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They were especially active in the nineteenth century in historically Catholic countries that fell under anti-clerical regimes such as Spain, Italy, Bavaria, France, and Belgium. Adolf Hitler ordered the murder of Erich Klausener, head of a Catholic Action group in Nazi Germany, during the Night of the Long Knives. Catholic Action is not a political party, although in many times and places this distinction became blurred. Since World War II the concept has often been eclipsed by Christian Democrat parties that were organised to combat Communist parties and promote Catholic social justice principles in places such as Italy and West Germany.
Catholic Action generally included various subgroups for youth, women, workers, etc. In the postwar period, the various national Catholic Action organizations for workers formed the World Movement of Christian Workers which remains highly active today as a voice within the Church and in society for working class Catholics.
The Catholic Action movement had its beginnings in the latter part of the 19th century as efforts to counteract a rise in anti-clerical sentiment, especially in Europe.
A variety of diverse groups formed under the concept of Catholic Action. These would include: the Young Christian Workers, the Young Christian Students; the Cursillo movement, RENEW International; the Legion of Mary; Sodalities; the Christian Family Movement; various community organizing groups like COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) in San Antonio, and Friendship House in Harlem, an early influence on Thomas Merton.
Around 1912, as a curate in a parish in Laeken, on the outskirts of Brussels, Joseph Cardijn, who dedicated his ministry to aid the working class, founded for the young seamstresses a branch of the Needleworkers' Trade Union. In 1919 he started the "Young Trade Unionists". In 1924, the name of the organization was changed to "Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne", the Young Christian Workers. JOC grew rapidly throughout the world; its members were often known as "Jocists" (the movement was often called "Jocism"). By 1938, there were 500,000 members throughout Europe; in 1967, this had increased to 2,000,000 members in 69 countries.
A fruit of the contemporary Catholic Action movement, the International Catholic Union of the Press UCIP was founded in Belgium in 1927. A year later the Organization Catholique Internationale du Cinéma ( OCIC) came into being in The Netherlands, and the Bureau Catholic International de Radiodiffusion (BCIR), in Germany. It became Unda in 1946. These professional Catholic lay associations, working in the world of the professional media, wanted to unite their efforts against the secularization of society. On the one hand, they were aware that the press and the new media of radio and cinema were contributing to secularization. On the other hand, they also believed that by engaging in the secular media, they could use them as a new means of evangelization. Efforts had to be made to evangelize the secular mass media, or at least to insert the values of the Gospel into them. As a result of the merger of the Catholic media organizations OCIC and Unda, a new organisation was founded in 2001 in Rome called SIGNIS. In 2014 the Vatican suggested that SIGNIS should also integrate the members of the former International Catholic Union of the Press (UCIP), which a few years earlier had lost its recognition by the Holy See as an official Catholic organization.
The National Civic Council is an Australian Catholic Action group formed in 1957 out of the Australian Catholic social studies movement under the leadership of B.A. Santamaria. Precursors to the NCC were active in the Australian Labor Party, but were expelled from the party by less conservative members during the 1955 Labor Split. The expelled members of the party went on to form the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist) and the subsequent Democratic Labor Party.
Azione Cattolica is probably the most active Catholic Action group still around today. Catholic Action was particularly well suited to Italy where Catholic party political action was impractical, firstly under the Anti-Clerical Savoyard regime from 1870 until about 1910 and later under the Fascist regime which prohibited independent political parties.
The present association Azione Cattolica was founded in 1867 by Mario Fani and Giovanni Acquaderni with the name of Società della Gioventù Cattolica Italiana (Italian Catholic Youth Society), then reformed during the Mussolini regime when the association was structured into 4 sectors and was called Azione Cattolica.
Catholic Action was organised in many other countries, including: