Bautain: Conscience and responsibility

For many years I have been wondering about and looking for the source(s) of the Sillon definition of democracy as the system of social organisation that tends to maximise the conscience/consciousness and the responsibility of each person. Just as Cardijn’s see judge act has many roots, as I have indicated in other posts on this blog, the Sillon definition surely did not emerge from thin air. From where, then?

Finally, I think I have located a source, if not the source. As the saying goes, the fruit does not fall far from the tree.. so let’s look for the tree. In the case of the Sillon, it’s well established that the inductive philosophy of Alphonse Gratry was a very significant influence, as it was for Cardijn and the whole founder generation of the JOC and the movements of specialised Catholic Action.

It makes sense then to look at Gratry’s own intellectual master, the French philosopher and theologian, Louis Bautain, who in 1849 became vicar-general of the archdiocese of Paris under Archbishop Sibour. Four years later in 1853, he became professor of moral theology at the Sorbonne, where Gratry also taught philosophy and theology.

Prior to coming to Paris, the previous archbishop Mgr Denis-Auguste Affre had invited him to give a series of lectures at Notre Dame Cathedral at the beginning of 1848, just before and after the outbreak of the Worker Revolution of that year. These lectures took up the theme of religion and freedom (La religion et la liberté).

In these lectures, Bautain already addresses the need to form citizens in the exercise of their (new found) freedom (p. 186) :

En formant des chrétiens, l’Église prépare de la meilleure manière de bons citoyens. En apprenant à ses enfants à bien exercer leur liberté morale, à devenir libres moralement et selon la loi de Dieu, elle les forme le plus efficacement à la liberté civile, et les rend capables d’être libres politiquement au milieu des sociétés humaines.


In forming Christians, the Church prepares good citizens in the best manner. By teaching her children to exercise their moral freedom, to become morally free according to God’s law, it forms them most effectively in civil liberty, and makes them capable of being politically free in the midst of human societies.

Bautain links this freedom of citizens with the struggle for democracy by citing the examples of Switzerland and also the Irish democrat, Daniel O’Connell.

However, it is his later book, La conscience, ou la règle des actions humaines, that Bautain really spells out the link between conscience and responsibility that I believe would become the basis of the Sillon definition of democracy.

Indeed not only is the whole book constructed around the axis of conscience and responsibility, but it also establishes much of the basis of the see judge act method.

For Bautain, ‘le but de la morale, c’est la pratique, c’est l’action’ – ‘the goal of morality is practice and action’. But, in the everyday circumstances of life, the human conscience is necessary but not sufficient for unraveling the good from the bad. What’s needed is a ‘moral law’ such as the Law given by God to Moses on Mt Sinai and the Gospel, i.e. the new law which completes and develops the old law. And in addition to the natural (philosophical) virtues of justice, strength, temperance and prudence, we also need the theologal virtues of faith, hope and charity. (Chap. I, pages 14 – 22).

And Bautain concludes in his final chapter (page 429):

Il nous reste à considérer les conséquences nécessaires de l’acte moral. Nous en avons expliqué la formation, et les éléments qui le constituent. Nous avons dit ensuite ce qui caractérise l’acte comme moral ou immoral, et ce qui fait qu’une action est bonne ou mauvaise. Nous allons voir maintenant sommairement ce qui sort de l’acte moral accompli, à savoir: 1° la responsabilité; 2° le mérite ou le démérite; 3° la vertu ou le vice ; 4° le bonheur ou le malheur.


It remains to consider the necessary consequences of the moral act. We have explained its formation and the elements that constitute it. We then stated what characterises the act as moral or immoral, and what makes an action good or bad. Now we are going to see in summary form that which results from the accomplished moral act, namely: 1° responsibility; 2° its merit or demerit; 3° its virtue or vice; 4° its goodness or badness.

To put it no doubt too simply, then, for Bautain, acting morally and therefore consciously makes us responsible for the act carried out:

Être responsable, c’est rendre compte de l’acte commis, et en subir les conséquences.


To be responsible is to be accountable for the act committed and to submit to the consequences.

Evidently, there’s much more to be said about this (and Bautain writes 444 pages on it!) but it’s not difficult to see how the Sillon with its democratic virtue ethic would have drawn on Bautain.

Did Cardijn read Bautain? I don’t know of any reference by him to Bautain, unless he considered Bautain as part of the Lamennais school.

Like many (other) members of that School, Bautain separated himself from Lamennais’ thinking following the publication of his famous Paroles d’un croyant. Just as Bautain argued that moral philosophy by itself was insufficient to establish the morality of an act and that moral theology was also necessary, similarly Lamennais’ concept of sens commun (common sense) was fatally limited.

Certainly, Cardijn often referred to conscience/consciousness and responsibility in his writings, going back to his welcome to Marc Sangnier in 1921 right up to his Vatican II speech on religious freedom, where he presented the see judge act method as a means of forming conscious and responsible young people.

It’s interesting to note that neither Jeanne Caron in her landmark thesis on Le Sillon et la Démocratie Chrétienne nor Madeleine Barthélemy-Madaule in her biography of Marc Sangnier make reference to Bautain.

As Bernard Reardon has noted, Bautain has “for the most part been neglected by Catholic historians”, as indeed have so many others in the story of the origins of Cardijn’s thought. Once again, it may be because of perceptions of Bautain as ‘a modernist before the modernists’ or as a ‘grandparent’ of modernism.

So much more research to be done!

Stefan Gigacz