Saint Pius X: The Sodalitium Pianum

Rev. Fr. Gregoire Celier

We intend to discuss the Sodalitium Pianum [the "Sodality of St. Pius V"], better know in history under its code name, La Sapinière. The scope of the talk is limited to providing a simple sketch of the group. To explain all the details of its origin and development would be too long and complicated and would require a sound understanding of religious history from 1854 to 1914. For those interested, I will refer them to the work of Fr. Emmanuel Barbier, Histoire du catholicisme libéral et du catholicisme social (Cadoret, 1923-1924), as well as to the works of Emile Poulat which will be cited later in the discussion. Our purpose here is not so much to answer all possible questions but rather to ask the right ones in order to give everyone sufficient matter for reflection.

History of a History

Before approaching the history of La Sapinière, it is first necessary to address its pre-history, which is in reality its post-history. On this subject, it is important to relate, to use Jean Madiran's apt expression, "the history of a history."

Under the pontificate of St. Pius X, a rumor began to circulate about the existence of an anti-liberal, anti-modernist, reactionary, "integralist" international "secret society" directed by a Roman monsignor, Umberto Benigni. This secret society, it was alleged, acted principally by denunciations made to the Roman authorities and by infiltration of the Catholic press.

In October, 1914, Msgr. Mignot, the very liberal Bishop of Albi, drafted a report on this subject for Cardinal Domenico Ferrata, Secretary of State to Pope Benedict XV. In March 1915, Belgium being occupied, the director of a rather liberal German Catholic newspaper, Heinz Brauweiler and one of his religious friends, Fr. Hubertus Höner, both of whom had fought against Msgr. Benigni's work before the war, asked the German military administration to seize documents relative to this "secret society" from the office of the Belgian lawyer Alphonse Jonckx. The existence of this "secret society" was made known to them by Fr. Floris Prim, a Belgian priest in whom Jonckx had confided but who was in fact the friend and informant of Fr. Höner. The German military administration, having raided the lawyer's office, remitted the seized documents to Brauweiler and Höner.

In the spring of 1921, an anonymous memorandum (written by the Sulpician, Fernand Mourret) drafted from a photocopy of the seized Belgian documents, was sent to the bishops of France, the superiors of religious orders, the Nunciature, and the Secretary of State. This memorandum prompted the Congregation of the Council to conduct an inquiry into Msgr. Benigni's activities.

In January 1922, a virulent denunciation of this "secret society" was published in La Nation Belge (a denunciation written by a former collaborator of La Croix, Alphonse Janne), a denunciation published by several other newspapers. In March 1922, the review Le mouvement des faits et des idèes (The Current of Events and Ideas), directed by Fr. Alphonse Lugan and almost exclusively devoted to denouncing Action Française, published the anonymous memorandum, the articles derived from La Nation Belge, Msgr. Mignot's report, and some of the documents seized from Jonckx. In January 1928, Nicolas Fontaine (pseudonym of Louis Canet, a high-ranking bureaucrat of the Office of Cult of the Ministry of the Interior and executor for Loisy and Laberthonniere) published Saint-Siège, Action Française et catholiques intégraux which printed some of the Jonckx documents.

In March 1928, in his deposition for the process of beatification of Pius X, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, then Secretary of State to Pius XI, was extremely severe in his judgment of the deceased pontiff and his relations with Msgr. Benigni of whom he had been the direct superior.

In 1950, during the process of beatification of Pius X, Fr. Ferdinando Antonelli was asked to conduct a particular inquiry that led to the redaction of a Disquisitio on "the pontiff's conduct in the fight against modernism." An important part of the Disquisitio is devoted to Msgr. Benigni. This Disquisitio, although not made public, was used by Fr. Raymond Dulac in 1952 in La Pensée Catholique, then by Msgr. François Ducaud-Bourget in 1954 (who would later publish his study in 1974 under the title La maçonnerie noire ou la vérite sur I'intégrisme [Black Masonry or the Truth about 'Integrism']). In 1964, Jean Madiran published L'integrisme, histoire d'une histoire (Nouvelles Editions Latines) which consisted of a critical analysis of all the available documents.

In 1969, a veritable revolution on the whole matter occurred. At the end of a quasi police investigation, the sociologist Emile Poulat published 214 documents pertaining to this "secret society," together with numerous valuable annotations, under the title Intégrisme et catholicisme intégral (Casterman; hereafter cited as Intégrisme).

Then in 1977, Émile Poulat published a life of Msgr. Benigni under the title Catholicisme, démocratie et socialisme (Casterman).

Finally, in 1996, the Disquisitio was published in French (Courrier de Rome Publications). Thus, these last three publications, 50 years after the events, allow us to ascertain an accurate idea of the question.


The End of a Reign

The documents inform us that this "secret society" really existed from 1909 to 1914 (although it was re-established in 1915 and lived on until 1921). Thus, to understand this history well, we need to examine the pontificate of St. Pius X and the framework in which this "secret society" evolved. However, the choices and the problems of Joseph Sarto's pontificate can be explained fully only by having in mind the immediately preceding history of the Church and the papacy. We intend, therefore, to review in a somewhat cursory manner the period extending from the death of Pius IX to the election of Pius X, i.e., the pontificate of Leo XIII.

When Pius IX died in 1878, he was well beloved by the faithful. On the other hand, he and the Church had seriously tangled with certain governments (those of France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, etc.) and with the dominant intellectual class. The new pope, Leo XIII, felt the need to extract the Church from this impasse.  He would attempt this by an intellectual and diplomatic pontificate. By diplomacy: one need only cite the ralliement in France, the end of the Kulturkampf in Germany, the reconciliation with Russia, the re-establishment of religious peace in Switzerland, etc. By ideas: Leo XIII, elected in 1878, published the encyclical letters Æterni Patris (On Christian Philosophy, in 1879); Arcanum (On Marriage, in 1880); Diuturnum (On Civil Power, in 1881); Sæpenumero (On History, in 1883); Humanum Genus (On Freemasonry, in 1884); Immortale Dei (On the State, in 1885); Libertas (On Liberty, in 1888); Rerum Novarum (On Social Questions, in 1891); Providentissimus (On Holy Scripture, in 1893); Satis Cognitum, (On the Church, in 1896); and Divinum (On the Holy Ghost, in 1897).

The maneuver was not without its success. The general situation became less troublesome. An intellectual edifice was arrayed against modernity. Leo's pontificate was relatively glorious; the Church developed and prospered, at least at first sight. Three points, however, made things more fragile and uncertain rather than solid and real.

First, Leo XIII deluded himself (voluntarily or not) about the real cause of the governments' hostility. He attributed it less to the perversity of enemies than to bad politics on the part of Catholics. That is why he tended to undermine the political resistance of Catholics. Then, Leo XIII deluded himself (voluntarily or not) about the real cause of the intellectuals' hostility. He attributed it less to a rationalism born of the passions than to a certain levity and to the inadequate presentation of the truth by Catholics. That is why he tended to weaken the intellectual resistance of Catholics.

Next, Leo XIII, intellectual and diplomat, did not sufficiently concern himself with the practical details of his orders and did not persevere in his designs when these met with obstacles. Moreover, his long pontificate and old age meant that towards the end of his reign the Church was governed weakly. Certainly, he condemned Americanism (1899), complained of errors in France (1899), forbade giving a political meaning to the term "Christian Democracy" (1901). In the encyclical Graves de Communi, on Christian Democracy, January 18, 1901, the pertinent paragraph reads:

... [I]t would be a crime to distort this name of Christian Democracy to politics, for although democracy, both in its philological and philosophical significations, implies popular government, yet in its present application it is so to be employed that, removing from it all political significance, it is to mean nothing else than a benevolent and Christian movement in behalf of the people. [In The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII (TAN Books, 1995), p. 482.]

Graves de Communi alerted the bishops to looming dangers (1902). Rarely, however, did any practical measures follow his pronouncements.

Finally, Leo XIII did not avert the "peril within the bosom of the Church" (Gaudeau), which was a "peril in faith and discipline" (Desfoyere) by an "anti-doctrinal crisis" (Fontaine) due to "Kantian, Protestant, and Masonic infiltrations in the Church" (Barbier), which introduced "a new Catholicism and a new clergy" (Maignen). The historian and the Christian are obliged to recognize "the advance of liberalism under Leo XIII" (Barbier). Such was the ultimately rather dramatic situation in 1903, (this time no longer with regard to external relations, but within the Church herself), at the death of Leo XIII.


A New Pontificate

Into this worrisome situation Cardinal Joseph Sarto was elected Pope on August 4, 1903. He took the name Pius X, "in honor of the Popes who have suffered so much" (namely, Pius VI, Pius VII, and Pius IX).

The new Pope was quite a contrast to his predecessor. First, Pius X was more strong willed than intellectual. His only great encyclical concerned modernism. Pius X preferred to use the motu proprio, a concise pronouncement followed by action. Thus he could get right to the point and assure that things were done as he asked. For example, on November 22, 1903, he promulgated the motu proprio on sacred music which was followed on December 8, 1903, by a letter on music; on January 8, 1904, by a decree on music; and on April 25, 1904, by another motu proprio on Gregorian chant. This energy of will was to enable him to bring about in a relatively short time the restoration of music, the reform of rules governing reception of Communion, the reform of the Curia, the reform of the Breviary, and the reform of Canon Law.

Second, if Pius X knew how to be shrewd, if he avoided confrontation, he was not personally a diplomat and did not have the temperament for it. Although he did not desire conflict, he did not refuse it if he believed it was necessary (nor did he hesitate to make it known). This was to be the case for the issue of separation of Church and State in France, for the Sillon, and especially for modernism.

It is in light of these two character traits that Pius X's actions in dealing with the enormous danger that threatened the Church must be judged, a danger which Leo XIII had perceived but never found the means to eradicate. Pius X confronted the danger that he called "modernisms," in a practical way. His only great encyclical, Pascendi, boldly attacked modernism, a heresy he described only for the sake of extirpating it.


Modernism According to Pius X

The generally received historiography of modernism (as seen, in the first instance, in the serious work of Jean Rivière, Le modernisme dans l'Eglise, Letouzey & Ane, 1929) suffers, in our opinion, from a major methodological error. A few modernists are identified, and so modernism is reduced to a few principal personages on the historical scene (Hébert, Loisy, Tyrrell, Laberthonniere, Turmel, Houtin, etc.). This method is all the more dangerous because none of the pontifical documents addressing modernism (Lamentabili, Pascendi, Sacrorum Antistitum, etc.) specified names.

The only really pertinent method is to study how St. Pius X himself characterized modernism by his words, his writings, and his acts. For lack of space, we cannot now do this, so we shall limit ourselves to evoking succinctly the reality of modernist infiltration in the Church as St. Pius X described it.

The Pontiff uses a frightening expression in Pascendi: the modernists are to be found "in sinu gremioque Ecclesiæ," i.e., in the very heart and bosom of the Church  [In §2 of the encyclical; the entire sentence reads: "That We should act without delay in this matter is made imperative especially by the fact that the partisans of error are to be sought not only among the Church's open enemies; but, what is to be most dreaded and deplored, in her very bosom, and are the more mischievous the less they keep in the open." (Daughters of St. Paul edition.)–Translator]. This designates not only laymen, but priests; not only priests, but bishops; not only bishops, but cardinals. In 1910, three years after Pascendi, Pius X affirmed in Sacrorum Antistitum: "The Modernists have not stopped agitating in order to disturb the peace of the Church. Nor have they ceased to recruit followers to the extent of forming an underground group." Then he added: "They are enemies all the more formidable as they are so close."

This description of the situation, taken together with the subsequent evolution of the Church, notably the current crisis (Roncalli was 26 years old in 1907, and Montini was 10), was completed by another statement of Pius X in 1912: "De gentibus non est vir mecum," i.e., "of these people there is not a man with me!" This statement leads to a necessary and logical conclusion: Pius X himself was surrounded by modernists and semi-modernists. For this reason, Pius X could learn of things only with difficulty; Pius X acted under restraint; Pius X was often contradicted, deceived, and betrayed. His will was obstructed by vagueness, by mute opposition, inertia, neglect, and by passive resistance in the expectation of his demise. "The pontificate of Pius X," writes Emile Poulat, "remains an enigma as long as one does not appreciate the play of a strong will coupled with a weak authority, of a will even stronger than is often recognized, and of an authority much weaker than everyone thinks" (Intégrisme, p.67).


Monsignor Umberto Benigni (1862-1934)

To overcome the obstacle of a hostile or reticent entourage, one of the solutions was to assemble a small team of " missi dominici" who could bypass the official hierarchies and act despite the general paralysis. It was then, writes Poulat (ibid.), that "Pius X's isolation encountered the loyalism of Benigni." Here at last appears the famous Benigni, about whom we have spoken so far without saying who he was or discussing the role he played. A brief outline of his life is, therefore, in order.

Umberto Benigni was born at Perouse (Umbria, Italy) on March 30, 1862, into a family of modest circumstances, the eldest of five children. This was about the time when, in 1870, pontifical Rome was seized by the troops of the House of Savoy (the "Kingdom of Italy"), which resulted in the Catholic political strategy of "non expedit," entailing the renunciation of Catholic involvement in electoral politics.

At the age of eleven, he entered the diocesan seminary (of which the bishop was Joachim Pecci, the future Leo XIII), where he completed all his studies. He was ordained a priest on November 20, 1884, with a dispensation for his age. He was immediately appointed history professor and tenaciously set to work on the publication of a pamphlet on the Bible in 1892 and on an introduction to Church history. He also became diocesan chaplain to various Catholic associations, and in this capacity, created his first bulletin or newspaper, the motto of which (in the Masonic Italy of Risorgimento) contains his program: "Always for the Pope and with the Pope." The charter of all his action was the encyclical Rerum Novarum. (He was also to write a Social History of the Church.)

In 1892 he became a member of the committee of the Opera dei Congressi, the forerunner of Italian Catholic Action. In 1893, he became the editor of the Catholic daily, Eco d'Italia. In 1895, he left for Rome. There he immersed himself in historical research. He obtained a modest employment at the Vatican Library, and in 1900 he began to write for the Catholic daily La Voce della Verità of which he became the director a year later while at the same time professor of Church history at the Roman Seminary. In 1902, Leo XIII appointed him a member of the Historico-liturgical Commission.

In 1904, he became minutante (attache or secretary) at the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. His talents and cultivation led him to be named an adjunct by the Secretary of the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, Msgr. Gasparri (future Secretary of State under Benedict XV), in 1906. In 1906, this congregation was attached to the Secretariat of State, and Msgr. Benigni became under-secretary of the first section, and the fifth-ranking personage of the "pontifical government." He then founded a Vatican press service and the Corrispondenza Romana, about which he would say that it was "neither official nor unofficial."

On March 6, 1911, a victim of a palace intrigue, Msgr. Benigni was "promoted" to "participating apostolic protonotary," while his associate, Msgr. Pacelli (future Secretary of State, then Pope Pius XII), replaced him. There is no doubt that he was ousted and sacrificed for political reasons, and there is also no doubt that in the affair his honor remained untarnished. (Emile Poulat devotes 80 pages of his biography of Msgr. Benigni in order to fully expose this complex episode.)

Msgr. Benigni then found himself entirely free and devoted himself fully to his journalistic work and to the struggle to which we shall return later. After the death of Pius X and the end of World War I, he found himself more and more isolated, but he continued to fight with the pen. Faced with the rise of fascism, while upholding the flag of Christ the King, like Pius XI and the Curia, he finally rallied to fascism (while at the same time Mussolini grew closer to Catholicism).

He died on February 27, 1934, at Rome.

Fr. Antonelli, in the Disquisitio, said of him: "It must be said that according to all the information we possess, no one can doubt the sincere attachment of Msgr. Benigni to the Church and the Pope. He intended to place himself and his multiple intellectual talents and his vast experience at the service of the Church." And further on, he explains, "It was with this just aversion against modernist tendencies in the widest sense of the word that Msgr. Benigni entered into the views of Pope Pius X." He did this notably with La Sapinière.


The Sodality of St. Pius V

Thanks to his vast knowledge, his extensive acquaintances, and his position in the Curia, he gradually became aware of the quasi-universal extension and of the secretive, international character of modernism. The idea of a global counter-attack took shape in his mind. It would be international in scope, protected by secrecy, and placed under the authority of the Holy See in the form of a congregation or institute: the Sodalitium Pianum. He envisioned a secular institute of pontifical right the goal of which would be to disseminate papal directives and gather the ideas in circulation to make them known to the Holy See. One of the key elements was secrecy (in relation to the outside world but not in relation to papal authority) in such a way as to disarm the modernist plot.

The Sodality was based at Rome, governed by the director, Msgr. Benigni, and a diet, the equivalent of an administrative council. Two of its members are known: Fathers Jules Saubat and Charles Maignen. The members could include both isolated individuals (priests or laymen) and groups, called "St. Peter's Conferences." According to the initial proposal, these persons or groups were to benefit from exemption from episcopal authority and from the right to secrecy. In fact, Cardinal Gaetano De Lai (the cardinal protector of the institute) and, very probably, St. Pius X himself, always remained reticent about these two points for rather obvious reasons. The critics have spoken of a thousand members. Benigni spoke of a hundred. As for Poulat, he affirms that the number of members never exceeded fifty.

To accomplish the mission of gathering information, the Sodalitium Pianum had an "ordinary service": the daily transmission of information to the Curia. It had also an "extraordinary service": specific missions carried out discreetly for the Curia and even directly for the Pope himself. Their mission of diffusion included the following:

In order to safeguard their secrets, a "code" was used in correspondence. (Details of the system are provided in Intégrisme, pp. 159-80). "As for the usage of secrecy," writes Emile Poulat, "which was required of the members, and of a code destined to preserve it when they communicated with one another, this was the universal practice; it is not this which constitutes a secret society. Moreover, two people had the right to know everything at any time: the cardinal protector and the pope" (p.65). Fr. Antonelli wrote, "It was the usual means, as Msgr. Benigni observed, even in banks and industries; a code is of itself neither bad nor suspect. All the governments, including the Holy See, have used secret codes for centuries....Objectively weighing the facts, secrecy and the use of a code were in a way necessary means, at the very least useful, certainly not immoral, as long as Benigni kept no secrets from the competent authority, the Holy See" (Disquisitio, p. 255). In the code, the Sodalitium Pianum is designated by the name "La Sapiniére" under which name it entered history.


Pope Pius X's Support

The Sodalitium Pianum was founded in 1909 and dissolved by will of Msgr. Benigni at the beginning of the World War which coincided with the death of Pius X. Reconstituted in 1915, but henceforth marginalized, it continued until the inquest of 1921, after which it was officially and definitively dissolved by Roman authority.

There is no doubt that the Sodalitium Pianum was supported by Rome. Msgr. Benigni cites as supporters (with documents and proof) Cardinals Merry del Val, Vives, Falconio, Gotti, Van Rossum, Sevin, as well as bishops, prelates, etc., and especially Cardinal De Lai (the "strong man" of the pontificate).

But above all, the Sodalitium Pianum was supported by Pius X. Especially known are the three handwritten approbations of 1911, 1912, and of July 6, 1914, a month before his death. In addition, Pius X provided the sodality with an annual subsidy of 1,000 lire. This was not done in a purely administrative way, since, having forgotten it one year, he had it sent by his secretary. Other facts, in particular missions confided specifically by the Pope to members of the Sodalitium Pianum, equally attest to the support and confidence of Pius X. "For those who know Pius X and his undeniable rectitude, [these facts] are the absolutely sure indication that the Pope saw in the Sodalitium Pianum a good institution" (Disquisitio, p.258).

Nevertheless, the Sodalitium Pianum never obtained the status of pontifical right. Cardinal De Lai, its firmest supporter, was hesitant over the question of secrecy vis-à-vis the diocesan bishops. He shared Msgr. Benigni's misgivings towards them; nevertheless, he still did not wish to undermine their rights (Disquisitio, p. 279).

The situation could have evolved (either by the modification of the statutes of the Sodalitium Pianum or else by the eventual acceptance of secrecy), but the death of Pius X and the outbreak of war intervened. As Cardinal Sbarreti modestly phrased it in 1921, "The circumstances having changed today," (which referred to the arrival of Benedict XV and his new politics) it became "opportune" to dissolve the Sodalitium Pianum. This was done on December 8, 1921.


"Let Us Now Praise Men of Renown" (Eccles. 44:1)

Let us now summarize the facts relevant to this organization:

In reaction to all this, we find imaginations, hatred, and calumnies. Imaginations: the adversaries believed, or pretended to believe, or made believe that "black masonry" was omnipotent. In reality, the organization was poor in numbers, in means, and in influence, even if Benigni himself was very effective. Hatred: the strong and undying hatred expressed against Benigni, and, through him, against the Sodalitium Pianum, is still frightening. Calumnies: extremely virulent media campaigns full of lies, slanders, and calumnies, were hurled against Benigni, the Sodalitium Pianum, and, in general, the anti-liberals.

Msgr. Benigni (as did all the other members of the Sodalitium Pianum) had normal human faults and failings. He was choleric and impulsive. He could be stubborn. He had good morals, however, and a sound orthodoxy. He was cultivated and curious, with the temperament of a policeman (which was desirable for the mission he had to fulfill). The testimony of Fr. Jules Saubat on this subject (Disquisitio, p. 67) is fascinating.

We can equally sum up the matter in the following way:

Msgr. Benigni was a cleric who had an excellent career. Before him lay a cardinal's hat and eventually the post of Secretary of State. He believed in Pius X and stood with him. He was stopped, then broken, then marginalized. At his death, not one word appeared in the Osservatore Romano; at his funeral, no one represented the Curia, and only two priest friends followed in the cortège.

The Sodalitium Pianum was a "congregation" already recognized, yet it never received full recognition. It was subjected to unbridled hatred, calumny, negative media campaigns, misinformation, then, finally, it was dissolved.

This little band without many resources had resolved to serve God and the Church; nevertheless, it did accomplish an important, effective work in countering modernist and modernizing influences.

Moreover, in the Sodalitium Pianum affair can be found all the ingredients of the current crisis in the Church.

Pius X clearly saw the very grave danger threatening the Faith and the Church. He acted energetically, notably relying upon the unconditional support of a few elite soldiers, among whom were Msgr. Benigni and the Sodalitium Pianum.

He was thwarted, however, and fought against. "Pius X," writes Emile Poulat, "who only knows one way and yields nothing that would permit equivocation, nonetheless temporizes with men, aware of the oppositions and hesitations that he stirs up even in the Sacred College."

The actions of St. Pius X delayed modernism for fifty years, but, because his policies were not pursued, modernism was not eradicated, and it progressed underground only to surface again on the occasion of the Second Vatican Council.

We, too, in part, are living on the margins of the ecclesiastical structure what Msgr. Benigni and the Sodalitium Pianum lived in the heart of this same structure. That is why we can rightly claim to be their inheritors and continuators, and like them we rejoin the great fight of St. Pius X against modernism.


Translated exclusively for Angelus Press by Anne Stinnett from Saint Pie X: Les Actes, Acts of a colloquium held March 29, 2003, by the Society of Saint Pius X in Paris, sponsored by the Society's St. Pius X University.