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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

A Secret Anti-Modernist Association: The Sodalitium Pianum

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Pope St. Pius X Pope St. Pius X

ON AUGUST 4, 1903, Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, the patriarch of Venice, was raised to the papal throne with the name of Pius X. His program of restoration of Christian society, summarized in his motto Instaurare Omnia in Christo, involved a strong defense of orthodoxy in the Church that was threatened by modernism. The battle of St. Pius X against modernism reached its highest expression in the encyclical Pascendi of September 8, 1907, preceded by the Decree of the Holy Office Lamentabili of July 3, 1907, and followed by the Motu Proprio Sacrorum Antistitum of September 1, 1910, which required priests to take the anti-modernist oath.


The cross of the pontificate of St. Pius X, however, was the solitude in which he found himself in the war against modernism. The pope had only a few faithful collaborators with the Italian episcopate and Roman Curia itself. In addition to his secretariat, directed by Msgr. Giambattista Bressan (1861-1950), he was helped above all by two cardinals: the secretary of state, Rafael Merry del Val (1865-1930), and the prefect of the Consistorial Congregation for Bishops, Gaetano De Lai (1853-1928). But the strength with which St. Pius X faced the battle was also thanks to a precious instrument of action that he could count on: the Sodalitium Pianum, an anti-modernist association that acted in secret but with the full approval of the pope and the Consistorial Congregation.

Pius X was beatified on June 3, 1951, by Pius XII, and he was canonized by him on May 29, 1954. When the discussion about the heroic nature of his virtues opened in 1949, one of the objections that was raised was the approach taken by Pius X to the Sodalitium Pianum. Pius XII then entrusted to Msgr. Ferdinando Antonelli (1896-1993), a Franciscan, later a cardinal and secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the task of conducting an accurate investigation (“Disquisitio”), basing it on the dossier of Sacred Consistorial Congregation, and gathering numerous direct testimonies. The conclusion of the investigation was that the accusation of a “black conspiracy” and of an “occult power” of espionage in the Church was simply unfounded. The documents of the Disquisitio,[1] tied to the cause of canonization of Pius X, along with those published by the historian Émile Poulat[2] and others found by Msgr. Sergio Pagano in the Fondo Archivio Benigni in the Vatican,[3] have contributed to shining a definitive light on the Sodalitium Pianum, which takes its place in the line of many secret associations formed in history to defend the Church from her enemies.

Umberto BegnigniThe founder of the Sodalitium Pianum, Msgr. Umberto Benigni [pictured left], was born in 1862 in Perugia, where he completed his ecclesiastical studies and was ordained a priest in 1884. He immediately began a double activity in both history and journalism. A person of strong ingenuity and vast culture, with notable gifts as an organizer, he was called by Pius X on May 24, 1906, to the Secretariat of State as the undersecretary of the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, and on August 28, 1906, he was named a domestic prelate of His Holiness. He remained in this post until March 7, 1911, when he was succeeded by then-Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli. In 1907, he began to publish, in both Italian and French, “Corrispondenza Romana,”[4] an anti-modernist information agency. In 1909, he founded the Sodalitium Pianum, or the League of St. Pius V, under the patronage of the inquisitor pope who obtained the great victory of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571.

Msgr. Benigni, the founder of the Sodalitium Pianum, is still today a “black beast” for progressive Catholics, but he gathers the esteem and sympathy of those who fight in the ranks of the Catholic counter-revolution.

In the Disquisitio, the statutes and charter of the Sodalitium Pianum were published in their autumn 1913 version. In this one reads: “We are integral Roman Catholics. As this word indicates, the integral Roman Catholic accepts integrally the doctrine, the discipline, and the directives of the Holy See, and all of their legitimate consequences for the individual and for society. He is ‘papal,’ ‘clerical,’ anti-modernist, anti-liberal, anti-sectarian. He is therefore integrally counter-revolutionary, because he is the adversary not only of the Jacobin Revolution and sectarian radicalism but equally of religious and social liberalism.”[5]


This was the program of action of Msgr. Benigni. Thanks to his knowledge of languages and his international connections, he concerned himself in particular with the press service of the Holy See, developing for the first time in history a role that made it the precursor of what would later be the Vatican “press office,” or “Sala Stampa.” Although it never received formal canonical approval, the Sodalitium Pianum was known and encouraged by the Holy See – in particular by the Sacred Consistorial Congregation, whose prefect was Cardinal De Lai, and by Pius X himself, who sent three handwritten papal letters of blessing and ensured that it received an annual subsidy. The organization was dissolved after the death of Pius X, only to be reactivated in 1915, again in agreement with the Consistorial Congregation. It was definitively suppressed at the order of Benedict XV on November 25, 1921. Among the cardinals who esteemed the Sodalitium Pianum, making use of the information it provided (in addition Merry del Val and De Lai), there should be recalled the Capuchin José Vives y Tuto (1899-1913), prefect of the Congregation of Religious; the Dominican Tommaso Pio Boggiani (1863-1942), assessor of the Consistorial Congregation and later Archbishop of Genoa and Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church; Girolamo Gotti (1834-1916), the Prefect of the Propaganda; the Redemptorist Wilhelmus van Rossum (1854-1932), later Prefect of the Propaganda (1918); and Hector-Irenée Sevin (1852-1916), archbishop of Lyon.[6]

Contemporary historiography has taken up the accusations of “informing” and “espionage” formerly made by modernists against the Roman prelate. The Sodalitium Pianum would have been, in a word, “the sin of Pius X.” But what is forgotten however is the secret work of modernism, carried out by a network spread through an effective connection with correspondents in the European capitals for authoritative organs of information, from the Times to the Journal des Débats, from the Temps to Le Siècle, from the Daily News to the Morning Post. To oppose this activity, there was need of an agile and informed organism that would act in the most absolute discretion. This was the Sodalitium Pianum. A real “black legend” was created around its founder in such a way as to impede an objective judgment on his personality, which was of a difficult nature, but intended, as Cardinal Antonelli writes in the Disquisitio, “to place himself, his multiple intellectual qualities, his vast experience, above all in the historical-cultural and sociological field, at the service of the Church.”[7] The objective reconstruction of the work of the Roman prelate and his collaborators by a scholar like Poulat should be taken into account, as well as the conclusions which emerge from the Disquisitio which are of great historical value:

1) The Sodalitium Pianum, considered in itself and on the basis of its statutes and charter, was a good organization with a good purpose.

2) The Sodalitium Pianum intended to be an organ of penetration (the exemplary life of its members in conformity with all the papal directives: an “integral” Catholic life), and of information (personal, rapid and secure gathering of news on all areas of religious, political, social and cultural life) in the service of the Roman Curia.

3) The Sodalitium Pianum, in the original idea of Benigni, was supposed to have been a form of “secular” ecclesiastical institute subject to the Sacred Consistorial Congregation, just as religious institutes live and act subject to the Sacred Congregation for Religious.

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The Sodalitium Pianum effectively served the Holy See, offering regular information, making use at times of a special code in order to guarantee the security of correspondence. Fr. Jules Saubat (1867-1949), procurator general of the Fathers of Betharram, who was directed to Benigni by Cardinal Merry del Val and became secretary of the Sodalitium Pianum, testifies that “illicit or dishonest means were never used in the struggle; however all of the human arts, even the most cunning, were placed at the service of the truth.”[8] And Saubat himself again testifies: “A spy, no: the spy is evil and in the service of evil for the sake of evil. Here there is vigilance through sufficiently honest human means for the sake of the good. Otherwise it should be said: the Nuncios who are charged with informing are spies; the Secretary of State whom the Pope asks every morning, “Custos quid de nocte?” is a spy. The Secretary of State takes the scala regia: Benigni took the scala di servizio; this is the only difference.”[9]

“In conclusion, and considering things objectively,” states Cardinal Antonelli in the Disquisitio, “the secret and the code were in a certain sense necessary means, at least useful, certainly not immoral, since Benigni kept no secrets from the competent authority of the Holy See with whom he was in contact.”[10]

In the relentless war between the modernists and anti-modernists, there existed a “third party” personified until 1913 by Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro (1843-1913), Leo XIII’s Secretary of State, a man who nearly became pope in the conclave of 1903. In 1901, Rampolla had chosen as his direct collaborators Msgr. Giacomo Della Chiesa (1854-1922) and Msgr. Pietro Gasparri (1852-1934); he appointed the former as Secretary of the Congregation for Ordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs and Substitute of the Secretariat of State and appointed the latter as Secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs. Msgr. Gasparri, who was a talented canonist, was created cardinal by Pius X in the consistory of December 6, 1907, in order to take on the task of drafting the new codification of canon law; Msgr. Della Chiesa, in October 1907, was appointed in his turn archbishop of Bologna, after which he waited a full seven years for his elevation to the cardinalate, which took place on May 25, 1914.

Pius X died on August 3, 1914. On September 3, 1914, only three months after the conferral of the cardinal’s robes, Msgr. Della Chiesa was surprisingly elected to the papal throne, taking the name of Benedict XV. His pontificate would represent a very different line from that of Pius X.

Four months after the death of Pius X, Msgr. Eudoxe Mignot (1842-1918), archbishop of Albi, sent to Cardinal Domenico Ferrata (1847-1914) – the first Secretary of State of the newly elected Benedicti XV– a memoriale in which he harshly attacked the reactionary anti-modernist movement promoted by Saint Pius X and invited the Holy See to a policy of “reconciliation” with the modernists. On October 13, 1914, Benedict XV appointed Cardinal Pietro Gasparri Secretary of State to replace Cardinal Ferrata, revealing his determined will to change the orientation of the plan of his pontificate, returning to the line of government held by Cardinal Rampolla which had been abandoned by Pius X.

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Benedict XV, in agreement with Cardinal Gasparri, dismantled the Sodalitium Pianum. After the death of Benedict XV on January 22, 1922, the last battle between the ecclesiastical anti-modernist tendency (which referred to Pius X) and the centrist line (embodied by Cardinal Gasparri) took place, in a conclave that, according to what Gasparri himself is said to have confided, was “one of the most contested in history.” The cardinal archbishop of Milan, Achille Ratti, was elected pope on February 6, 1922, taking the name of Pius XI, assuring the position of Secretary of State to Cardinal Gasparri, who held the office until 1930, when he was succeeded by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who came instead from the school of Pius X. On March 7, 1911, Msgr. Pacelli succeeded to Msgr. Benigni as undersecretary of the congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, of which he was the first secretary to be sent as nuncio to Bavaria (1917). There, he was visited by a member of the Sodalitium Pianum, the Belgian lawyer Alphonse Joncx (1872-1953), who reported: “Mons. Pacelli est un élève et fidèle ami de nos amis [Msgr. Pacelli is a student and faithful friend of our friends].”[11]

Msgr. Benigni, after being marginalized by Benedict XV and Pius XI, founded the Agenzia Urbs in 1923, which continued its activities until 1928. In 1933 he published the last volume of his imposing Storia sociale della Chiesa, whose first volume had appeared in 1907. This work, of great scientific value, which extended from the first centuries of the Church to the medieval period, has never received from historians the attention it merits.

Msgr. Umberto Benigni, the founder of the Sodalitium Pianum, passed away in Rome on February 26, 1934. Many journalists and political men attended his funeral, but only two priests were present: Fr. Jules Saubat and Fr. Henri Jeoffroid, procurator general of the Congregation of the Brothers of Saint Vincent de Paul. “He died poor,” Paolo de Toth recalls, “and this is one of his greatest glories and one of the most significant proofs of his honesty and loyalty.”[12] Fr. Charles Maignen (1858-1937), who was himself also a religious of the Brothers of Saint Vincent de Paul and a member of the Sodalitium Pianum, wrote that Umberto Benigni “was a man of extraordinary activity and power of work. He wanted to endow the Holy See with an organ of information and intelligence conceived after the methods of the agencies of the modern press. With makeshift means and very limited resources, he managed to build up a considerable collection of newspaper and review articles and other unpublished documents on all the political-ecclesiastical movements of the time. A catalogue of names and peoples and subjects permitted him to locate very rapidly the elements of a very extensive dossier pertaining to various people and things. This enabled the S.S. to promptly intervene in more than one affair and to foil more than one Inde Irae intrigue. This is the explanation of the ferocious war waged against him and the Sodalitium.[13]

The figure of Msgr. Benigni, the founder of the Sodalitium Pianum, of the agency Corrispondenza Romana agency and of many other anti-modernist initiatives, is still today a “black beast” for progressive Catholics, but he gathers the esteem and sympathy of those who fight in the ranks of the Catholic counter-revolution.


[1] Romana Beatificationis et canonisationis servi Dei Pii Papae X. Disquisitio circa quasdam objectionis modus agendi servi Dei respicientes in modernismi debellatione, Typis Poliglottis Vaticanis, Vatican City, 1950 = Disquisitio.

[2] E. Poulat, Intégrisme et catholicisme intégral. Un réseau international antimoderniste: La «Sapinière» (1909-1921), Casterman, Paris-Tournai, 1969.

[3] S. Pagano, Documenti sul modernismo romano dal fondo Benigni, in “Ricerche per la storia religiosa di Roma”, 8 (1990), pp. 223-300.

[4] The first edition of “Corrispondenza Romana” appeared on March 23, 1907, first as a mimeograph, later in the press; beginning with the edition of October 2, 1909, the title was changed into “La Correspondance de Rome,” which lasted until December 31, 1912. Emile Poulat reproduced an almost-complete collection (Feltrinelli Reprint, Milan, 1971, 3 vol.).

[5] Disquisitio cit., p. 62.

[6] Ibid., p. 234

[7] Ibid., p. 199.

[8] Ibid., p. 32.

[9] Disquisitio, p. 37.

[10] Disquisitio, p. 231.

[11] E. Poulat, Intégrisme et catholicisme intégral, cit., p. 258

[12] Disquisitio, p. 48

[13] Roberto de Mattei, Le ralliement de Léone XIII. L’échec d’un projet pastoral, Les Editions du Cerf, Paris, 2016, p. 337

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Last modified on Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Roberto de Mattei | Remnant Columnist

Prof. De Mattei is President of the Lepanto Foundation, as well as Founder and Director of the Lepanto Cultural Centre. He directs the magazine “Radici Cristiane” and the “Corrispondenza Romana” News Agency. He is the author of many books, that have been translated into several languages, and earned him an international reputation. Between 2003-2011 he was Vice President of the Italian National Research Council (CNR). He was also a member of the Board of Directors of the Italian Historical Institute. He is married to Rita di Campello and father of 5 children.

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