See, Judge, Act – Fifty years of Catholic social practice

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, which in its turn recalled the 70th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking social encyclical Rerum Novarum on the condition of the workers.

Few today, however, will remember that it was Joseph Cardijn who proposed the writing of this encyclical to Pope John during an audience he had with the Pope in March 1960. At the pope’s request, Cardijn prepared a twenty page dossier of ideas and suggestions for the envisaged encyclical.

Fourteen months later on 15 May 1961, even Cardijn was surprised when Pope John published Mater et Magistra which specifically adopted the famous See – Judge – Act method that he had championed throughout his life.

“There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice,” Pope John wrote (Paragraph 236) in the encyclical.

“First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgement on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: look, judge, act.”

Acting upon Cardijn’s inspiration, Pope John thus specifically incorporated the “See – Judge – Act” method into Catholic social teaching and practice.

Four years later in an address to the Second Vatican Council, Cardijn, now a Cardinal, would insist on the importance of this legacy.

“I have shown confidence in [young people’s] freedom so as to better educate that freedom”, Cardijn told the Council in an address on religious freedom.

“I helped them to see, judge and act by themselves, by undertaking social and cultural action themselves, freely obeying authorities in order to become adult witnesses of Christ and the Gospel, conscious of being responsible for their sisters and brothers in the whole world,” he said (20 September 1965) in a phrase that recalls the famous definition of democracy adopted by the Sillon (Furrow) movement of Marc Sangnier as the system of “social organisation that tends to maximise the civic consciousness and responsibility of each person”.

Indeed, Cardijn’s “see, judge, act” formula neatly summarised the “method of democratic education” in “study circles” that the Sillon had pioneered in France at the turn of the 20th century.

“Every citizen must know the state of the nation; when the situation is evil, he must seek solutions; and lastly, having found the solutions, he must act,” wrote Marc Sangnier outlining the enquiry method used by the Sillon as early as 1899.

But it was Cardijn who perfected the method and made it the foundation stone of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement from where it would be adopted later by so many other lay apostolate groups and movements.

“Leaders and members learning to see, judge, and act; to see the problem of their temporal and eternal destiny to judge the present situation, the problems, the contradiction, the demands of an eternal and temporal destiny; to act with a view to the conquest of their temporal and eternal destiny,” as he told delegates to the First International Congress of the YCW in 1935.

Cardijn indeed saw himself as a teacher and educator of young workers. Fifty years after Mater et Magistra, we can see clearly today that he was also a great teacher of the whole Church.

As we celebrate the half century of the “See – Judge – Act encyclical”, we renew the call made in 1998 by former leaders of the International YCW for Cardijn to be recognised as a “Doctor of the Church”.

Cardijn Community International

20 May 2011