Sodalitium Pianum

I wrote this article in early 2010 in the old English Catholic blog. I have received a few e-mails asking me for the articles I wrote about the Sapinière or Sodalitium Pianum, an organisation set up under the pontificate of Pope Pius X as an arm against Modernism.

As I now understand things, fundamentalism has a number of meanings – since the subject was recently brought up by Pope Benedict XVI in the context of the Muslim world. If fundamentalism means the English equivalent of the French word intégrisme or its anglicism integralism, then we can say that “religious fundamentalism seeks to take power for political ends, at times using violence, over the individual conscience and over religion“. Perhaps in its historical meaning, fundamentalism denotes the literalist interpretation of the Scriptures by some Protestant communities in the nineteenth century in America.

I would tend, putting it in everyday language, to define it as the Church that gets political power to impose what it believes to be the truth in order to eliminate human sin and imperfection by force. Unfortunately, the Church has competition – from Islam, which in the view of its most intolerant and fanatical adepts, wants to become the only religion in the world and subjugate the whole of humanity to its tenets.

In the middle ages, Christianity had its Inquisition, crusades and torture of the opposition. Now it is Islam in countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia. If a sailor wants to circumnavigate the globe, he is advised to take the Cape of Good Hope and not the Suez Canal and the Red Sea! Otherwise, he might lose his boat, have his family extorted for a huge ransom and his throat slit open!

Fundamentalism, understood in this sense, is the most cogent argument for atheism. The only thing is that there is no evidence in the New Testament that Christ wanted this kind of religion and especially in his name. That fact alone “saves” the credibility of Christ, but very little of what has passed for “church” ever since. In the country where I live, about 95% of the population claiming to have been baptised are not churchgoers. The Church has no market for its products and services outside the major cities where there is a greater consumer diversity. Where there is no market outlet – game over. The only problem is knowing what to do with the church buildings.

Why did fundamentalism come about? It is a response to modern society and man’s emancipation from theocracy. Change and progress are hard to come to terms with, as we are often invited to eschew what we loved and love what we feared. We are often under the impression that life used to be stable and constant, and now we have to be on the move. Ultimately, beyond forms of worship and outside appearances, it is a notion of absolute truth. This concept is outside and above us, the property of no one, but our hankering for security seeks to grasp and own this Philospher’s Stone of absolute truth.

From Constantine up to about the end of the eighteenth century, the Church could depend on the secular arm. Heretics were rounded up and interrogated, the questions being asked by ecclesiastics with clean hands and the “persuasion” being provided by the secular arm. It was a convenient arrangement. But, it was not to last. Some bishops in the twentieth century thought they could come to terms with Hitler in their combat against the evils of Communism. Franco and Pinochet seemed to be “benign” and “friendly” dictators in their country for the purpose of having a “Christian society”, in other words, a totalitarian regime calling itself “Catholic” and “Christian”. That is really the bottom line, the Grand Inquisitor and all that.

Here is a story of the early twentieth century, when the Church had to begin managing without the friendly secular-arm goons. This is the history of what may one day be called a “last crusade”. There are now traces of it on the blogosphere. Interesting…

* * *

There was quite a controversy in the early 1950’s as the question of canonising Pope Pius X came up. This Pope, Giuseppe Sarto, who reigned from the death of Leo XIII in 1903 until 1914, instigated a movement for condemning Modernism and affirming Thomism (as his predecessor Leo XIII had done). This was fine for censuring people like Hans Küng who deny fundamental dogmas of faith, who say that the Scriptures are unreliable, that Revelation is ongoing and that nothing can be known with certitude. That, of course, is a gross simplification of Modernism.

Modernism came from a movement in the late nineteenth century, inspired to some extent by Lutheran theologians, aiming towards some measure of conciliation between faith and science, the possibility of a ‘hermeneutic’ of development or something analogous to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The aim of Modernism was essentially apologetic. The old apologetics were not convincing to modern people – and they are not. From there came the need to raise the intellectual profile of Catholic theology and temper it with the results of historical and literary critical research. Theologians of the modern school, as we might name it tongue in cheek, produced first rate work during the pontificate of Leo XIII – who himself was an open-minded and scholarly Pope.

Unfortunately, as with any movement, there were excesses, and this is where the caricature portrayed above fitted some realities. We are presented with names like the Baron von Hügel, Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell. The latter two were priests, and thus could be censured for some of their more imprudent ideas expressed in writing. Between Loisy and Tyrrell, there was actually little in common. Loisy sought more to conciliate Catholic biblical scholarship with liberal Protestantism (German Lutheran). Tyrrell actually opposed that drift and sought an apologetic method opposed to liberal Protestantism, personified by Harnack more than anyone else, designed to be convincing to the scientific community. Tyrrell was shoddily treated, though he did not exactly help himself by giving better explanations to his accusers. Those of you who are more interested in Tyrrell would do well to see this article.

In the 1900’s there was such a fear of Modernism that it became the scapegoat of a witch hunt. This was a secret intelligence network put into place by Monsignor Umberto Benigni under the Pontificate of Pius X. The best history of this secret network was written in French by Emile Poulat (Intégrisme et catholicisme intégral, Paris, Casterman, 1969). This book is based on a rich collection of documents that were discovered in the office of a Belgian lawyer by the German invaders in 1915. Poulat had access to these documents and others, which are still kept in some academic library.

This organisation was closed down by Benedict XV in 1921, and it mutated its way through Action Française condemned in 1926 and the story of Cardinal Billot losing his hat and various intriguers mainly in France more or less collaborating with the Nazis during the war. In fairness, it has to be said that many “integral Catholics” fought against Nazism, including Archbishop Lefebvre’s father who died in a concentration camp. In the beginning, the issues were theological and only concerned politics by extension of principles. The fact that some Modernists favoured socialist politics, especially at the time that French and Italian socialists were virulently anti-clerical, was worrying to Church authorities to put it mildly.

One of the biggest problems was the relationship between the Church and the French Republic. It is not very easy to get on with someone who wants your blood! Leo XIII recommended some kind of peaceful modus vivendi with the Republic, but Pius X refused all collaboration. Within two years of his being elected, the Law of Separation of Church and State and the beginning of persecution were promulgated in 1905. Those were times of radical changes in politics, pressure against faith and religion motivated by science, technological achievements, man’s confidence in himself and the atmosphere of nihilism and revolution in Europe and Russia.

As mentioned, the canonisation process in the 1950’s which led to the canonisation of  Pius X in 1954 brought many things to the fore in that post-war environment, especially in France. Emile Poulat is certainly the most eminent scholar in this period of history, and he also researched the Modernists extensively. In his book on integral Catholicism, dating from 1969, he uses the Sodalitium Pianum’s own archives to trace its history from 1909 until 1921 and the methods used to defend its own interests and denounce its adversaries. The organisation was very small, and mostly lay. What is most instructive is the spirit of this group of “orthodox” Catholics. We are introduced to the personality of Monsignor Benigni.

Benigni saw society as a conflict between liberals, socialists and “clericals”. Socialists came from the old liberals. There were also two intermediate shades: conservatives coming out of liberalism and Christian democrats purveying a kind of “Trojan Horse” socialism and infiltrating the Church. This analysis of society is still with us among some conservative and traditionalist Catholics. This under Pius X became a kind of Catholicism that was intransigent, integral and triumphalistic. The Freemasons were to blame for everything, and much of this culture was underlain with anti-Semitism (we are talking about 1910 or thereabouts, not the era of the Nazis).

Benigni found a considerable amount of sympathy with Pope Pius X. There was already a secret intelligence service of the Vatican, the Santa Allianza, founded in 1566 on the order of Pius V. The Sodalitium Pianum, founded by Benigni in 1910, was attached to the older body, named after Pope Pius V and designed for counter-espionage. It was the Church’s opposite number of the CIA – or M and James Bond! Many things are said about any organisation with a secret characteristic, and imaginations are fertile gardens for conspiracy theories.

I intend to go into more details about the work of this secret organisation, its demise under Benedict XV and Pius XI in the 1920′s and mutation into right-wing politics.

Historical and ideological background

Most of what we know about Sodalitium Pianum comes from the book I have already mentioned by Emile Poulat, but also by a French “Integral Catholic” priest by the name of Monsignor François Ducaud-Bourget. This French priest distinguished himself in 1977 by leading the occupation of the Parisian church St Nicolas du Chardonnet, which is still occupied to this day by the Society of St Pius X. Ducaud-Bourget had truly belonged to the embers of the old intégriste movement, which was revived in the 1970’s by the traditionalist movement. In France, the old intégriste movement provided a founding myth for the traditionalist movement which had become popular through the issue of the liturgy.

Polemics surged up in the early 1950’s as the canonisation of Pius X came up. Ducaud-Bourget and Emile Poulat after him had access to the documents of the beatification process that gave a considerable amount of information on the Sodalitium Pianum. Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris, was particularly concerned about the intégriste / progressiste battle in the years following the Occupation in the same way as civil society sought to expose those who had collaborated with the Nazis and “get even”. Many of these debates were refuelled by the canonisation only few years later of Pius X.

Today in France, the word intégriste is abused by the media to describe any kind of traditionalist or anti-liberal reaction. Historically, it has a very precise meaning. It originated in late nineteenth century Spain and was purely political. Only the French anti-Modernist Catholics of the early twentieth century freely adopted the label Catholique Intégral. Naturally, this reaction was against the current of theological Modernism and socialism in politics. It was a reaction against a reaction against the intransigent teachings and policies of the Pius IX era, a series of reactions and counter-reactions essentially going back to the French Revolution. The evolutionary theories of Darwin had caused a whole new world view and the old religious apologetics lacked convincing power. The keyword in the late nineteenth century was progress, humanity arriving at adulthood, affirming inalienable rights corresponding with duties. For this world view, Catholicism had the duty of adapting to the new reality and relativising moral and dogmatic teachings. We recognise all this a hundred years later. Very little has changed since the days of our great grandfathers!

With such a world view, if the Church did not adapt, the pews would be emptier and emptier. It has happened, and anti-clericalism has given the process a little help. The only question remains is what to do with the buildings and the vestiges of an erstwhile Christian society. The Church went on the defensive, without the temporal power it once had. Who in the Church was sympathetic with Modernism, and therefore disloyal to the magisterium?

The answer in those days (1910) was a secret espionage organisation. The Sodalitium Pianum was “outed” in 1921 by the writing of a long anonymous essay under the pseudonym Nicolas Fontaine based on a pile of documents seized by the Germans in 1915 from the office in Belgium of a lawyer by the name of Jonckx, Director of a Catholic journal and member of the Sodalitium Pianum. The true author of that essay was a highly placed civil servant of the Third Republic and commissioner of the government for religious affaires, Louis Canet, an anti-clerical. The objectivity is a little biased, but we are – as usual – dealing with two extreme positions.

Many efforts were made to smear the reputation of Pius X, accusing him of being aware of and responsible for a secret group of fanatics and unofficial inquisitors. The Pope was accused of “allowing or favoured, or at least not having prevented, a group of intransigent persons being able to censure institutes or ecclesiastical persons with impunity, even members of the hierarchy such as Bishops or Cardinals, smearing them with the suspicion of Modernism without basis or proof…”. Pius X was cleared of these accusations and canonised, because he was clearly misled. The accusations remain for the secret organisation.

The Sodalitium Pianum was founded by Monsignor Umberto Benigni as an information centre and worked outside and above the Church’s hierarchy and even the dicasteries of the Roman Curia. Once someone was accused of Modernism by the Sodalitium Pianum, on its word, the person was condemned without appeal. Some even called this group Black Masonry.

Monsignor Umberto Benigni was born in Perugia in 1862 and made a career in ecclesiastical journalism. He was an intellectual and worked in the Vatican Library. He was sent to Berlin in 1896 to study the German Question, and his work was praised by Civila Cattolica. In 1904, he turned his attention to Modernism and eventually found himself appointed sub-secretary to the extraordinary ecclesiastical affairs department of the Secretariat of State. He was made a domestic prelate in 1906 and lived in the Vatican until 1909. Thus Benigni was specialised in social and political questions, seeing a connection between doctrinal deviations and revolutionary politics.

In 1907, Benigni set up the Corrispondenza Romana which observed all movements in the world like to be of interest to the Church, and focused on Modernism. His first victim was Loisy, who was excommunicated in 1909, the year of Tyrrell’s death. That year, Benigni left the Vatican to live in more private lodgings and installed the office of the Sodalitium Pianum and the Corrispondenza. He continued to work at the Vatican. The Sodalitium Pianum enjoyed its heyday from 1909 to 1911.

Naturally, Benigni made enemies, French Freemasonry in particular. In 1911, he left his post at the extraordinary ecclesiastical affairs department and was replaced by none other than Monsignor Eugenio Pacelli (elected Pope Pius XII in 1939). When Pius X died in 1914, Benigni declared that he was closing the Sodalitium Pianum and would be willing to revive it under the following Pontificate.

In November 1915, Benedict XV, in the Encyclical Ad beatissimi, confirmed the condemnation of Modernism, but reproved the terms by which some Catholics were calling themselves, Integral Catholics and intégristes in particular. Other terms were used for the opposition like liberal and social. The sub-divisions of Catholicism were causing disunity and confusion in the Church. It is sufficient for a Catholic to be Catholic and nothing more.

The Sodalitium Pianum was indeed revived in 1915, but its work was rendered impossible by World War I as the communication channels were closed. In 1921, the work of the Sodalitium Pianum was brought out into the open. It was suppressed that year by Benedict XV. Benigni died a poor man in 1934 at the age of 72 years.

The problem is knowing what was calumnious and what was objective. Ducaud-Bourget was a traditionalist of that tendency. Emile Poulat is an academic and perhaps a little more “modern” in his outlook. Both sources need to be read.

How was the Sodalitium Pianum organised?

The initial impetus was the defensive attitude of Rome faced with what was perceived not only to be a heresy but the synthesis of all heresies. Objectively, with our retrospect, we can identify this whole tendency with what Benedict XVI calls the dictatorship of relativism. It is fundamentally what brought the excesses of the 1960’s and 70’s, the liturgical abuses, the denial of fundamental dogmas, the emptying of seminaries, religious houses and parishes, women priests and the normalisation of homosexuality in the Anglican Communion. There was in the early twentieth century a measure of paranoia and exaggeration of the extent of theological Modernism. Only very few were involved, and they were intellectuals and authors. There were also several meanings of the word Modernism, and that caused great confusion in a mentality of falsum in uno falsum in omnibus. I might even evoke the example of Senator McCarthy in the 1950’s on his rampage against Communists in the USA. Back to the subject…

The worst threat to the Church was international politics, the Throne turning against the Church, the Revolution, atheism, the curtailing of the Church’s moral and social teaching. Anti-clericalism was ravaging the Church in France, Spain and Italy, as was the Kulturkampf in Bismarck’s Germany. This offensive against the Church was seen to be a consequence of bad theology inside the Church, weakening its defence mechanisms.

Benigni in those days was doing what we do with blogs and e-mails. It was all in information and correspondence by post, telegraph and telephone. The Sodalitium Pianum was a secular institute, giving Opus Dei much later a bad association through the simple definition of the type of moral person. Its purpose was defined as informing the public about the teachings of the Pope and to inform the Holy See about movements of cultural, social and political ideas worldwide.

The institute contained isolated members, correspondents and groups, all controlled by the Dieta in Rome. Its only religious superior was the Consistorial. It was a kind of lay order, which might to some extent have inspired the foundation of Opus Dei. Here is when it became creepy – the members of the group had to work and correspond without knowing each other, a kind of cell structure. The French Resistance worked in a similar way, so that if someone was caught and tortured, he could not compromise the entire group. Benigni’s attitude was that Modernism was working as a secret conspiracy, so his group was to be a counter-conspiracy.

The programme of the Sodalitium Pianum described the orthodoxy and loyalty to the Pope of the organisation, its self description as Integral Catholic, its support of Tradition, its visceral opposition to liberalism and Modernism and their perceived political consequences. Above all they sought to root out Freemasons and all socialist political conspiracies. Their main target was any support of the secular French Republic. Any promotion of ecumenism was anathema as was non-religious education of children. Trade unionism was also to be condemned, and it is interesting to know that when John XXIII became Pope, he found out that he had been branded as a Modernist because, as a priest, he had defended a workers’ strike in his parish. An interesting aspect is that the early Sodalitium Pianum was not “proto-fascist”, since it condemned pagan nationalism. The Italian priests with their right arms in a Fascist salute only came in later times when Mussolini took power. Remarkably, and this is 1910, they were opposed to feminism, coeducation and sex education. In point 13 they returned to their opposition to the separation of Church and State, any theological or philosophical method that was not Thomist or Scholastic from the Counter-Reformation era. Clergy were not to get involved in politics or social action.

On the surface it would seem to be most praiseworthy and Catholic as a programme. The fatal weakness is that faith does not come by coercion but through freedom. We have information about how it was organised. The Sodalitium Pianum was based in Monsignor Benigni’s home in Rome. There were three or four ecclesiastics, and one of them was the secretary. Names given by our two authors mean nothing to us, so there is no point in mentioning them.

Little is known how they actually organised the correspondence work, their archives, files and registers. The volume of correspondence was enormous, and Benigni was a highly organised administrator. The group needed foreign members, lay and clerical, who had to be cultured and convinced “integral” and “intransigent” Catholics. They had conferences and get-togethers at the Conferences of St Peter. Above all they created hubs and cells for infiltration and deep penetration. They were exempt from all diocesan jurisdiction, even outside Rome. Exemption and secrecy were the principles by which the Sodalitium Pianum worked.

How many members did they have? Benigni affirmed that there were never more than about a hundred. However, they had plenty of volunteer and amateur “integral Catholic” helpers everywhere.

Who was denounced and for what?

The Sodalitium Pianum went to work especially on congresses, meetings, lectures in universities, retreats, press reports in Catholic and secular journals alike. They were the ones to get the information on the Mariavites in Poland who had already been condemned in 1904 and 1906. The Mariavites were a really strange bunch with alleged visions, “mystical marriages” between nuns and priests and – women priests. They still exist to this day, but in a more moderate form.

Their main targets were the media and universities. The future Pope John XXIII, Fr Angelo Roncalli, was nobbled for defending a worker’s strike in his parish. Dominican professors at Fribourg were accused of Modernism because they rode bicycles and – to boot – without their Roman hats. Their other main target was socialist politics.

Were they a secret society, a kind of Catholic “Freemasonry”. This was a sensationalist description given in the 1920’s by some journalists. Any ecclesiastical structure has to keep secrets. A priest keeps confession secrets and any other information given in confidence. Diocesan archives are not available for all and sundry, especially intimate details of people who made declarations in view to a marriage nullity. The Vatican keeps bigger secrets, and that is perfectly normal, just as your doctor, your lawyer and any other professional you have paid for services will not spread your bill of health and legal problems to the world. However, there can be a kind of clerical culture of secrecy that is very unhealthy. The big problem is being accused of something for a serious reason, and you don’t know who your accuser is. There is a different and destructive kind of secrecy.

Certainly, the Sodalitium Pianum was operating more like a secret service, a kind of ecclesiastical CIA, than simply a club of zealous Catholics seeking to promote doctrinal orthodoxy and a like of prayer. That is the way it was organised. Their one great weakness was their paranoia and tendency to promote conspiracy theories. They believed that Modernism was an organised conspiracy, and therefore the only way to combat it was by using methods inspired by police and intelligence services.

Cardinal Gasparri affirmed in the beatification process of Pius X that Monsignor Benigni and the Sodalitium Pianum kept a list of persons, lay folk and clerics, and even Bishops and Cardinals da invigilare, to be watched. Fr Roncalli, the future John XXIII, was on that list. It may be that the group’s purpose was to inform rather than denounce, but there might well have been very little difference between these two terms. Quibbling?

The Dissolution of the Sodalitium Pianum

Monsignor Benigni got into trouble as soon as he took on the Society of Jesus. Through the instigation of Cardinal Merry del Val, Benedict XV ordered the Sodalitium Pianum to be dissolved in 1921. Under Benedict XV and then Pius XI (Pope 1922-1939), the foreign policy of the Church began to take a more realistic attitude in regard to the French Republic and other modern secular forms of government. As it began to be sidelined, intégrisme began to feed from the various extreme right-wing political movements of the 1920’s and 30’s, especially Maurras and Action Française, Franco in Spain and Mussolini’s Fascism to some extent. Few Catholics willingly rallied to Nazism, since its pagan and godless philosophical roots were that much more obvious.

The Action Française merits a study of its own, and I don’t intend to go into it in any great depth. Those interested in this subject from a “pro” point of view may consult Catholic Counter Reformation in the 21st century, a little “cranky”, but where some interesting articles may be found by Fr Georges de Nantes. Charles Maurras sought to rally Catholics who remained loyal to the Monarchist cause and refused the Third Republic. Maurras was something of an agnostic and merely found conservative Catholicism useful to promote his political agenda. He attracted a good number of Integral Catholics to his cause when Pius X issued his encyclical Pascendi in 1907 against theological Modernism and Sillonism (French socialist tendency, sillon being the French word for furrow). Maurras was put on the Index and Action Française was condemned in 1926 by Pius XI. During the Second World War and the Occupation, those Catholics who had distanced themselves from Maurras would find themselves in different positions in relation to the enemy.

Integral Catholicism since World War II

It was in the post-war political environment that intégrisme resurfaced. As Pius XII resisted the New Theology and worker priests the intégriste current found favour with the Papacy after two “liberal” Popes, Benedict XV and Pius XI, at least Popes who were willing to dialogue with secular politics. The surviving Maurrassian tendency sympathised generally with the regime of Marshal Pétain during the war and then with the partisans of French Algeria. In the 1950’s, we find this tendency most voiced by Monsignor Daucaud Bourget, Jean Ousset in the Cité Catholique and Jean Madiran in Itinéraires. These men were among the first to react against ecumenism, religious freedom and the liturgical reforms as promoted by Vatican II. To what extent was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) marked by the Maurrassian agenda? He was certainly marked by similar ideas in the 1920’s, and founded his priestly Society in homage of the anti-Modernist Pope Pius X.

In modern Integral Catholicism, we find that the centre of gravity of their contestation moved away from purely political questions back to many of the questions dealt with by the old Sodalitium Pianum: ecumenism, religious freedom, new catechisms, the liturgy and the inter-religious dialogue. The still-ongoing history of the Society of St Pius X is known to most of us, and it is not my intention to enter into any polemics, since they have engaged a doctrinal dialogue with Rome. Like us in various “groups of Anglicans”, the authority of the Church has the right to make its own decision in due course.

Unlike the old Sodalitium Pianum, the Society of St Pius X refuses the label intégriste or Integral Catholic, preferring traditional Catholic or traditionalist.

In the early 1980’s, Archbishop Lefebvre began to take the problem of excessive tendencies in the Society into hand. Among these tendencies were Sedevacantism and a theory according to which the Holy See is materially occupied but formally vacant, formulated by a Dominican theologian by the name of Michel Guérard des Lauriers. A small number of Italian and French priests of the Society of St Pius X broke away and founded the Istituto Mater Boni Consilii near Turin, Italy. The superior of this small Institute of priests, running a seminary and ordaining priests, is Fr Francesco Ricossa. They have adopted the name Sodalitium Pianum and produce a monthly journal called Sodalitium. They have a website in several languages at This Institute is directly inspired by Benigni’s institute, closed down in 1921 by Benedict XV. It is not a secret “police” organisation, nor has it any canonical standing with Rome, but is simply a somewhat radical and extreme traditionalist group of priests and seminarians running a number of chapels in Europe and publishing articles against the so-called Judeo-Masonic conspiracy.

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