. First, it was necessary to observe the situation. Secondly, members had to judge what plan of action could be brought to correct the observed problem. Thirdly, participants had to act in order to effect the necessary change.
The Young Christian Workers (YCW), originating in Belgium through the efforts of Father (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn was active as early as 1912. Known in Europe as the Jocists (JOC), the group came to the United States in the late 1930s with cells formed initially in Brooklyn, Toledo, and San Francisco. The group had a threefold purpose: formation of youth, service, and representation.
A third mainstream Catholic Action group was the Christian Family Movement (CFM). Started in 1943, this group used the same method of YCW to bring about social change. Instead of young workers, however, CFM involved couples where cells were established in geographic neighborhoods. A priest chaplain might be present at meetings, but lay couples ran the program. Their efforts concentrated on adult education and service.
Friendship House and the Catholic Worker
Historically the most famous Catholic Action groups were, coincidentally, more truly defined as alternative Catholic Action, for their genesis was found not with the hierarchy but with the laity. Baroness Catherine de Hueck, a Russian émigré to the United States, started the first Friendship House in the United States in New York City’s Harlem district on February 14, 1938. Similar houses were established in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon. Friendship House assisted the African-American community specifically through the promotion of social action, publication of a monthly organ (Community), educational home visits, and weekend retreats and conferences.
Why was the Catholic Worker Movement so successful?
Dorothy Day’s ability to promote her ideas and those of Peter Maurin, through their monthly newspaper, The Catholic Worker, was enhanced by the plight of millions during the Great Depression. The combination of published ideas and hands-on efforts to assist the poor brought great prominence to the movement.
Undoubtedly the most famous Catholic Action group in the United States was the Catholic Worker, founded through the joint efforts of Peter Maurin, a French émigré to the United States who possessed many ideas for social reform, and Dorothy Day, an American social activist who was a gifted journalist. Beginning on May 1, 1933, with the publication of the first issue of The Catholic Worker, Maurin and Day’s work blossomed through its most notable work, the establishment of houses of hospitality, which provided food and shelter to the hungry and homeless in many major cities. Although less successful, the promotion of roundtable discussions, at which intellectuals sought solutions to social problems, and the formation of farm communes, were two additional features of the Catholic Worker Movement.