In my last post I looked at Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s concept of the Revolution as outlined in Revolution and Counter-Revolution, which is a defining text of the Tradition, Family and Property movement. In this post I will examine the complementary concept of the Counter-Revolution and provide examples of some of its implications. Much of what makes TFP so controversial, and almost a religion unto itself, are the practices attached to the concept of the Counter-Revolution. These practices are often focused on the imitation of its historical models: “Dr. Plinio” and his mother, Dona (“Lady”) Lucilia.
Corrêa de Oliveira’s Counter-Revolution is, very simply, an elitist reaction to the Revolution. It is just as totalizing in its scope and demands as the Revolution, and thus allows for little compromise or nuance. He writes, “if the Revolution is killing us, nothing is more indispensable than a reaction that aims to crush it. To be adverse in principle to a counter-revolutionary reaction is the same as desiring to deliver the world over to the Revolution’s dominion” (51). The ultimate goal of the counter-revolution is at once deeply reactionary and utopian: “If the Revolution is disorder, the Counter-Revolution is the restoration of order. And by order we mean the peace of Christ in the Reign of Christ, that is, Christian civilization, austere and hierarchical, fundamentally sacral, antiegalitarian, and antiliberal” (52).
True counter-revolutionaries are a beleaguered minority, standing bravely against a revolutionary tide that easily carries away those of weaker character. Although there may be times when it is necessary to collaborate with those who are not entirely counter-revolutionary, “the struggle against the Revolution can only be properly developed by uniting persons who are radically and entirely free of the virus of Revolution” (59). Further, although one should attempt to persuade the masses if possible, “the principal factor is in the formation of elites” (60).
One of the primary tasks of the counter-revolutionary is to engage in a relentless critique of revolutionary society—not just the large currents of social change, but every aspect of culture and daily life. Corrêa de Oliveira writes, “The Counter-Revolution should always be ideological in its approach, even when dealing with matters fraught with detail and incidentals” (62). It demands “A diligence in detecting and combating evil in its embryonic or veiled forms, in fulminating it with execration and a note of infamy, and in punishing it with unbreakable firmness in all its manifestations…” (52). Thus, “in several of its most important aspects, counter-revolutionary work is wholesomely negativistic and polemical” (64). This side of the Counter-Revolution will be obvious to those familiar with TFP-related protests, petitions, or conferences, which are characterized by the condemnation of allegedly revolutionary trends in society and/or the Church.
Taken as it is presented in Revolution and Counter-Revolution, Corrêa de Oliveira’s vision amounts to little more than a simplistic and grandiose version of the standard reactionary Catholic narrative of civilizational decline. However, its emphasis on the penetration of the Revolution/Counter-Revolution dichotomy into all aspects of life contains the seeds of what would become an especially problematic aspect of the TFP movement, and in examining this issue I will have to extend my overview beyond Revolution and Counter-Revolution itself.
During the 1950s and beyond, Corrêa de Oliveira contributed a regular column titled “Ambiences, Customs, Civilizations” to the magazine Catolicismo, in which he commented on art, architecture, decoration, clothing, and similar topics from an elitist, aristocratic perspective that betrayed more than a little of what might be described as cultured philistinism. Some English translations of these columns are available on the TFP Student Action website here, and all of them show that Corrêa de Oliveira placed a high value on the “ambiences” or moods, feelings, and auras associated with aristocratic, royalist, and traditionalist environments. The combination of a dualistic political worldview and an obsession with decorum and rarified cultural environments created a potent mix that became a driving force behind TFP and its later offshoots. Quite predictably, for TFP members, Corrêa de Oliveira himself came to embody everything a counter-revolutionary man should be, capable of creating a counter-revolutionary ambience by his mere presence. His aura, his vibe (if you will), became a primary model for the cultivation of character among TFP members, even if was of course impossible to reach his level of grandeur. To facilitate their progress, members of the group wrote and compiled what were referred to as Jour le jour (day by day) observations of Corrêa de Oliveira, noting his habits, mannerisms, and offhand comments. A cult of personality formed around the leader Dr. Plinio, and at the same time, his mother, Dona Lucilia, became an icon of counter-revolutionary femininity.
By the early 1980s, accusations were flying that TFP had become a full-blown cult. His followers, it was claimed, were replacing Jesus and Mary with Dr. Plinio and Dona Lucilia. English-speakers will have trouble finding some of this information regarding controversies surrounding TFP, but they can read a translation of a long and intricate defense of TFP under the title Refutation of the TFP to a Frustrated Onslaught (1984), republished by Tradition in Action. It includes details on some of the accusations of cult-like behaviour, including, for example, a reproduction of a Litany of Dona Lucilia—alleged to have been recited by some TFP members—which was condemned by Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer (who was himself a traditionalist and former TFP-supporter). Here is an excerpt from the litany:
Dona Lucilia, pray for us.
Manguinha, pray for us.
Mother of Dr. Plinio, pray for us.
Mother of the Doctor of the Church, pray for us.
Mother of our Father, pray for us.
Mother of the Ineffable, pray for us.
Mother of us all, pray for us.
Mother of the Axiological Principle, pray for us.
Mother of the Temperament of Synthesis, pray for us.
Mother of all purity, pray for us.
Mother of the Transphere, pray for us.
Mother of Seriousness, pray for us.
Mother of the Counter-Revolution, pray for us. (205)
Gustavo Antônio Solimeo, in response to the condemnation from the bishop, admits its authenticity but considers it a folly of some younger TFP members, noting that it was prohibited by Corrêa de Oliveira in 1979. Nevertheless, he goes on for many pages defending its contents with sophistic precision.
On the Tradition in Action site you can also find an online copy of Servitudo ex Caritate, which is a 1985 response by Atila Sinke Guimarães to accusations that some TFP members had made themselves “slaves” to Corrêa de Oliveira. The author rejects the accusation and argues that their “slavery” is actually slavery to Mary (in the manner of St. Louis de Montfort) through the mediation of Corrêa de Oliveira, as if that makes it somehow acceptable.
One very accessible source of information on TFP is Veronica Chater’s powerful memoir of growing up in an ultra-traditionalist Catholic family, Waiting for the Apocalypse (2009). Two of Chater’s brothers were sent to Brazil by their father to become part of TFP, although both decided to quit after a short time. Chater describes one of them, after his return to the United States, talking about his experience as a young TFP apprentice:
You don’t know what it’s like. They get you. I was mesmerized. As an apprentice I had to wear the brown tunic and the kneehigh black boots. I had to march. We all did. The courtyard was lit with blue ambient lights. The hooded monks wore red sashes around their arms, and shiny chains with seven links around their waists. They did the goose step with the leg straight out, Hitler-style, only they slid each foot. Slide, left leg kick, right arm snap salute. Swivel in perfect unison. Marching and chanting about Dr. Plinio being a prophet, about his mother being a saint. We marched for hours in preparation of Plinio’s visit. When he came, the others kissed his feet. I refused. They took me aside, tried to brainwash me. I knew what they were up to. They think they’re chosen, an elite group who carries the truth and is responsible for leading the faithful out of the darkness.
While this description may be embellished, it captures his impression of what life at the heart of the TFP organization was like: a closed, militaristic environment centred around the personality of Dr. Plinio. Interestingly, this particular brother had been favoured by the group because they determined he had high “Thau,” which is apparently TFP-speak for a certain counter-revolutionary aura or strength of character that Dr. Plinio could sense on sight. He fit with the TFP ambience.
After the death of Corrêa de Oliveira, TFP fragmented into a number of different groups and initiatives that are inspired by his thought and character, only some of which use the TFP name: these include American TFP, TFP Student Action, Tradition in Action, and the Heralds of the Gospel (which is an International Association of Pontifical Right). The ambience of the original TFP is apparent in all of these groups, but the veneration of Dr. Plinio and his mother is most apparent in the Heralds of the Gospel.
Heralds founder Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias was, in 2016, in the process of publishing a FIVE volume biography of Corrêa de Oliveira, and you can get a taste of what they are like from the articles included in their monthly magazine, available here. The term “hagiographic” does not do them justice. He has also published a biography of Dona Lucilia, and female tertiaries of the Heralds can participate in a 45-week online study of the book and her life. 45 weeks! But it gets stranger: as Andrea Tornielli reported in 2017 for La Stampa, the Heralds of the Gospel are now under investigation by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in part because of leaked exorcism videos featuring the Heralds in which “the names of Donna Lucilia, Plinio Corrêa and Monsignor João are invoked during exorcisms as extremely powerful. To the point of being almost divinized” (and as Daniele Palmer recently reported in The Tablet, the Heralds have rejected the investigation as “completely illegal”).
It should be apparent from these examples (and there are many more) that although Corrêa de Oliveira’s thought, on a superficial level, is not much different than that of standard reactionary Catholicism on the model of Joseph de Maistre, it has other more disturbing implications. The idea of a counter-revolutionary “ambience” that must be cultivated in every aspect of the life of the TFP member has left a legacy that has poisoned Corrêa de Oliveira’s plans for the Counter-Revolution. We must always remind ourselves that Christian virtue is not tied to a particular style or aura, and it is not exclusive to counter-revolutionaries. Jesus was not part of the Counter-Revolution.
In my next (and last) installment I will look at another key characteristic of TFP—their apocalypticism—and how it ties into their criticism of the post-Vatican II Church and especially the Francis papacy.
Chater, Veronica. Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Corrêa de Oliveira, Plinio. Revolution and Counter-Revolution. Hanover, PA: The American TFP, 2002. First published 1959 (Parts I and II) and January 1977 (Part III). https://www.tfp.org/revolution-and-counter-revolution/
Guimarães, Atila Sinke, Gustavo Antônio Solimeo, and Antônio Borelli Machado. Refutation to a Frustrated Onslaught. Translated by Marian T. Horvat. Posted online by Tradition In Action, Inc. First published 1984. https://www.traditioninaction.org/Library/texts/B_001_3Letters.pdf
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, his mother, the archbishop of São Paulo and others at the inauguration of the new machines for the newspaper “O Legionário” (cropped). Posted on Wikimedia Commons by P.P. Pyres. Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike 4.0 International license.
D.W. Lafferty, PhD, is a Catholic husband, dad, and independent scholar from Ontario, Canada. He works in higher education and has published articles on the literature of Wyndham Lewis, the conspiracy theory of Douglas Reed, and the life and legacy of Engelbert Dollfuss. Online, he tweets as @rightscholar.