12. A Cardijn hermeneutic

At the crossroads

Looking back over this study, we can now appreciate more clearly both the long-term and short-term impact of the Lamennais-Sillon-JOC tradition as well as that of Cardijn and the Jocist network in the decades prior and at Vatican II.

In Part I we traced the ‘longue durée’ development of Cardijn’s thought and methods from their sources in the Lamennais School, the Sillon and the experience of the JOC itself, the essentials of which were encapsulated in Cardijn’s ‘Christian dialectic.’

In Parts II and III, we illustrated the contemoporary influence of Cardijn and the Jocist network of bishops, periti and lay auditors on the Council’s work, resulting in the incorporation of key aspects of the Cardijn dialectic in the Vatican II documents, particularly regarding the lay apostolate, the see-judge-act method and the Three Truths.

In this sense, Cardijn’s role can perhaps best be located as standing at the crossroads of these diachronic and synchronic dynamics, initially as a vector and interpreter of the Lamennais-Sillon-JOC tradition and later as an animator and leader of the Jocist network at the Council.

In this conclusion, we therefore endeavour to show how this Cardijn perspective offers a series of interpretive keys both for understanding the historical development of Vatican II and for implementing it.

1. The see-judge-act

In total, we have identified references to the see-judge-act in ten of the sixteen conciliar documents – effectively, in almost every relevant location. Gaudium et Spes and Apostolicam Actuositatem occupy pride of place.

The references in Inter Mirifica, Dignitatis Humanae and Ad Gentes are almost as significant while those in Perfectae Caritatis, Presbyterorum Ordinis, Optatam Totius, Christus Dominus and indirectly in Gravissimum Educationis illustrate the breadth of its application.

While Cardijn deserves much credit for this, particularly for his contribution to Mater et Magistra and to Apostolicam Actuositatem, the role of the Jocist network was also critical. The post-conciliar application of the JOC method in pontifical Catholic Social Teaching, Synods and by bishops’ conferences also attests to this impact.

Thus, Paul VI’s 1971 Letter to Cardinal Roy, Octogesima Adveniens was completely structured around both the conscience-responsibility binomial and the see-judge-act.1 Indeed, Roy, the first president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, reportedly prepared the original draft himself.2 More recently, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church incorporated the see-judge-act in §547, specifically citing its Aristotelian and Thomistic prudential origins.3

Adopted by the Latin American bishops at the CELAM conference in Medellin in 1968, its use was renewed at Aparecida in Brazil in 2007,4 under the leadership of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. Similarly, many other groups beyond the JOC and other Specialised Catholic Action movements have since adopted the method.

Achieving the goal

So widely has the see-judge-act been adopted that it is easy to forget the long struggle that led to its acceptance. As early as the late 1880s, Le Play’s enquiry method was rejected by French ACJF chaplains as being too ‘sociological.’ Transformed by the Sillon into a ‘method of democratic education’ maximising conscience/consciousness and responsibility, Pope Pius X rejected it in 1910 as a ‘chimera’ and a ‘dream.’

Rescued from the ashes of Marc Sangnier’s movement by Cardijn and the JOC, who developed it as the see-judge-act, it was again rejected by many Belgian ACJB chaplains, who preferred the ACJF ‘doctrinal’ prayer-study-action method. Repudiated at the Council by Suenens, despite its approval by John XXIII in Mater et Magistra, it was re-introduced by the Jocist bishops and periti drafting Schema XIII, and eventually ‘canonised’ in every relevant Vatican II document.

It is a truly remarkable story that can only be understood in the context of a century of struggle, the second fifty of which were dominated by the personality of Cardijn.

2. Conscience, responsibility, democracy

In a perhaps even more astonishing corollary, the Council also canonised the Sillon conscience-responsibility binomial, which was embedded in both the introduction and conclusion to Dignitatis Humanae, in §1 of Apostolicam Actuositatem as well as in Ad Gentes §21, once more in the context of promoting the lay apostolate.

As we have seen, Haubtmann attempted to introduce the Sillon definition almost verbatim into Schema XIII. Indeed, §7 of the final French version of Gaudium et Spes specifically notes that young people are increasingly ‘conscious’ of their social role and seek even sooner to take up their ‘responsibilities.’ Although the inadequate Latin text here still uses the expression ‘have a part’ (partes habere) rather than ‘take responsibility,’ §19 is more explicit, albeit toned down in the Latin, with ‘have a part’ substituted for ‘taking their responsibilities’.

Nevertheless, §19, clearly incorporates the conscience-responsibility binomial, which also appears in §31, §57, §87 and §90. All told, the term ‘conscientia’ appears thirty-nine times and ‘responsabilitas’ twenty-six times in the Latin text of Gaudium et Spes, with another sixty references to ‘participare’ or ‘partes habere,’ etc., fully justifying Wojtyla’s choice of the themes of consciousness, responsibility and participation as structuring elements for the development of a conciliar attitude.

Significantly, in what was evidently a deliberate decision, not one Vatican II document refers explicitly to ‘democracy.’ Yet, by incorporating the conscience-responsibility binomial into several conciliar documents, Vatican II in effect adopted the democratic virtue ethic that comprised the content of the Sillon definition, which was undoubtedly the aim of its proponents.

The role of Cardijn and the Jocist network

In all this, the role played by Cardijn and the Jocist network was crucial. Only three years after Pius X’s letter against the Sillon, the French Social Week of 1913 took ‘responsibility’ as its theme, providing a platform for a plethora of speakers to re-frame the conscience-responsibility binomial in a new, broader context.

Building on this, Cardijn in 1921 publicly adopted the Sillon binomial, which appears in his writings and speeches with greater frequency than the see-judge-act. Once Pius XII reinstated the conscience-responsibility binomial in his Christmas letter of 1944, Cardijn again gave it prominence, resulting in its appearance in several pontifical texts addressed to Cardijn and the JOC.

Clearly many others contributed to this effort, including the Dominican ex-Sillonists, Joseph T. Delos and Georges Renard, but also a number of French conciliar bishops, including Ancel, Maziers and others. Nor can the role of Haubtmann and Pavan be overlooked. As a student of democracy, the latter was certainly familiar with the term and was perhaps the source of the appearance of the Sillon binomial in Mater et Magistra and particularly Pacem in Terris. Even so, Cardijn’s role as a vector of the Sillon message for half a century was decisive.

3. The Cardijn dialectic

Less well known outside the Jocist movement than the see-judge-act, Cardijn’s Three Truths dialectic also played a key structuring role in Gaudium et Spes with the addition of Houtart’s introductory statement on the situation of the world, transforming the final document into an ascending dialectic, as Haubtmann later explained and as Inter Mirifica had foreshadowed.

Here too, the foundations were laid years earlier with Cardijn’s articulation of his Proudhonian dialectic, first at the JOC International Congress in 1935, then subsequently at the International Congress of 1950. Hence, its influence at the World Congresses on Lay Apostolate of 1951 and 1957 in the presence of many future Council Fathers.

As a result, it is not possible to divorce the adoption of the Cardijn dialectic at Vatican II from Cardijn’s systematic global promotion of the framework through the JOC over the quarter-century preceding the Council.

4. Lay apostolate

Historically, the very term ‘lay apostolate’ was also controversial. It took 130 years from Ozanam until its acceptance in 1965 in the formal title of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. For conservatives, it remained an oxymoron. Even for those who admitted that laity could ‘participate’ or ‘collaborate’ in the hierarchical apostolate, it remained a relationship of dependency.

Again, it was Cardijn who developed the solution. Borrowing from the Ozanam and Sillon traditions, he made the concept of lay apostolate a central plank of Jocist theology. Whereas Sillon adviser Louis Cousin lacked the theological tools to take his conception of the role of the laity beyond the dichotomous spiritual-temporal ‘perfect societies’ framework, Cardijn drew on emerging twentieth-century thought, situating the lay apostolate within a unified creation-redemption, temporal-eternal model.

Meanwhile, from the 1930s, together with the Jocist chaplains and theologians, Cardijn developed a theology of lay apostolate based on baptism and confirmation. Almost single-handedly, he pioneered the concept of a specifically lay apostolate ‘proper’ to lay people that transcended the dependency model that then characterised Italian Catholic Action.

Crucially, it was Cardijn and the Jocist movements who fought for the holding of a World Congress on Lay Apostolate in 1951 rather than one on Catholic Action, as Veronese had proposed. At the Council, it was Cardijn who waged a virtually lone battle in the Preparatory Commission against a piety/works, spiritual/temporal, or direct/indirect evangelisation approach in order to defend the JOC conception of the lay apostolate ‘proper’ to the laity in transforming life, milieu and the world. The apparent price he paid here was his exclusion as a peritus at the First Session of the Council.

Meanwhile, the Jocist bishops, particularly from France, Latin America and Quebec rallied to the cause, as did most Belgian bishops, who nevertheless often seemed to be out-manoeuvred – like Himmer – by Suenens. Once Cardijn was drafted to the conciliar Commission, he successfully worked to ensure that Apostolicam Actuositatem was entitled the Decree on Lay Apostolate rather than a Decree on the Laity. The Jocist network also played a vital role here in ensuring that Lumen Gentium adopted an understanding of lay apostolate close to Cardijn’s.

Paradoxically, however, Gaudium et Spes, over which Cardijn’s method exercised so much influence, failed to mention the term even if §43 recognised crucially that lay people had a distinctive and proper role in the secular field. Did the Council Fathers deliberately avoid the term? If so, it is difficult not to wonder whether it was not to keep onside with Suenens.

A new hermeneutic

No doubt many more aspects of Cardijn’s involvement, influence and even failures at the Council remain to be examined. Nevertheless, on the essential points concerning lay apostolate and method, the influence of Cardijn, the Jocist network and the Lamennais-Sillon-JOC tradition clearly impacted the whole canon of the Council.

Recalling Cardijn’s conciliar dialectic – Church, world and lay apostolate – we can conclude that its various components – the see-judge-act, the conscience-responsibility binomial, the Three Truths dialectic, lay apostolate and Specialised Catholic Action – collectively comprise a set of tools that illuminate not only the historical development of the Council but also provide a guide for its future interpretation and implementation. Together, these tools offer a genuine ‘Cardijn hermeneutic’ for Vatican II.

The leaven in the Council

How did Cardijn and his colleagues achieve this? Simply, they applied the very techniques and methods of influence and transformation that as Jocist chaplains they had taught to generations of lay leaders. Just as JOC leaders sought to act as the salt of the earth or the leaven in the dough in their families, communities and workplaces, the Jocist bishops and periti worked to achieve this in their own clerical domain. In this sense, Cardijn and his colleagues truly acted as a leaven in the Council.

Nor can we forget the role of those earlier generations whose work inspired and shaped the contributions of Cardijn and the Jocist generation. Here perhaps Cardinal Gerlier’s comments to Marc Sangnier on the night of a famous JOC rally in Paris in 1937 are particularly apposite: ‘Rejoice tonight, Marc, you are one of the great artisans of the marvel that we have just witnessed.’5 Or, to paraphrase the post-conciliar comment of one of the last Sillonists: ‘We thought it would take a hundred years for the Church to change. It only took fifty.’

And, of course, there were many other contributions to this achievement, some of which we have recorded while others have been lost to history or remain to be rediscovered. Particularly relevant here is Léon Ollé-Laprune’s exhortation – borrowed from Alphonse Gratry – to the Stanislas College students in 1893 to the effect that ‘work well done is work of salvation’ no matter how much the role of the workers may be obscured.6

Have the poor heard the good news?

Nevertheless, how to conclude without acknowledging the very first Sillonist, Lamennais, that ‘priest despite himself,’7 whose vision of a Church close to Christ, founded on freedom and an alliance with the poor first inspired Cardijn?

From his pauper’s grave, the prophet of the windswept Sillon beach of Saint Malo still challenges us with his reflection on the St Luke text that gave Cardijn his episcopal motto:

Have the poor heard the good news? Are the broken hearts healed? Have the blind seen?… I tell you this: Christ is still on the cross, awaiting his apostles.

Let them come, let them come quickly, because the anguish is great and eyes are tired of looking to the horizon for the dawn that will announce the beginning of the year of the Lord.8


1Paul VI, Octogesima Adveniens, Apostolic Letter, 1971: http://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/apost_letters/documents/hf_p-vi_apl_19710514_octogesima-adveniens.html

2Christine E. Gudorf, “Commentary on Octogesima Adveniens,” in Modern Catholic Social Teaching, ed. Himes, 318.

3Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html#Acting with prudence

4John L. Allen Jr. “Sorting out the results of the Latin American bishops’ meeting,” National Catholic Reporter, 01/06/2007: https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/sorting-out-results-latin-american-bishops-meeting

5Gigacz, The Sillon, 1997.

6Ollé-Laprune, La recherche des questions pressantes, 205.

7Robert Vallery-Radot, Lamenais ou le prêtre malgré lui. Plon: Paris, 1931.

8Félicité de Lammenais, Les Evangiles (Paris: Garnier Frères, Paris, undated), 196.