CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition


“We are now confronted, as more than once before in the history of the Church, with a world that in large part has almost fallen back into paganism. That these whole classes of men may be brought back to Christ Whom they have denied, we must recruit and train from among them, themselves, auxiliary soldiers of the Church who know them well and their minds and wishes, and can reach their hearts with a tender brotherly love. The first and immediate apostles to the workers ought to be workers; the apostles to those who follow industry and trade ought to be from among them themselves.”
Extract from the Quadragesimo Anno Encyclical issued by Pius XI in 1931

2During the interwar period in France, the training and education of the working classes (milieux populaires) was one of the key elements in the rechristianizing mission that characterized the pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939). The emphasis on this issue can be seen as part of the second phase of an attempted institutional response to a series of changes that marginalized religion [1] and complicated relations between the Catholic church and the French state. [2] Industrialization and the end of the Concordat (1905) had provoked an initial opposition to “modernism” that characterized the “integral” Catholicism of Pius X (1903-1914), [3] but the focus on secularization associated with the victory of the Cartel des Gauches in 1924 and the anticlericalism of the Herriot government (1924-1925), crystallized Catholic anxieties and drove them to develop new strategies of self-defense and development. The founding of the Fédération nationale catholique (FNC) [National Catholic Federation] by General de Castelnau was one such attempt to bring Catholics together in order to protect their interests more effectively. [4] Proponents of Catholic social teaching [5] particularly insisted on the need to conduct a policy of openness, which they saw as the only way of spreading the influence and standing of Catholicism beyond its traditional circles of influence. This project of (re)christianizing the French people was however inseparable from a policy of training and development aimed at the working classes and/or the most dechristianized groups.

3Catholic social doctrine, deriving from Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum (1891), guided the creation of new organizational frameworks. Similar activities had been a part of the Catholic church since the end of the nineteenth century. The Association catholique de la jeunesse française (ACJF) [French Catholic Youth Association] was founded in 1886 to form youth clubs and sports associations and to organize holiday camps. Although initially elitist, [6] by the beginning of the twentieth century its activities and recruitment had gradually spread to the urban and rural working classes. Catholic organizations were also very active in charitable fields and in propaganda via the medium of the press, first through theatre and then cinema. [7] The Catholic Action movements founded in the 1920s differed in their enrolment of members in three ways: according to gender, age and social class. At the very beginning of the 1930s, this kind of apostolate was officially approved by Pius XI. The creation of the central council of the Action catholique française (ACF) [French Catholic Action] contributed to the recognition of the place of laypeople in the hierarchical apostolate, while the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, in which the pope specified that “the first and immediate apostles to the workers ought to be workers”, ratified the legitimacy and efficacy of organization “by milieu”. [8] This marked the real shift from a policy of self-preservation to a strategy of conquest, whose principal channels were the youth movements: primarily the Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne (JOC) [Christian Workers Youth] created in 1926, and the Jeunesse agricole catholique (JAC) [Christian Agricultural Youth] and Jeunesse étudiante chrétienne (JEC) [Christian Student Youth], created in 1929. [9] Such a strong focus on the professional and private circumstances of individuals in the construction of social groups also enabled a classist reading of these identities, which sat at odds with the objectives of the church.

4The gradual move of Catholicism into working class education, through the activities of these youth movements [10] or, more specifically, through the social promotion made possible by the minor seminary, [11] has been explored and analyzed in detail. Researchers from political science and modern history have also shown how specialist Catholic Action movements played a key role as preferred channels for the pursuit of political, community and trade unionist involvement in the second half of the twentieth century. This kind of religious socialization has been observed among activists from unions and political parties on the moderate right [12] as well as those from the left of the political spectrum. [13] However, although the specialization of Catholic Action suggests a transformation of the church’s relationship with the working classes, the general policy framework underlying this new organization is an angle that has not yet been discussed. This historiographical contrast has led to a misunderstanding of the educational strategies of the Catholic church as forming part of an “institutional program”, [14] despite the existence of training activities established and promoted at a local level. The practices and representations which culminated in these pedagogical changes, and the resistance they provoked, have on the other hand been little studied in terms of processes of legitimization and institutionalization. This article aims to understand to what degree, in what conditions and how far these religious undertakings can be interpreted, from the 1920s, as the product of an explicit policy to develop religious instruction for the working classes; a policy with a new social significance. [15]

5My analysis draws on archival research carried out at the Apostolic Nunciature in Paris. In focusing on the content of correspondence received on this subject by the diplomatic representative of the Holy See in France, such research allows us to study the institutional remodeling that was instigated – or at least called for – by representatives of the Catholic church from the diocesan level up to Rome. Research in this area reveals competing desires within the Catholic church regarding the issue of evangelization. It sheds a particularly interesting light on the agreements and disagreements provoked by the issue of training and education in different social classes during the 1920s and 1930s. The archive, which “miniaturizes the historical object”, [16] both allows for an analysis of the different ways in which Catholicism appropriated the working classes by way of training activities, and on this basis offers a perspective on the rebuilding of the Catholic world in the interwar period.

The archive of the Apostolic Nunciature of Paris [17]

This analysis of the educational training program envisaged and/or supervised by certain members of the clergy and the leaders of Catholic organizations in France is based on the study of part of the archive of the Apostolic Nunciature of Paris, [18] stored in the Vatican Secret Archives. The documents consulted date from the period between the restoration of diplomatic relations between France and the Holy See in 1921, [19] and the death of Pius XI in 1939. [20] During these two decades, three successive prelates held the post of Apostolic Nuncio in Paris: Bonaventura Cerretti (1921-1926), Luigi Maglione (1926-1936) and Valerio Valeri (1936-1944). [21] The opening of the archive of the pontificate of Pius XI in September 2006 [22] – decreed by Benedict XVI – allowed access to the correspondence received during these years by these three successive diplomatic representatives of the Holy See from clergy and from laypersons involved in French Catholic organizations. The documents consulted varied in their importance and nature. They included requests for papal benedictions, invitations, anecdotes, “pleas” for the defense of a newspaper or a certain reading of Catholic doctrine, or – more officially – reports from organizations tallying up Catholic forces at a diocesan, regional or national level.
The very existence of these documents is a sign that the Holy See, via the intermediary of the Apostolic Nuncio, was closely monitoring the strength of Catholic activity in France, and shows the level of investigation involved in this monitoring. This “channel of official and unofficial information for the Vatican” [23] offers an opportunity to peruse both the educational objectives of the organizations concerned and the local and national projects – presented in detail or merely sketched out – which were later abandoned. Among the 59 boxes of documents studied, this study draws particularly heavily on the 25 reports, notes and letters sent from the ACF and the ACJF as well as the 11 letters and reports from the FNC. [24] All of these focus, directly or not, on the rechristianization and training of the working classes. Documents with an unclear provenance were excluded from the study.

6The correspondence studied clearly shows the objectives pursued by means of Catholic faith education among the working classes in France. These activities were above all designed to mitigate, if not neutralize, the effects (notably on schooling) of the law on the separation of the churches and the state and to counter the influence of socialism and communism. But, beyond the religious issue, the consideration of different sections of the population by some Catholic figures begs the question of the nature of, and the social – or indeed political – goals that these figures recognized in and assigned to faith training. By investing so heavily in the question of the “working” classes, the proponents of specialist Catholic Action movements advocated a new method of apostolate which, without challenging papal directives, effectively competed with the diocesan structure and risked destabilizing the existing hierarchical order.

Working class development as an opportunity for the Catholic church

7Developing instruction among the working classes was primarily seen by Catholics as a necessity, driven by the order to (re)christianize French society. [25] Their aim was to slow the propagation of competing ideologies which, potentially or actually, threatened the Church’s influence in France. The representatives of Catholic organizations who corresponded with the Apostolic Nuncio largely shared the same analysis of their situation, and identified the same causes to fight. However, this analysis led to very different institutional approaches, which serve to shed light on what lay behind the ambivalent relationship that the Church then had with the working classes.

Catholic organizations through the eyes of their representatives

8The inventory of correspondence received by the nunciature allows for the precise identification of those individuals within the clergy and Catholic organizations who were most interested in this subject, and to understand the way in which they claimed ownership of the issues. This approach emphasizes those individuals who had “a very conscious relationship with institutional reality”, [26] not only because it was they who presented the state of Catholicism in France to the Nuncio, but also because they were the representatives of French Catholic organizations. [27] Thus, the subjective interest shown by these correspondents in the working classes was directly determined by the objective interest they had as “declared agents” [28] authorized by the Catholic institution to intercede with the Holy See and, in doing so, to try and contribute to the production of an official line that might settle the relationship between the (re)christianization of French society and the development of the working classes. The reports and letters on which this study is based therefore derive primarily from those organizations most invested in this question, i.e. the ACF and ACJF on one hand, and the FNC on the other. Reports from the former, written by the secretary general Stanislas Courbe (ACF) and the chaplain Henri Lalande (ACJF), show how these movements progressively tackled the issue of the working classes. They particularly laud the establishment of specialist Catholic Action groups, and their letters allow us to trace the evolution and activities of such organizations. Their initiatives were quite different from those of the FNC, which pursued the objective of restoring social Christian order through education and by batting for faith schools. [29] The conservative standpoint of the FNC is thus a reminder that the ways in which Catholicism rebuilt itself during the interwar period were not restricted to the activities of Action française supporters or of the Christian Democrats linked to the ACJF.

Consensus on the diagnosis

9The “dangers” faced by the French people at the beginning of the last century are clearly identified and unanimously condemned in the letters addressed to the Apostolic Nunciature to Paris. Whatever the correspondents’ position in the French social and religious spheres, all of them agree on the principal “threats” faced by the Catholic church. The growing influence of the political pairing of socialism and communism, often referred to indistinctly in the letters, is denounced, as is the Republican school which, led by the “anticlericalism” of its teachers, [30] grew in popularity after the law of separation in 1905. Members of the Catholic church, reacting and calling upon the Holy See to react in turn in the face of these changes, did not see themselves as the initiators of this movement of ideological (re)conquest. Some of them indeed lamented this.


“While socialism is reaching the most remote parts of our country through the intermediary of schoolmasters, we, the parish priests, remain in our old positions of sterile reaction.” [31]

11Those institutions stigmatized as endangering Catholic social order were also envied because of their effective educational activities. The Catholics’ first and unanimous goal was certainly to “destroy the bitter fruit of antichristian education”, [32] but the designation of doctrines to combat was accompanied by a focus on their organizational models and methods of instruction as forms of possible inspiration.


“The socialists have unfortunately sufficiently proved [that workers’ organizations] can exert a deep and powerful influence. Faced with the frightening dechristianization of the working classes, accomplished over the last 50 years by the socialist institutions, we might regret that Catholics were not the first and the most active in this area.” [33]

13The Communists’ use of theatre was judged to be a particularly effective means of influencing an audience, [34] and its leaders to have demonstrated through this means “a sharp understanding of working class audiences, their desires and the types of staging that are best suited to spreading revolutionary ideas through festivals and shows”. [35] Such activities were doubly dangerous in Catholic eyes, for they promoted not only atheism, but also a reversal of the existing social order. They also felt that the press was given far greater weight in the propaganda of left-wing political parties than it was in Catholic organizations.


“The power of anti-Catholic publications in Paris is seven and a half times greater than that of Catholic publications or those with merely a Catholic bias […] The stranglehold that our adversaries have over the means of international publication constantly causes great prejudice against Catholics in all countries […] Catholics have erred on one major issue […] They have not understood the ever-greater importance of information in the modern press.” [36]

15The diffusion of written information was considered, “along with the Bank”, [37] as a fundamental channel in the ideological battle fought over the working classes. [38] As they became aware of the precarity of concrete forms of Catholicism in the country, Catholic leaders gave fresh consideration to these questions. The efficacy that Catholics recognized in modern propaganda methods exacerbated suspicion of their use in the service of “non-Catholics”, but also encouraged their own attempts to control, and instrumentalize such tools. However, the feeling that they were under-utilizing some of these methods for reaching the working classes, such as leisure activities (theatre, cinema) or the press (newspapers, radio), cannot be reduced to the ambivalent relationship that Catholics had with these means of communication and ideological circulation. The historian Michel Lagrée has effectively shown that, far from being hostile, the Church did indeed take advantage of, and profit from, new communication technologies. The growth in the 1920s and 1930s of parish newsletters able to bring “the sermon home” is a good example of adoption [39] within a long tradition of religious transmission. It is therefore not so much their own backwardness that the letter writers highlight so much as the fruitful use made of such technologies by their adversaries.

16The analysis of the counter-model offered by these “enemy” organizations did at least present an indirect opportunity to understand the evolution of working class ways of life as well as their relationship to the social world. They noted for example that “newspapers, previously the preserve of an elite, have been placed within reach of all”, [40] while the Catholic response was to assume a detailed understanding of the “milieus” to (re)christianize. In practice, the search for information by religious personnel from each diocese was as important to the FNC as it was to the ACJF. They aimed to better understand the “mindset of the milieu” in order to establish a truly “effective plan for the conquest and restoration” [41] of Catholicism. The determination with which Catholics seized upon this issue is sometimes particularly striking, as in the militaristic tone used by this FNC leader.


“A military chief would never go to war without knowing as much as possible about the terrain, the strengths of his enemy and his own resources. Why should it be that in Catholic Action we are often ignorant and unarmed, fighting here and there randomly and empirically?” [42]

18These reports, rich with information and anecdote about a variety of local situations, not only served to explain to the Nuncio what the threats to the Catholic church in France actually were, but also to seek, more or less explicitly, a decision on the attitude and methods that should be adopted in response. The aim of describing the activities of competing organizations was in fact to encourage the establishment of a comparable proselytizing system of propaganda, structured at an international level. The description of popular approaches to the working classes, which the writers both criticized for their content and admired for their effectiveness, also frequently served as a launch pad for proposals on how to reappropriate the ground necessary to (re)christianize French society. It is in this area that it is worth examining the content of the reports and comparing them with the general positions of the national organizations represented.

Contrasting interpretations of the order to rechristianize

19The recommendations sent to the Nuncio, as well as being religiously focused, were underpinned by different, and indeed contradictory, views of the place of Catholicism in the social world. In the conservative view, primarily represented by the FNC, the aim of “uniting all Catholics in an atmosphere of harmony” [43] could only be achieved by establishing a common front.


“The National Catholic Federation calls upon all Catholics, all good men, all upright persons who wish to unite in the defense of the faith, to leave to one side the purely political divisions and differences that separate them.” [44]

21In the case of the ACF and the ACJF, the program and method proposed were particularly innovative in their aim, in their own words, to “christianize everything”. [45] The specialist Catholic Action movements created at the end of the 1920s were the subject of detailed reports addressed to the Apostolic Nuncio. One of these reports, focusing on the internal development of the ACJF in 1931, resumed its general philosophy in these terms.


“Instead of being limited, as previously, to retaining and developing young Catholics, the Association endeavors, via its new branches, to reach those who are no longer Catholics.” [46]

23The different perspectives were not randomly scattered throughout the letters received by the Nuncio, but reveal the main approaches of the two concurrent programs of action: one aiming to protect Catholics by taking a stand against threats to the Catholic church; the other to deal with these threats by expanding the religion’s influence through converting those remotest from it. The correspondence sent to the Holy See thus reveals the internal battles in the religious space which – following the same logic as that outlined by Pierre Bourdieu in relation to the political arena – set two interpretations of the role of the religious institution in opposition and competition with one another: the first, represented by the FNC, which “[called] for a return to basics” and the second, supported by the ACF and the ACJF, which, favoring compromise and consideration of the context, harnessed “the Realpolitik of reason”. [47]

24The way in which the leaders of these organizations seized upon and established their social and intellectual role within the continuity of the teachings approved by papal encyclicals suggests that they were constantly referring back to doctrine in order to ensure the validity and orthodoxy of their proposals. The positions held by the ACJF and ACF were indeed in line with the encyclicals of social Catholic teaching, particularly Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Mens Nostra (1929) and Quadragesimo Anno. The representatives of these organizations thus read them opportunely as “a resounding confirmation” [48] of the apostolic action undertaken in dechristianized areas, such as factories and public schools. This use of official texts as points of reference to vindicate the missionary method could also however be judged abusive, and provoked strong reactions in Catholic opponents. A single example – the accusatory response of the General de Castelnau to the Christian Democrat Louis-Alfred Pagès – is illuminating in this respect:


“Ah! It is high time that the Holy See ceased being ‘an ingredient in every sauce”, if I might express myself thus; it is high time to stop attributing to it words and actions which are far from its thoughts. It is a serious compromise of the papal government, in the exercise of its spiritual mission, in the legitimate and worldwide renown of its high intelligence, its proverbial wisdom and magnificent common sense, to suppose and affirm its kindly or inimical intervention in any and every circumstance.” [49]

26These stated positions demonstrate a “zealous” and often competitive relationship with doctrine, which directly contributed to the establishment of new currents in Catholicism in France. During the pontificate of Pius XI, these organizations attempted to situate their activities within a series of social and political transformations which not only obliged their representatives to consider the working classes through the prism of the aspirations and influence which might subvert them, [50] but also to position themselves at the very heart of the religious space with the objective of securing the legitimacy required in order to act in the name of the Catholic church. The question of training was however central to these institutional antagonisms. The creation of the specialist Catholic Action movements, by advocating strong Catholic investment in a new method of apostolate among the working classes, was a fundamental element of this Catholic reconstruction.

Redefining the place of the classes populaires in the social order

27The Catholic project of developing the working or “popular” classes requires a more precise understanding of the notions of “popular” underpinned by these different stances. These notions determined not only – in theory – the place that the members of the working classes must (or should) occupy in the political and social order but also modeled – in practice – the choice of methods, content and target audience. And yet the “popular masses” referred to over and over again in the letters addressed to the Nuncio are never clearly defined. This indeterminacy suggests that, without an adequate anchor, Catholics were both (still) unable to more clearly define the audience they were seeking to reach and simultaneously tending towards homogenization of that audience’s social characteristics. An analysis of the proposals suggested by the representatives of the ACJF and the ACF does however allow us to specify the objectives of the specialist Catholic Action movements. The urgency with which they were set up – described as a “question of life or death” [51] – was a strong argument, which seemed to be enough to set in motion a number of upheavals in the relationship of the Church with modern society. Although the specialized program implemented by Catholic Action helped to make possible the activities of training, professionalization and public engagement which would take place after the second world war, such activities had nothing to do with the project as it was set out in the 1920s.

Re-establishing Catholicism among the working classes

28According to the representatives of the specialist Catholic Action movements, the condemnation of political doctrines propagated by “non-Catholics” did not mean the condemnation of the social classes they targeted. On the contrary, the huge project of developing the popular masses was especially designed to reach those furthest from religion. This was set out by Louis-Joseph Lebret, a Dominican priest who founded the Jeunesse maritime chrétienne [Maritime Christian Youth], in a report on the Catholic approach to be taken to sailors, who were particularly exposed to the influence of the Communist Party.


“It is important to define very precisely what it is in communist thought and communist institutions that is absolutely incompatible with the Christian conception of man. In doing so we would show that the Church, in rejecting godless and Marxist communism, does not wish to condemn those who look to improve the condition of the proletariat, but is solely concerned with safeguarding the dignity and happiness of man within the family and within society.” [52]

30The new method advocated of “specialized” apostolate, or apostolate “by milieu” thus had several advantages. It reinforced the penetration of Catholicism into various social circles otherwise alien to the religion, and at the same time was of particular interest to the younger generation. The activities of youth movements were such a “dominant model” that they ended up becoming identified with specialist Catholic Action groups, even though they were not part of it. [53] These movements, the principal novelty of which was to support the idea that “professional life [should] support Christian life”, [54] followed on the heels of diocesan activities whose leaders felt that “the need for specialization is a feature of the age”. [55] They were all put under the authority of the ACJF, which “[advised] all members of its former groups to move [to the new organization by branches] slowly, gradually, when they are ready.” [56]

31The activities of the ACJF were divided by the general council of the ACF into the following categories: general, male youth education, female youth education, social, professional, devotional and missionary. But according to the policy of specialization advocated by the ACF from 1931 onwards, the working classes could no longer be thought of as undifferentiated, and professional categories were used instead. The specialist Catholic Action organizations were made up of five branches: industrial, agricultural, student, independent, and maritime. An ACJF report explains that, within each branch, a newspaper was produced for the activists, focused on “faith training, intense devotion and advice for the apostolate, and propaganda in the specialist field to which they belong” while another, designed to be distributed to a much wider audience, aimed to inform and convert “those colleagues who are not yet practicing”. [57] The attempted conquest of factory workers may be the most striking embodiment of the unlikely relationship maintained by the Church with an industrialized and strongly dechristianized group, but rural communities were the real target in the reports sent to the Nuncio. Urban workers were still hard to reach without sufficient links to the workers to assure an “apostolate of presence”, a level of engagement that would not be achieved until the worker-priest movement of the 1940s. [58] In addition, the “traditional ruralism of Catholicism” [59] was accompanied by a fear that the French countryside, still relatively free of the influence of left-wing parties, was being gradually depopulated. The legitimacy of the method of apostolate “by milieu” thus derived from the double necessity to (re)christianize and to settle rural populations. The establishment of the JAC [Christian Agricultural Youth], which “[aimed] to establish God and Christ in the professional life of young farmers and [desired] this professional life to be more enlightened and more Christian”, [60] was an attempt to secure this rural equilibrium.


“Having lost the workers, we are not going to turn our back on the farming world […] The issue is knowing whether we want them with us or against us. They are not demanding. They ask for nothing, except for the Church to respect their freedom.” [61]

33Prepared, as Henri Lalande highlighted, by the ACJF’s “25 years of experience”, [62] the JAC was present in 57 dioceses in 1933. Three years later, it had 880 affiliated sections and its newspaper had a print-run of 38,000. [63] Catholic instruction in the agricultural sphere was not however focused solely on the young, since the Catholic Union of Agricultural France (UCFA) was present to continue this model of faith training into adulthood. As outlined by representatives of the ACJF, the training of rural populations did not necessarily mean their supervision. Their professional and social independence was acknowledged and seen as something that should be accepted: the objective was rather to provide them with the means to develop themselves and form their own groups. This relationship with the rural working classes sowed the seeds for those training activities led by the JAC which, from 1945, would provide young farmers with the knowledge, skills and social skills to organize themselves professionally, in unions or cooperatives. This structure was thus merely the first step in a process of conversion that the Church completed at the time of the Liberation and which would unlock what Charles Suaud has called the “second age of rural Catholic Action”, [64] notably in further recruitment among the farming classes. But during the interwar period, the central plank of the project, which also served to determine the target audiences, was not based on economic principles. In this the organization of faith training followed the traditional Catholic model and remained relatively blind to the position of individuals in the economic and social structure. To comprehend the way in which the popular masses were understood, as well as the position they occupied, we have to privilege an analysis in terms of “milieus”, not only because it corresponds with the native analytical framework for interpreting the social world and the strategy of “class patriotism” [65] established by the specialization of Catholic Action, but also because, as noted by Jacques Lagroye, this terminology makes greater allowance for the fact that “solidarity [within a milieu] relies on ideological factors that are formulated and made explicit, or sometimes even articulated as a coherent whole, by leaders and ‘opinion makers’” [66] and cannot therefore be reduced to objective positional criteria.


“In the JAC itself, in an authentically rural setting, how much diversity there is when we look at things closely! Is the big landowner in the Aisne or the Aude not closely related to the families of the JIC [the Jeunesse Indépendante Chrétienne, or Christian Independent Youth, aimed at the bourgeois and middle classes]? And do his agricultural laborers not experience the tribulations and misery that might make them look towards the JOC? However, their interests, their very lives, mean they feel close solidarity with the multitude of small cultivating landowners who constitute the majority of the French peasantry. How can we save some and not others? All of them willingly accept the single jaciste movement [the activities and ideals of the JAC] in which they rightly see the social and spiritual salvation of our countryside.” [67]

35However, just as they made efforts to understand the conditions of life and work of the individuals they wished to educate, the representatives of the specialist Catholic Action groups sought not to ignore the economic aspects of their activities so that they might recognize the needs of their members as a whole and thus justify the interdependence of Catholic movements.


“The JAC will fully accomplish its task only if it understands that in addition to the rural problems that are common to all, some of its members have bourgeois problems, while others have workers’ problems. The JAC needs the whole ACJF.” [68]

37Catholic faith training, considered as a “good investment”, [69] was above all understood in terms of its ideological ends. The access to social Catholic training organizations by the working classes was not intended, in the 1920s, to subvert the mechanisms of selection at work in the process of political recruitment, [70] nor to change the existing social order.

Bodies of social reproduction

38As they were presented, the specialist Catholic Action movements, although explicitly focused on training, also paradoxically supported a certain social immobility. Their proclaimed fidelity to individuals’ original geographic and social milieus primarily aimed to impede the process of dechristianization as well as the rural exodus. The activities and objectives of these specialist movements therefore remained very carefully delineated, particularly when they were not dealing with a homogenous public.


“[The JEC targets] sons of workers, peasants and artisans who seek additional instruction before returning to manual and agricultural work for the rest of their lives; sons for whom their parents desire a patina of bourgeois culture before they hand over the reins of the family business.” [71]

40In this respect, the aim of this policy was radically different from the strategy of activist promotion inherent in the communist order, which looked to counteract the social illegitimacy of the most impoverished. [72] The Catholic project, although not exactly prohibiting the possibility of upward social mobility through training, was not motivated by a spirit of emancipation. Even the activities of the JEC, which functioned according to the policies of the ACJF of which it was the product, were limited so that, in providing young students with training activities, it would not supplant the Catholic social order by participating in the creation of “class defectors”.


“The JOC and the JAC urgently and legitimately call upon the JEC to deliver those sons of the soil or the factory whose instruction renders them capable of being leaders, but will only become so if they remain, despite their culture, 100% peasants or workers. The JEC, ‘the revolving hub’, presents a difficult problem on which a number of admirable priests are working with great understanding, zeal and skill.” [73]

42This approach meant that, whether upwards or not, the social trajectory of those members of the working classes who received Catholic training remained limited geographically and socially. In other words, while the Church sought the popular masses “at home” [74], in one way or another, it also sought to keep them there or, at the very least, to bring them back. The socialization imparted within these movements, which can be likened to a period of “rechristianizing”, was in no way envisaged as the “airlock […] allowing them to break away gradually from their original family universe” that it would effectively become for a number of them. [75]


“The christianization of the individual is the specific goal of the majority of religious associations. Catholic Action goes further in this respect: through the individual, it aims to reach the social body.” [76]

44In the same way, the spaces authorized for political engagement were themselves also limited. Specialist Catholic Action groups, which encouraged an entire generation of Catholics to engage in multiple ways, thus clearly marked their activities as being outside – or perhaps above – political action, and, especially, party political training.


“We have noticed a number of youth recruitment efforts by political movements […] We also have been outraged by the current decline of the most elementary moral sense, but our Christian nature makes us abhor the unforgivable hatred that creating « fronts » risks provoking among brothers […] Violent class opposition on the political front would risk pitting against one another the young men from diverse backgrounds that the ACJF draws to the Christian faith by the conquering action of its specialist movements, and which it unites in a constant effort of collaboration.” [77]

46The study of these Vatican archives allows for a non-anachronic understanding of the ways in which Catholic organizations were involved in faith training among the working classes. The uses and effects on individual lives of these religious channels of engagement in the second half of the twentieth century would indeed appear quite different from the policy of education promoted in the 1920s and 1930s. Initially, although training was certainly a goal, it had to be limited, indeed confined, to the original social and geographic milieus of the activists. The instructional project was not promoted as a major objective but instead as an effective way of curbing the influence of secular teachers and left-wing political parties, and it did not aim to change the social order nor to question the mechanisms of traditional political representation. Despite this, the new interpretation of the role and place of Catholicism in society had undeniable institutional effects. By intensifying its links to the working classes, the specialist movements of Catholic Action subverted certain aspects of the Catholic church.

Organized training and the reorganization of the Catholic church

47The willingness to grant a larger space to the social dimension of the Church and, more particularly, to strengthen the ties between the lower social classes and the Catholic faith, called for a reorganization of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Nuncio Maglione’s 1926 arrival in Paris marked a turning point within the French church, all the more striking because it coincided with the condemnation of Action française and the development of the specialized youth movements. The Nuncio’s priority, as instructed by Pius XI, was to renew the Episcopate by focusing on the recruitment of prelates who were aged between 40 and 50 years old, had no links to Action française and were steeped in the ideas of social Catholicism. [78] But the most radical change was to envisage a Catholic presence beyond the walls of the Church that risked competing with the activities of the bishops. [79]

Subverting the hierarchy

48As the motto “we will make our brothers Christian once more” indicates, the missionary approach and the imperative of social proximity were the two creeds of the method of apostolate endorsed by the specialist Catholic Action organizations. If they were to enter different social and professional milieus, however, and instill Catholic values in the greatest possible numbers, activists required not only detailed knowledge of the people concerned, but also an understanding of their daily lives. The defense of this model of training thus effectively associates the order to (re)christianize with the (at least partial) reshaping of certain institutional policies, and disturbed the existing balance by modifying the role of religious personnel. Its supporters were keen to ensure that the legitimacy of their activities was not compromised on the ground, since a great deal was at stake.


“In many areas, they neglect spiritual training, looking instead to large gatherings. It is necessary to carefully supervise this great movement of Catholic Action [the JAC], on which depends the salvation of nearly half the French people (20 million rural dwellers out of 41 million French people in total).” [80]

50Beyond the problems concerning the administration of these new training activities, this method of apostolate had undeniable effects on the Catholic hierarchy. In order to be effective, these organizations had to be managed nationally, rather than at the diocesan level, since their project “surpasses territorial divisions; it is on another level, that of the profession: it requires national and in some cases international, activity. This is something that many diocesan leaders do not understand”. [81] Tension was inevitable since the bishops, even though they chose the diocesan chaplains in charge of each professional branch, played a much less important role in the new organization. The structure also directly challenged existing local initiatives that were not only judged to be insufficient – even inappropriate – but also risked competing with the centralized strategies of rechristianization. In this new interpretation of the Church’s role in the social order, the bishops not only lost the monopoly on activities to be led in “their” diocesan area, since their knowledge of their flock was no longer considered adequate, but their very involvement was weakened.


“[The bishops] also regret the introduction of the national organ of the JOC, the JAC and JEC: ‘this competes with our diocesan newsletter’. Perhaps it does; but a newsletter edited in the ecclesiastical setting of the diocese hardly meets the needs of our young activists: Monseigneur’s latest confirmation tour, or the funeral eulogy for a recently deceased canon, interests them much less than a far-off strike that poses a question of social justice, a possible improvement to their quality of life, or a directive from the Holy See to a movement like theirs in another country.” [82]

52In the same report, Henri Lalande reaffirmed the irrevocable nature of the Bishop’s “sacred right”, as if this sufficed to ensure the prerogatives associated with the power he held. But, after this precautionary formula, he requested that the Nunzio nationalize the main decisions linked to these movements.


“Without affecting the sacred right of the Bishop, who is the sole judge in his region of the opportunities for this or that project, we would ask the leader of activities at the diocesan level not to exercise his power to change the main policies of each Association, not to take a unilateral decision regarding the study program, the subscription amount, or the make-up of the Committees, without consulting with the leaders of these Societies or, in the event of conflict, without appealing to the national activities director, who is endowed with the authority of the Holy See and the Episcopate and qualified to resolve difficulties […] The specialist movements, on the other hand, are much more closely linked to the National Union.” [83]

54The Archbishop of Toulouse campaigned, as might be expected, for the organization of Catholic Action to remain the business of the episcopate.


“In view of the constitution of the Church as it was decided by Jesus Christ, a central body can draw authority from two sources only: the Pope in Rome, or the episcopate in France […] The episcopate seems to be the most practical basis for the central organization of Catholic Action.” [84]

56The organization of this method of apostolate entailed a redistribution of roles, in the heart and at the margins of the Catholic church. Just as it was necessary to “go and find” individuals where they were, the advocates of this method believed that they must not “separate the Apostle from their milieu, at the risk of misinterpreting the spirit of Catholic Action”. [85] This demonstrates the opening up of the ecclesiastical mission and the responsibilities of lay-people, with leaders envisaging the “formation of a native imitation clergy, or rather the catechists, apostles, native teachers… deputizing, in part, for the mission of the priest”. [86] The combination of social and statutory skills [87] specifically required, however, which created distinctions and legitimized certain clerics over others, did not disappear, but was instead strengthened in the light of new criteria. Conformity to institutional expectations was measured according to “regional” skills, rather than any status held in the ecclesiastical order: such status might indeed be stigmatized, since the tables had turned and it was the ability to be “among” men that was valued.

Resistance in the heart of the ecclesiastical machine

57The institutional rivalries engendered by this project might stem from deep ideological differences, but more institutional reasons also lay behind them – and the two were not mutually exclusive. The religious basis of such oppositions should not obscure the organizational issues at work in the strategies of representation of the dominated classes. The different educational strategies put forward, increasingly at odds with one another, confirmed the divisions that the issue raised within the Church. Some underlined the need for Catholic intervention among the most dechristianized, while others strongly condemned the missionary approach, on the grounds of pure ideological justification: the risk of diluting, if not compromising, the divine word.


“‘The churches are still frequented here, we’re told; we have enough young people in our works’ and they forget the multitude of young laborers, young farm workers, young people in the secular schools. If we bring to their attention a certain factory, rural area or school, they reply: ‘they are lost’ – ‘that’s a school of heathens’ – ‘they are so bad that nothing can be done for them’ and they content themselves with hanging on to those young people from ‘good families’ and saving them from evil by taking them out of their milieu. The specialist movements propose quite the opposite: the rechristianization of the social, industrial, country or student milieu.” [88]

59According to reports from representatives of the ACF and the ACJF, the bishops devised several strategies for jeopardizing this new organization. These included, for example, refusing to ask young people for their subscription money, even though this financial contribution was not only indispensable to the national treasury of Catholic youth organizations, but was also presented as an “activist act” with moral value that “enabled the material organization of the salvation of their comrades”. [89] These attempts to undermine the specialized strategies employed by Catholic Action could also take the form of “out-and-out forgery”, [90] which consisted of the Bishop creating a local organization that had the same name, but did not follow the same policies and remained independent from the national framework. The representatives of these new movements were not slow to understand the resistance they sometimes encountered.


“It is unacceptable for the Bishops to resist for doctrinal reasons – and not due to local circumstances, of which they are the judges – activities that have been approved at the highest level by the Holy See and the majority of their colleagues: these include, variously, the Catholic Youth, the Semaines sociales and the French Scout Movement.” [91]

61While the educational mission of the specialist Catholic Action movements conformed to papal directives, it is clear that the agreement or opposition that it provoked in members of the Church was dependent on their own position in the institutional hierarchy. The importance of the question of the rechristianization of French society and the instruction of the working classes through Catholic training was also therefore understood – and perhaps primarily so – in the light of the institutional changes that it might bring about.

Variations on the same theme

62Ultimately, the issue of working class training reveals two aspects of the Catholic church. On one hand, it poses questions concerning the competitive relationship with two emancipating approaches unequally understood in the letters studied: one advocated by the Communist Party, the other disseminated by the Republican school. On the other hand, it allows us to interrogate the way in which the Church seized the opportunity to rechristianize French society. The approach taken in this study allows us to re-establish the heterogeneity of interpretations of the role of the Church in the education of the working classes in the interwar period. The range of opinions found in the letters to the Nuncio has been situated according to several criteria: by repositioning the subjective position of the letter writers according to the organization to which they were attached and referring back, as necessary, to their objective function in the ecclesiastical machine. This approach is particularly useful for measuring the institutional divisions created by the question of training. In the 1920s, this issue seems to have brought about institutional oppositions based on contradictory “regimes of truth”. [92] From this point of view, the new method of apostolate advocated by the representatives of specialist Catholic Action organizations was fundamental in calling for a double conversion. The first, a religious one, aiming to “christianize” society, tended towards changing the relationship of Catholics towards the working classes; while the second, an institutional one, reinforced the missionary role of the Church and challenged the ecclesiastical authorities by questioning the Church’s organizational framework.

63In addition, this detour into the sociogenesis of Catholic Action sketches out the ideological and organizational limits of its deployment and sheds light on some of the ways it developed after the second world war. The revelation of competing and contradictory Catholic “institutional programs” enables an understanding of the barriers to the creation of a truly institutional policy concerning Catholic instruction of the working classes in France, despite the changing papal directives in this direction. The recourse to different strategies of legitimization, just like the registers of presentation and action that were mobilized, instead reveal how new national Catholic tendencies became institutionalized and established. These related to the place that religion should – and could – occupy in the social and political order. [93] This is why the conclusions presented here also constitute, in many ways, an introduction; one that is missing from the history of the Christian Democrats who began their careers within these Catholic youth movements and who, particularly in rural areas, fashioned in their turn a number of religious, social, political and economic institutions. If we accept that the historiography of changing rural life in the middle of the last century [94] confirms the original analyses of the 1920s that (already) focused on dechristianization and the fear of rural emigration, it seems that specialist Catholic Action groups, created with the very objective of interrupting these processes, failed in their task. This academic verdict is less an indictment of the failure of the strategies put in place by the ACJF several years earlier, than it is a revelation of the institutional plasticity of the Church. By putting the professionalization of young farmers at the heart of its project after 1945, it actually contributed directly to the social elevation of a number of “jacistes” [JAC activists]. Yet this economic “turn” of the JAC, which was neither a continuation nor a break with the project of the later 1920s, only makes sense in light of the institutional configuration that made it possible. [95] Thus, the internal conflicts revealed by the letters studied enable an understanding of the scope and the very possibility of future projects emancipating the rural working class, projects which were still invisible, if not unthinkable, in the interwar period. [96]


  • [1]
    This study focuses on the Catholic church, but such changes also affected the Jewish and Protestant faiths. See in particular Gérard Cholvy, Yves-Marie Hilaire, Histoire religieuse de la France contemporaine (1880-1930) (Toulouse: Privat, 1986).
  • [2]
    For a nuanced analysis of the relationship between the Catholic church and the French state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I recommend the work of Émile Poulat, particularly the historical analysis Aux carrefours stratégiques de l’Église de France (xxe siècle) (Paris: Berg International, 2009). See also G. Cholvy, Y.-M. Hilaire, Histoire religieuse…, chapters 2 and 3. For an account of the Catholic church’s range of reactions, from resistance to recognition, in the face of this “secular turn”, see Philippe Portier, “L’Église catholique face au modèle français de laïcité”, Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 129, January-March 2005, 117-34.
  • [3]
    In the Pascendi Dominici Gregis encyclical issued in 1907, the pope described “modernism” as “the synthesis of all heresies”. On this issue, see Émile Poulat, Intégrisme et catholicisme intégral. Un réseau secret international antimoderniste: la “Sapinière” (1909-1921) (Paris: Casterman, 1969), and Église contre bourgeoisie. Introduction au devenir du catholicisme actuel (Paris: Casterman, 1977).
  • [4]
    Corinne Bonafoux-Verrax, À la droite de Dieu: la Fédération nationale catholique (1924-1944) (Paris: Fayard, 2004).
  • [5]
    On the politicization of Catholic social teaching and the development of the moderate current in Catholicism, see Yves Palau, “De l’intransigeantisme au modérantisme: genèse d’un catholicisme républicain dans la France de l’entre-deux-guerres”, in Jacques Prévotat, Jean Vavasseur-Desperriers (eds), “Les chrétiens modérés” en France et en Europe (1870-1960) (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2013), 267-78.
  • [6]
    The initial aim was to reach the social elites “in order to create a religious elite within it”. See Gérard Cholvy, Histoire des organisations et mouvements chrétiens de jeunesse en France (xixe-xxe siècle) (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1999), 114.
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    On the evolution and early forms of Catholic involvement in working class education, see Robert Wattebled, Stratégies catholiques en monde ouvrier dans la France d’après-guerre (Paris: Éditions ouvrières, 1990); Pierre Pierrard, L’Église et les ouvriers en France (1840-1940) (Paris: Hachette, 1984).
  • [8]
    This was a peculiarity of the French system that owed a great deal to the successful establishment of specialized movements, a model imported from Belgium. Pius XI had in fact reorganized Catholic Action in Italy according to four pillars (men, young men, women and young women), without distinguishing by social class. The same structure was followed in Poland, Spain and Austria. See Gérard Cholvy, Yves-Marie Hilaire, Histoire religieuse de la France contemporaine (1930-1988) (Toulouse: Privat, 1988), 29-30.
  • [9]
    These organizations, male-only at the time of their founding, eventually had female equivalents: the JOCF was founded in 1928, the JECF in 1931 and the JACF in 1933. This organizational division ensured that the sexes received religious instruction separately, although social gatherings of the time – particularly at fairs and village gatherings – were often mixed.
  • [10]
    Among the copious literature on this issue, particularly recommended is Denis Maugenest (ed.), Le Mouvement social catholique en France au xxe siècle (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1990); G. Cholvy, Histoire des organisations…; Yvon Tranvouez, Catholicisme et société dans la France du xxe siècle: apostolat, progressisme et tradition (Paris: Karthala, 2011).
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    Charles Suaud, “L’imposition de la vocation sacerdotale”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 1(3), 1975, 2-17, and La vocation. Conversion et reconversion des prêtres ruraux (Paris: Minuit, 1978).
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    See Frédéric Sawicki, Luc Berlivet, “La foi dans l’engagement: les militants syndicalistes CFTC de Bretagne dans l’après-guerre”, Politix, 7(27), 1994, 111-42; Julien Fretel, “Quand les catholiques vont au parti: de la constitution d’une illusio paradoxale et du passage à l’acte chez les ‘militants’ de l’UDF”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 155, 2004, 76-89.
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    Jean-Marie Donégani, “Itinéraire politique et cheminement religieux: l’exemple de catholiques militant au Parti socialiste”, Revue française de science politique, 29(4), 1979, 693-738; Julie Pagis, “La politisation d’engagements religieux: retour sur une matrice de l’engagement en mai 68”, Revue française de science politique, 60(1), 2010, 61-89; François Prigent, “Les réseaux socialistes en Bretagne des années 1930 aux années 1980”, doctoral thesis in modern history, Rennes, Université Rennes II, 2011; Denis Pelletier, Jean-Louis Schlegel (eds), À la gauche du Christ. Les chrétiens de gauche en France de 1945 à nos jours (Paris: Seuil, 2012); Vincent Flauraud, “Militantisme jaciste et engagement à gauche: le ‘laboratoire’ breton”, Parlement[s]. Revue d’histoire politique, 2, special issue 10, 2014, 121-34.
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    François Dubet, Le déclin de l’institution (Paris: Seuil, 2002).
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    In this light, a comparison with studies on the Communist Party’s training schools may be heuristic. Despite their concurrent formation in the 1920s, these two models of institutional development have not received equal treatment. For more on the Communists, see Claude Pennetier, Bernard Pudal, “La certification scolaire communiste dans les années trente”, Politix, 9(35), 1996, 69-88; Yasmine Siblot, “Ouvriérisme et posture scolaire au PCF: la constitution des écoles élémentaires (1925-1936)”, Politix, 15(58), 2002, 167-88; Nathalie Éthuin, “De l’idéologisation de l’engagement communiste: fragments d’une enquête sur les écoles du PCF (1970-1990)”, Politix, 16(63), 2003, 145-68.
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    Arlette Farge, Le goût de l’archive (Paris: Seuil, 1989), 59.
  • [17]
    The study of this archive in May 2015 was made possible by a grant from the École française de Rome. I would like to thank Magali Della Sudda for her invaluable assistance.
  • [18]
    The archive inventory (Index 1086), drawn up by Gianfranco Armando in 2008, is available in Italian, while the documents, authored by religious personnel from the country concerned, are written in French. The index includes documents from the nuncios Cerretti (boxes 365 to 398), Maglione (boxes 399 to 561) and Valeri (boxes 562 to 632). Strict conditions apply to those wishing to consult these archives. The taking of photographs is specifically prohibited.
  • [19]
    They were interrupted in 1904, just before the separation of church and state in France.
  • [20]
    Consultation of the Vatican archives is not permitted beyond this date – saving some exceptions.
  • [21]
    The documents of the nunciature of Valerio Valeri are therefore only available up until 1939.
  • [22]
    Jacques Prévotat (ed.), Pie XI et la France. L’apport des archives du pontificat de Pie XI à la connaissance des rapports entre le Saint-Siège et la France (Rome: École française de Rome, 2010).
  • [23]
    Magali Della Sudda, “Les transformations de l’exercice de l’autorité épiscopale dans l’Église catholique en France à la lumière de la condamnation de l’Action française”, Genèses, 88, 2012, 68-88 (70).
  • [24]
    See below.
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    This interest in Catholic faith training among the working classes during the interwar period is only one dimension of Catholic education initiatives, of which certain manifestations pre-date this period. For a sociohistorical analysis of the influence exerted by the Catholic clergy on this issue, see Yves Déloye, Les voix de Dieu. Pour une autre histoire du suffrage électoral: le clergé catholique français et le vote, xixe-xxe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 2006).
  • [26]
    Jacques Lagroye, La vérité dans l’Église catholique. Contestations et restauration d’un régime d’autorité (Paris: Belin, 2006), 261.
  • [27]
    This is to whom the term “the Catholics” refers when used without any further clarification.
  • [28]
    Pierre Bourdieu, “La représentation politique: éléments pour une théorie du champ politique”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 36, 1981, 3-24(6).Online
  • [29]
    C. Bonafoux-Verrax, À la droite de Dieu…, 131-229.
  • [30]
    Jacques Ozouf, Mona Ozouf, La République des instituteurs (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil (Hautes études), 1992), 188.
  • [31]
    Vatican Secret Archives (VSA), Archive of the Apostolic Nunciature of Paris (Arch, Nunz. Parigi), box (b.) 379, file (f.) 110, letter from the Abbé Mancel, priest in Saint-Aubin d’Aubigné (Ille et Vilaine), to Cardinal Charost, n. d.
  • [32]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parig, b. 498, f. 1080, “La politique scolaire catholique”: account presented by Monsieur Guidal (FNC), 26 and 27 June 1928.
  • [33]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 504, f. 1141, Report by French Catholic Action to the Nuncio, 1936.
  • [34]
    The reference to “workers’ theatre in Germany” suggests in particular that the works of the then-budding Bertolt Brecht were of particular concern to the National Catholic Federation. VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 504, f. 1148, Confidential report from the FNC, February-March 1931: “Speaker’s notes”.
  • [35]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 504, f. 1148, Confidential report from the FNC, February-March 1931: “Speaker’s notes”.
  • [36]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 390, “La Presse Régionale”, Request to the Nuncio to establish an international Catholic telegraphy agency, n. d., emphasis in the original.
  • [37]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 390, “La Presse Régionale”, Request to the Nuncio to establish an international Catholic telegraphy agency.
  • [38]
    This insistence on using the press to stem the shrinking influence of Catholicism chimed with the parallel encouragement for parish priests to renew religious ties through this channel. For an account of this in the Somme département in France, see Marie-Pierre Wynands, “Saisir les transformations de ‘l’écologie centro-catholique’ en France: quelques éléments de réflexion théorique et méthodologique”, presentation at the workshop “Politique et religion: sociologie, anthropologie, histoire” organized by the École française de Rome, 12-16 May 2014. On the importance (particularly institutional) of the role of the Catholic press, see René Rémond, Les crises du catholicisme en France dans les années trente (Paris: Points-Seuil, 1996 [1st edn 1979]).
  • [39]
    Michel Lagrée, La bénédiction de Prométhée. Religion et technologie (Paris: Fayard, 1999), 279. This study of the period between 1830 and 1960 demonstrates that new technologies were accepted and well established within the Catholic church. Chapter 7 focuses more specifically on the challenges of modern communication for the Catholic church.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 390, “La Presse Régionale”, Request to the Nuncio to establish an international Catholic telegraphy agency, n. d.
  • [41]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 390, “Le danger socialiste et la doctrine sociale catholique”, Third General Assembly of the Fédération nationale catholique, 1 June 1926.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 390, “Le danger socialiste et la doctrine sociale catholique”, Third General Assembly of the Fédération nationale catholique, 1 June 1926.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 455, f. 556, Report by the FNC: “La fédération nationale catholique et la question électorale en 1932”, 9-10 November 1931, emphasis in the original.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 390, “La Presse Régionale”, Declaration of the FNC.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 500, f. 1098, Note “The Catholic apostolate is a universal apostolate”: this also notes that “like the Church, [Catholic Action] wishes to: ‘instaurare omnia in Christo’ [restore all things in Christ]”.
  • [46]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report from the ACJF, 1931.
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    P. Bourdieu, “La représentation politique…”, 13.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report from the ACJF, 1931.
  • [49]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 455, f. 563, Letter from General de Castelnau to Louis-Alfred Pagès.
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    The 1936 Vigilanti Cura encyclical warned against the cinema and other forms of entertainment geared toward the popular classes. For a diachronic analysis of the relationship between Catholics and the cinema, see Mélisande Leventopoulos, Les catholiques et le cinéma. La construction d’un regard critique (France, 1895-1958) (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015).
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1054, Letter from Henri Lalande to Monseigneur Courbe, 26 February 1936.
  • [52]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 496, f. 684, Note from Révérend Père Lebret on communist activities among Breton sailors.
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    This view is expressed by Yvon Tranvouez, “Le militant d’action catholique”, in Bruno Duriez, Étienne Fouilloux, Denis Pelletier, Nathalie Viet-Depaule (eds), Les catholiques dans la République (1905-2005) (Paris: Éditions de l’Atelier/Éditions ouvrières, 2005), 225-237 (225).
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 496, f. 684, Note from Révérend Père Lebret.
  • [55]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 494, f. 1037, List of interdiocesan activities relating to French Catholic Action, submitted to the Bishops by the Central Committee of French Catholic Action.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 494, f. 1037, List of interdiocesan activities relating to French Catholic Action.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report from the ACJF, 1931.
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    Charles Suaud, Nathalie Viet-Depaule, Prêtres et ouvriers. Une double fidélité mise à l’épreuve (1944-1969) (Paris: Karthala, 2004), 12.
  • [59]
    Jacques Maître, Les prêtres ruraux (Paris: Éditions du Centurion, 1967), 263.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1054, Letter from Henri Lalande to Monseigneur Courbe, 26 February 1936.
  • [61]
    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 390, f. 110, Letter from Abbé Mancel, n. d.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report from the ACJF to the Annual assembly of cardinals and archbishops, 1931.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1054, Letter from Henri Lalande to Monseigneur Courbe, 26 February 1936.
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    Charles Suaud, “Conversions religieuses et reconversions économiques”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 44-45, 1982, 72-94 (74).
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    Y. Tranvouez, Catholicisme et société…, 49.
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    Jacques Lagroye, Société et politique. Jacques Chaban-Delmas à Bordeaux (Paris: Pedone, 1973), 4.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1054, Letter from Henri Lalande to Monseigneur Courbe, 26 February 1936.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1054, Letter from Henri Lalande to Monseigneur Courbe, 26 February 1936.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report from the ACJF, 1931.
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    Daniel Gaxie, “Les logiques du recrutement politique”, Revue française de science politique, 30(1), 1980, 5-45.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495 f. 1054, Letter from Henri Lalande to Monseigneur Courbe, 26 February 1936.
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    See Bernard Pudal’s work on the PCF (Parti communiste français), particularly Prendre parti. Pour une sociologie historique du PCF (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1989).
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495 f. 1054, Letter from Henri Lalande to Monseigneur Courbe, 26 February 1936.
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    Michel Lagrée, Religion et cultures en Bretagne. 1850-1950 (Paris: Fayard, 1992), 471.
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    J. Pagis, “La politisation d’engagements religieux…”, 89.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 500 f. 1093, Letter from the Secretary General of the ACF, 1933.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Letter from the ACJF to the Chaplains and Diocesan Presidents of the ACJF on the “civic duties of young people”, n. d.
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    Frédéric Le Moigne, Les évêques français de Verdun à Vatican II. Une génération en mal d’héroïsme (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005), 25.
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    For a detailed analysis of the changing authority of French bishops and their links to Rome, see M. Della Sudda, “Les transformations de l’exercice de l’autorité épiscopale…”.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495 f. 1054, Letter from Henri Lalande to Monseigneur Courbe, 26 February 1936.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report by Henri Lalande, 1930.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report by Henri Lalande, 1930.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 504, f. 1135, Note on the organization of Catholic Action in France sent by the Archbishop of Toulouse, November 1930.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report by Henri Lalande, 1930.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report from the ACJF, 1931.
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    Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinction. Critique sociale du jugement (Paris: Minuit, 1979).
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report by Henri Lalande, 1930.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1054, Letter from Henri Lalande to Monseigneur Courbe, 26 February 1936.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report by Henri Lalande, 1930.
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    VSA, Arch. Nunz. Parigi, b. 495, f. 1055, Report by Henri Lalande, 1930.
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    Jacques Lagroye imported this Foucauldian term into the field of institutional sociology, demonstrating that it enabled us to better understand plurality and to grasp the variety of occasionally conflictual (because antagonistic) beliefs held by members of the same institution, and showing that it is useful, ultimately, for thinking about crisis phenomena. He identified two contradictory regimes of authority within the Catholic church: one “of certainty “, attached to Tradition, respect for the liturgy and the Catholic Hierarchy, and one “of testimony”, ecumenical and outward-looking, in line with the Renewal conveyed by the second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the Catholic Action movements. See J. Lagroye, La vérité dans l’Église catholique.
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    This issue has not been addressed in this article but, by considering both the involvement of the religious actors in agricultural conflicts, as well as their opposition to them – particularly prevalent in this period, notably in Brittany – it is clear that these trends also questioned the place of Catholicism in the economic order.
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    See in particular Henri Mendras, La fin des paysans (Paris: Babel, 1984 [1st edn 1967]); Patrick Champagne, L’héritage refusé. La crise de la reproduction sociale de la paysannerie française (1950-2000) (Paris: Seuil, 2002). On the effects of this economic shift on those of the peasant class at the margins of the process of modernization, see Pierre Bourdieu’s Le bal des célibataires. Crise de la société paysanne en Béarn (Paris: Seuil, 2002).
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    In consequence, the economic lens is insufficient to understand the personal journeys of the “jacistes”, “a fraction [then] rising of a condemned class”, who “ended up transforming and converting the Church” (Claude Grignon, “Sur les relations entre les transformations du champ religieux et les transformations de l’espace politique”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 16, 1977, 3-34 (17)). These trajectories should also be analyzed in the light of the set of values and common and specific reference points acquired within this youth organization.
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    I would like to thank Yves Déloye and Patrick Lehingue for their extremely helpful reading of this article.

Based on an analysis of the collections of the apostolic nunciature to Paris (Secret Archives of Vatican), this article questions the social and political implications of the mission to rechristianize France under the pontificate of Pius XI. Whilst the strategy to create specialist Catholic Action group suggests that the relationship between the Church and the working classes was evolving, faith training in the interwar period was not however seen as a vector of social emancipation or political engagement. Instead, such specialist groups challenged the diocesan structure of the Church and destabilized the existing hierarchical order.

Marie-Pierre Wynands
Marie-Pierre Wynands is a doctoral student in political science at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne and a member of the Centre universitaire de recherche sur l’action publique et le politique (CURAPP). Her research focuses on the structuring and dismantling of networks linked to Christian Democrats and social Catholicism in France in the twentieth century (Université de Picardie Jules Verne, Pôle Cathédrale, 10 placette Lafleur, 80027 Amiens).
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