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Catholic Societies

Various organizations formed by the faithful for the promotion of any good work

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Societies , CATHOLIC.—Catholic societies are very numerous throughout the world; some are international in scope, some are national; some diocesan and others parochial. These are treated in particular under their respective titles throughout the Encyclopedia, or else under the countries or the dioceses in which they exist. This article is concerned only with Catholic societies in general. The right of association is one of the natural rights of man. It is not surprising, therefore, that from earliest antiquity societies of the most diverse kinds should have been formed. In pagan Rome the Church was able to carry on its work and elude the persecuting laws, only under the guise of a private corporation or society. When it became free it encouraged the association of its children in various guilds and fraternities that they might more easily, while remaining subject to the general supervision of ecclesiastical authority, obtain some special good for their souls or bodies or both simultaneously. By a society we understand the voluntary and durable association of a number of persons who pledge themselves to work together to obtain some special end. Of such societies there is a great variety in the Church both for laymen and clerics, the most perfect species of the latter being the regular orders and religious congregations bound by perpetual vows. As to societies of laymen, we may distinguish broadly three classes: (a) confraternities, which are associations of the faithful canonically erected by the proper ecclesiastical superior to promote a Christian method of life by special works of piety towards God, e.g. the splendor of divine worship, or towards one’s neighbor, e.g. the spiritual or corporal works of mercy (see Confraternity); (b) pious associations, whose objects are generally the same as those of confraternities, but which are not canonically erected (see Associations, Pious); and (c) societies whose members are Catholics, but which are not in the strict sense of the word religious societies. Some of these associations are ecclesiastical corporations in the strict acceptation of the term, while others are merely subordinate and dependent parts of the parish or diocesan organization, or only remotely connected with it. Church corporations, inasmuch as they are moral or legal persons, have the right, according to canon law, of making bylaws for their association by the suffrage of the members, of elections their own officers, of controlling their property within the limits of the canons, and of making provision, according to their own judgment, for their preservation and growth. They have, consequently, certain defined rights, both original or those derived from their constitution, and adventitious or what they have acquired by privilege or concession. Among original rights of all ecclesiastical corporations are the right of exclusion or the expelling of members; of selection or the adoption of new members; of convention or meeting for debate and counsel; of assistance or aiding their associates who suffer from a violation of their corporate rights. Societies of this nature have an existence independent of the individual members and can be dissolved only by ecclesiastical decree. Catholic societies which are not church corporations may be founded and dissolved at the will of their members. Sometimes they are approved, or technically praised, by ecclesiastical authority, but they are also frequently formed without any intervention of the hierarchy. In general, it may be said that Catholic societies of any description are very desirable.

The Church has always watched with singular care over the various organizations formed by the faithful for the promotion of any good work, and the popes have enriched them with indulgences. No hard and fast rules have been made, however, as to the method of government. Some societies, e.g. the Propagation of the Faith and the Holy Childhood, are general in their scope; others, e.g. the Church Extension Society of the United States, are peculiar to one country. It sometimes happens that an association formed for one country penetrates into another, e.g. the Piusverein, the Society of Christian Mothers, etc. There are also societies instituted to provide for some special need, as an altar or tabernacle society, or for the furthering of some special devotion, as the Holy Name Society. For societies which are general in their scope, the Holy See frequently appoints a cardinal protector and reserves the choice of the president to itself. This is likewise done as a mark of special favor to some societies which are only national, as the Church Extension Society of the United States (Brief of Pius X, June 9, 1910). In general, it may be affirmed that it is the special duty of the bishop and the parish priest to found or promote such societies as the faithful of their districts may be in need of. Utility and necessity often vary with the circumstances of time and country. In some lands it has been found possible and advisable for the Church authorities to form Catholic societies of workingmen. These are trades-unions under ecclesiastical auspices and recall the old Catholic guilds of the Middle Ages. Zealous bishops and priests have made the promotion of such societies, as in Germany and Belgium, a special work, in the hope of preventing Catholic workingmen from being allured by temporal gain into atheistic societies in which the foundations of civil and religious institutions are attacked. In these unions a priest appointed by the bishop gives religious instructions which are particularly directed against the impious arguments of those who seek to destroy the morals and faith of the workingman. Methods are pointed out for regulating the family life according to the laws of God; temperance, frugality, and submission to lawful authority are urged, and frequentation of the sacraments insisted on. These unions also provide innocent amusements for their members. Such societies at times add confraternity and sodality features to their organization.

There are a number of societies formed by Catholics which are not in a strict sense Catholic societies. Nevertheless, as the individual faithful are subject to the authority of the bishop they remain subject to the same authority even as members of an organization. It is true that the bishop may not, in consequence of his ecclesiastical jurisdiction, rule such societies in the same sense as he does confraternities and pious associations, yet he retains the inalienable right and even the obligation of preventing the faithful from being led into spiritual ruin through societies of whatsoever name or purpose. He can, therefore, if convinced that an organization is harmful, forbid it to assist at church services in its regalia, and, when no emendation results, warn individuals against entering it or remaining members of it. Finally, there are societies which are entirely secular, whose sole purpose is to promote or obtain some commercial, domestic, or political advantage, such as the ordinary trades-unions. In such organizations men of every variety of religious belief combine together, and many Catholics are found among the members. There can be no objection to such societies as long as the end intended and the means employed are licit and honorable. It remains, however, the duty of the bishops to see that members of their flock suffer no diminution of faith or contamination of morals from such organizations. Experience has proved that secular societies, while perfectly unobjectionable in their avowed ends, may cause grave spiritual danger to their members. Bishops and parish priests can not be blamed, therefore, if they display some anxiety as to membership in societies which are not avowedly Catholic. If they did otherwise, they would be false to their duty towards their flock. It may be well to quote here the weighty words of an Instruction of the Holy Office (May 10, 1884): “Concerning artisans and laborers, among whom various societies are especially desirous of securing members that they may destroy the very foundations of religion and society, let the bishops place before their eyes the ancient guilds of working men, which, under the protection of some patron saint, were an ornament of the commonwealth and an aid to the higher and lower arts. They will again found such societies for men of commercial and literary pursuits, in which the exercises of religion will go hand in hand with the benevolent aims that seek to assuage the ills of sickness, old age, or poverty. Those who preside over such societies should see that the members commend themselves by the probity of their morals, the excellence of their work, the docility and assiduity of their labors, so that they may more securely provide for their sustenance. Let the bishops themselves not refuse to watch over such societies, suggest or approve bylaws, conciliate employers, and give every assistance and patronage that lie in their power.”

There are many societies of Catholics or societies of which Catholics are members that employ methods which seem imitations derived from various organizations prohibited by the Church. It may be well, therefore, to state that no Catholic is allowed, as a member of any society whatever, to take an oath of blind and unlimited obedience; or promise secrecy of such a nature that, if circumstances require it, he may not reveal certain things to the lawful ecclesiastical or civil authorities; or join in a ritual which would be equivalent to sectarian worship (see Secret Societies). Even when a society is founded by Catholics or is constituted principally of Catholics, it is possible for it to degenerate into a harmful organization and call for the intervention of the authority of the Church. Such was the fate of the once brilliant and meritorious French society “Le Sillon”, which was condemned by Pius X (August 25, 1910). It is often expedient for Catholic societies to be incorporated by the civil authority as private corporations. In fact, this is necessary if they wish to possess property or receive bequests in their own name. In some countries, as Russia, such incorporation is almost impossible; in others, as Germany and France, the Government makes many restrictions; but in English-speaking countries there is no difficulty. In England societies may be incorporated not only by special legal act, but also by common law or by prescription. In the United States a body corporate may be formed only by following the plan proposed by a law of Congress or a statute of a state legislature. The procedure varies slightly in different states, but as a rule incorporation is effected by filing a paper in the office of the secretary of state or with a circuit judge, stating the object and methods of the society. Three incorporators are sufficient, and the petition will always be granted if the purposes of the association are not inconsistent with the laws of the United States or of the particular state in question.


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