Three formal roles

‘Vatican II canonised Cardijn,’ Melbourne Archbishop Frank Little told several leaders of the Young Christian Workers (YCW or Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne – JOC), including myself, in 1979. I was impressed but not surprised. Many veteran JOC leaders and chaplains, who were familiar with Cardijn’s ‘incarnational’ theology of lay apostolate, or who had experimented with the dialogue Mass long before the Council, shared Little’s views. Even then, it was recognised – or perhaps assumed – that the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes had borrowed its ‘inductive’ approach from Cardijn’s see-judge-act method of Christian formation.

At that time, Cardijn’s role in the development of the lay apostolate and Specialised Catholic Action was still widely recognised. Indeed, his intercontinental travels, his key role at the World Congress on Lay Apostolate in 1951, and the 1957 JOC Pilgrimage to Rome by 32,000 young workers, had made him perhaps the first truly global Catholic personality.

Moreover, Cardijn played three formal roles at Vatican II, initially as a member of the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate (PCLA) (1960-62), then as a peritus in the conciliar Lay Apostolate Commission (LAC) (1963-65) and finally as a Council Father at the Fourth Session in 1965. In parallel, alongside other JOC Internationale (JOCI) leaders, he continued to assiduously advocate for the movement’s vision and methods.

Thus, in a historic 1960 meeting with John XXIII, Cardijn proposed an encyclical to mark the seventieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, resulting in the publication in 1961 – amid preparation for the Council – of Mater et Magistra incorporating the JOC see-judge-act method. Two years later, between the First and Second Sessions, he published his book on lay apostolate, Laïcs en premières lignes, which was translated into several languages including English as Laymen into action. When Paul VI was elected pope in July 1963, Cardijn worked to revive the partnership he had enjoyed with Montini at the Vatican Secretariat of State.

In their 1969 biography, Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert document Cardijn’s role at the Council, highlighting his struggle in the PCLA, against a ‘particularly marked’ tendency since World War II ‘to try and identify and limit the lay apostolate to exclusively religious witness,’ a ‘disincarnate conception’ Cardijn rejected. Instead, he promoted the notion of ‘the layman’s specific lay apostolate,’ understood as an ‘essential and primordial apostolate, distinct from the Priestly Ministry and capable of transforming the daily life of the world.’ Moreover, Cardijn’s views eventually prevailed, the authors write, resulting in his ‘joy’ at ‘finding, in two major Council documents, Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, the declarations on the role of the laity which he had so long wanted.’1

In achieving this, Cardijn enjoyed a ‘real share both in the preparatory work as well as in the debates of Vatican II,’ Fiévez and Meert observed. Moreover, ‘it was by his life and his work, with all the many lines of inspiration to which he gave birth, that he has his place as one of its great precursors.’ In a similar vein, English YCW chaplain, Edward Mitchinson noted that Cardijn’s ‘own contribution to the Council had begun fifty years previously, when he first gathered young workers round the altar and round the Bible for an authentic mission in the temporal order.’ While the Decree on the Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem, bore ‘the stamp of his thought directly,’ Mitchinson wrote, ‘he anticipated so much else besides.’2

Similarly, Cardinal Achille Liénart, a pioneer JOC chaplain and pivotal Vatican II figure, recalled in 1966 that the Church in France ‘owed the launch of (Specialised) Catholic Action at every level’ to the JOC ‘model.’ ‘Wasn’t it under the same impetus that two ideas developed in the Church that the Vatican Council has just proclaimed, namely the active role of the laity in the Church and the missionary character of the Church itself?’ he asked. ‘I don’t say that the liturgical, scriptural or familial renewals that we have and are witnessing were born from the JOC,’ he added. ‘However, they found among the leaders of the JOC and the similar movements formed in that favourable soil, the need, the eagerness, the understanding that ensured their expansion and their success. Even the priestly ministry was impacted,’ Liénart concluded.3

Significantly, he also situated Cardijn’s contribution within a larger historical context. ‘He had reviewed all the previous movements, their insights and their weaknesses,’ Liénart emphasised, listing Lamennais and Montalembert and their ill-fated 1830 journal, L’Avenir (The Future), as well as study circles pioneer, Albert de Mun, and Marc Sangnier’s Sillon movement.

In Belgium, Bishop Charles-Marie Himmer, a long-standing Cardijn ally and co-founder of the Jesus and the Church of the Poor group at Vatican II, also highlighted the ‘striking similitude between the doctrines of the Council and the ideas of the JOC chaplain.’4 British Cardinal Basil Hume went even further, stating in 1982 that Cardijn’s ideas helped ‘to shape the way the whole Church today thinks of its mission and of the role of the laity.’

‘If today you wish to seek his monument, look no further than the Second Vatican Council, the world-wide movement of Young Christian Workers and Young Christian Students and the development of Family Social Action,’ Hume advised.5

Cardijn in conciliar historiography

In stark contrast with the above, Cardijn has barely rated a mention in the historiography of Vatican II. Particularly glaring in Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak’s five-volume History of Vatican II is the absence of any reference to Cardijn in the chapter, ‘The Council Discovers the Laity,’ by Hanjo Sauer.6 Alberigo himself also downplays Cardijn’s role, noting that while he was one of very few new cardinals named by Paul VI in 1965 who could attribute their appointment ‘to their activity at the Council,’ he was not among the ‘foremost representatives of the majority.’7

Perhaps even more surprising are the few references to Cardijn’s role in the accounts of the drafting of Apostolicam Actuositatem by Ferdinand Klostermann and Achille Glorieux, both of whom took part in the PCLA and the LAC. Another LAC peritus, English Monsignor (later Archbishop) Derek Worlock, also portrays Cardijn in a minor role.8 More recently, Maria Teresa Fattori’s specialised study of the Decree on Lay Apostolate offers only passing reference to Cardijn.9 Philippe Goyret’s keynote presentation at a 2015 conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the decree does not mention him at all.10

Nor does Roberto Tucci’s account of the drafting of Gaudium et Spes contain any mention of Cardijn,11 while Giovanni Turbanti’s 800-page thesis on the subject simply notes the JOC founder’s criticism of the draft schema for failing ‘to start from reality’ as well as brief citations of his conciliar speeches.12 Similarly, American theologian Maureen Sullivan, in her The Road to Vatican II: Key Changes in Theology, notes the shift from deductive to inductive methodology in Gaudium et Spes. Yet she credits Romano Guardini as ‘one of the earliest proponents of the kind of thinking that would emerge at the Council,’ Congar as ‘a forerunner’ and Chenu as a major proponent of the new methodology while ignoring Cardijn.13

Nor has Cardijn’s role emerged in the historiography of the Belgian role at the Council. Peritus Albert Prignon simply notes that as a cardinal, Cardijn ‘returned with increased authority in the Commission on Lay Apostolate,’14 adding that while he brought his ‘prestige’ to the podium during his Council speeches, the effect was robbed by his poor delivery.15 The Belgian Contribution to Vatican II merely lists him as one of thirty-four ‘Belgian theologians who influenced Vatican II’16 while Jan Grootaers’ Actes et acteurs à Vatican II acknowledged his intervention on religious liberty as merely one of a series of ‘weighty’ interventions on the subject.17

It is this gulf in perception of Cardijn’s role at Vatican II between those who knew and worked with him and Council historians that provides the subject matter of this book, which is based on my Yarra Theological Union and University of Divinity Ph.D. thesis.

Was Cardijn simply one of a range of precursors of Vatican II? Was his role at the Council as limited as the historiography implies? If so, how were his ideas and methods transmitted into the documents of Vatican II as many suggest they were? How is it possible to identify and his impact and distinguish it from that of 3000 other Council Fathers and periti? These are the questions that this book also seeks to address.

Evaluating Cardijn’s role

As the foregoing implies, a narrow analysis of Cardijn’s own work during the Council – important as it was – will not suffice. Only a broad approach, gleaning information from multiple sources offers any hope of identifying and unravelling the threads of that influence over the course of Cardijn’s life, at the Council itself and more generally over the development of Catholic social thought and action.

Part I therefore aims to situate Cardijn’s thought and methods within the framework of what John W. O’Malley has called the ‘long nineteenth century’ embracing the 150-year period from the French Revolution until the eve of the Council. Drawing on Cardijn’s own autobiographical notes (Chapter 1), we divide this period into three generations – Lamennais, Le Sillon and La JOC – corresponding to the key personalities or movements that defined each period, illustrating key sources for Cardijn. (Chapter 2). In particular, we outline the development of Cardijn’s theology of lay apostolate and his methodology, including his iconic see-judge-act and his Proudhon-inspired Three Truths dialectic (Chapter 3).

In Part II, drawing on Cardijn’s archives, I endeavour to evaluate his role during the period leading up to the Council. In a sense, for Cardijn, who often insisted that the success of any event lay in its preparation, this was the crucial period.

I begin by tracing the emergence of a global Jocist network of priests, bishops and lay leaders, particularly in the two decades prior leading up to the Council (Chapter 4). This is followed by an overview of Cardijn’s initial response to the calling of the Council by John XXIII and his highly significant proposal for a new social encyclical to mark the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum (Chapter 5). Thirdly, we move to a detailed analysis of Cardijn’s relatively lonely struggle to defend his vision of lay apostolate in the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate (Chapter 6).

In Part III, I consider the events of the Council proper from October 1962 until December 1965, drawing particularly on the archives of Cardijn, the JOCI and key conciliar actors with links to Cardijn and the movement as well as contemporary accounts and reports.

Although Cardijn continued to work tirelessly as a member of the Lay Apostolate Commission and as a cardinal, it was during the Council proper that the work of the Jocist network of bishops, priests and lay people came to the fore, as Cardijn insisted himself.

‘The JOC contributed a great deal to the Council,’ he told JOCI leaders several days before his death in 1967, ‘not me, but all the bishops, cardinals, the Dom Helders18 and many others, who embraced the missionary vision developed and incarnated by the JOC.’19 Indeed, Chapter 7 illustrates the extraordinary role played by the Jocist bishops during the First Session when Cardijn was effectively excluded since he was not initially appointed as a peritus.

Next, I examine Cardijn’s longstanding conflict with his own archbishop, Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens, over their respective conceptions of lay apostolate, Catholic Action and methodology, which resurfaced as Cardijn prepared Laïcs en premières lignes for publication (Chapter 8).

Thirdly, I analyse the way in which Cardijn’s influence gradually impacted the drafting of the Vatican II documents. And I study the evolution of the future Gaudium et Spes as it shifted from a traditional top-down ‘doctrinal’ approach towards a bottom-up ‘reality-based’ approach based on Cardijn’s own methodology (Chapter 9).

This is followed by a study of Cardijn’s role in the conciliar Lay Apostolate Commission, once he was appointed as a peritus, and the impact of his conception of the ‘specific’ lay apostolate ‘proper’ to lay people adopted in Lumen Gentium and Apostolicam Actuositatem (Chapter 10). Next, I show how Cardijn’s conception of lay apostolate, Specialised Catholic Action, the Three Truths dialectic, including his see-judge-act method, exercised a significant if not determining influence on most Vatican II documents, particularly those adopted at the Fourth Session in 1965 (Chapter 11).

Towards a Cardijn hermeneutic

In concluding, (Chapter 12) I suggest that these elements offer a “Cardijn hermeneutic” for Vatican II, namely a series of interpretive keys that collectively reveal the impact on the Council of both Cardijn and the Jocist network.

Stefan Gigacz


1Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, Cardijn. Trans. Edward Mitchinson. (London: Young Christian Workers, 1974), 222.

2Edward Mitchinson, “Cardinal Cardijn,” in The Tablet, 05/08/1967, 17.

3Achille Liénart, “Hommage à Cardijn,” 1966, Archives Liénart, 1086:

4“Une foule chaleureuse et enthousiaste dit son merci et son admiration à Son Eminence le cardinal Cardijn,” 30/03/1966, Source unknown, AC1835.

5Basil Hume, “Speech on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference at the National Festival of the Young Christian Workers”: (Family and Social Action was an adult movement based on jocist principles and methods.)

6Hanjo Sauer, “The Council Discovers the Laity,” in Vol. IV of History of Vatican II, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak, 233-269. (Maryknoll-Leuven: Orbis-Peeters, 2003).

7Giuseppe Alberigo, “Major results, Shadows of uncertainty,” in Vol. IV. Alberigo-Komonchak, History, 635.

8Philippe Goyret, “Il decreto Apostolicam actuositatem Le grandi novità dell’insegnamento conciliare sui laici,” Pontifical Council for the Laity, 2015:

9Maria Teresa Fattori, “La Commissio ‘De Fidelium Apostolato’ et lo Schema sull’Apostolato dei Laici (Maggio 1963 – Maggio 1964)” in Experience, Organisations and Bodies at Vatican II, ed. MT Fattori and Albert Melloni, 299-328. (Leuven: Bibliotheek van de Faculteit der Godgeleerdheid, 1999).

10Philippe Goyret, “Il decreto Apostolicam actuositatem Le grandi novità dell’insegnamento conciliare sui laici,” Pontifical Council for the Laity, 2015:

11Roberto Tucci, “Introduction historique et doctrinale à la Constitution Pastorale,” in L’Eglise dans le monde de ce temps, Vol. II, Commentaires, edited by Yves Congar and M. Peuchmaurd, 33-127. (Paris: Cerf, 1967).

12Giovanni Turbanti, Un concilio per il mondo moderno, La redazione della costituzione pastorale “Gaudium et Spes” del Vaticano II (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2000).

13Maureen Sullivan, The Road to Vatican II: Key Changes in Theology (New York, Paulist Press, 2007), 46.

14Albert Prignon, “Evêques et théologiens de Belgique” in Claude Soetens, ed., Vatican II et la Belgique, Sillages ARCA series (Louvain-la-Neuve: Quorum, 1996), 154.

15 Ibid, 179 and 207.

16D. Donnelly, Joseph Famerée, Mathias Lamberigts, Kareem Schelkens, ed., The Belgian Contribution to the Second Vatican Council (Leuven: Peeters, 2008).

17Jan Grootaers, Actes et acteurs à Vatican II (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 75.

18Referring to Brazilian bishop and former JOC chaplain, Dom Helder Camara.

19Joseph Weber, “Un des derniers messages de Monseigneur Cardijn confié quelques jours avant sa mort à Rienzie RUPASINGHE – Président JOCI (1965 à 1969) et Joseph WEBER Trésorier JOCI (1965 à 1969)” (Unpublished document given to Stefan Gigacz by Joseph Weber).