Cardijn slams the 1967 Vatican Council of the Laity

This is a post that I wrote for my Synodal Reflections blog but, since it discusses Cardijn’s disappointment with the model adopted for the newly created Council of the Laity in 1967, it also belongs here.

As I have written previously, the Specialised Catholic Action movements laid out their vision for a representative laity body at the Vatican in an important document drafted in July 1964, just prior to the Third Session of Vatican II, which would adopt the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

The following year in November 1965, the Vatican II Decree on the Lay Apostolate Apostolicam Actuositatem § 26 provided a positive response embodying much of the movements’ vision and calling for the establishment of a “special secretariat… at the Holy See for the service and promotion of the lay apostolate” in which the movements and projects of the lay apostolate “should also be represented.”

After the Council concluded in December 1965, Paul VI moved quickly to implement its decisions. Thus, on 6 January 1967, he issued the motu proprio, Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam, which established both the “Consilium de Laicis” or “Council of the Laity” and the “Pontifical Study Commission ‘Justice and Peace’.”

Sadly, the new Council, which – in the words of Paul VI – was established “for the service and promotion of the lay apostolate” – failed to meet the expectations of the movements, who had hoped that it would fully embody the vision of Apostolicam Actuositatem §26 for a genuinely representative Vatican body for the laity.

In this article, we will examine Cardijn’s immediate and uncharacteristically harsh response.

The new Consilium de Laicis

According to Paul VI’s motu proprio, the purposes of the new Council were:

(T)o work for the service and promotion of the lay apostolate. In particular, it will seek to:

1) promote the apostolate of the laity on an international level or achieve its coordination and ever greater inclusion in the general apostolate of the Church; maintain contacts with the apostolate on a national level; act in such a way as to be a place of meeting and dialogue within the Church between the Hierarchy and the laity, and between the different forms of activity of the laity, according to the spirit of the last pages of the Encyclical Ecclesiam suam ; promote international congresses for the lay apostolate; monitor the faithful observance of ecclesiastical laws, which concern lay people;

2) assist the Hierarchy and the laity with her advice in their apostolic works (Cf. CONC. VAT. II, Decr. On the apostolate of the laity Apostolicam actuositatem , n. 26);

3) promote studies, to contribute to the doctrinal in-depth study of issues that concern lay people, studying above all the problems of the apostolate with particular regard to the association of lay people in overall pastoral care. These studies may be published;

4) establish a documentation center to receive and give information about the problems of the lay apostolate with the aim of providing guidelines for the formation of lay people, and of providing valid help to the Church.

This corresponded reasonably well with the desires expressed by the Specialised Catholic Action movements in their 1964 proposal for a permanent body at the Holy See, which emphasised that the new Vatican body should promote and enable dialogue between the movements and their leader and the hierarchy.

The new structure

Paul VI’s motu proprio went on to set out the structure of the new Council, which was to operate on an experimental basis for five years and to share a structure with the new Study Commission on Justice and Peace.

The two new bodies would thus share “a Cardinal as their common President” as well as a Vice-President with “episcopal dignity.”

Each body was to have its own Secretary and the Council of the Laity would be assisted by two Deputy Secretaries. In addition, each body would “be made up of members and consultants, chosen using appropriate criteria.”

And these appointments would be “the responsibility of the Holy See.” In other words, there was no provision whatsoever for representation of the movements as Apostolicam Actuositatem §26 had proposed and the movements had desired.

Needless to say, after all the work they had put into Vatican II and the hopes raised, the movements were far from pleased. Nor was YCW founder, Joseph Cardijn, who had only recently been made a cardinal by Paul VI in February 1965.

Great disappointment

No doubt after consulting the lay leaders of the International YCW, Cardijn responded bluntly in February 1967 with a document entitled “The apostolate of the laity and its new structures” that he sent to Secretary of State, Cardinal Dell’Acqua.

“The new Roman body henceforth created under the title of “Council of the Laity” will cause great disappointment to the most enlightened leaders of the lay apostolate in the world,” he began, leaving no doubt about how upset he was.

“No doubt everyone is delighted to see that, following the Council, the Church is endorsing their vital participation in its life and its mission with this new structure,” he continued.

Overbearing tutelage

The problem, however, was that:

(A)s established, with a Cardinal-President, a Bishop and a Prelate at its head, who assume all the essential functions, such a body gives the impression of a highly overbearing tutelage that will weigh down on the laity, their responsibility and their apostolic action.

Further, the common structure created “confusion” between “two absolutely different sectors of action, research and responsibility, which require totally different skills,” he added.

“The Council of the Laity needs to be a specific institution of the apostolate, in the literal sense of the term,” Cardijn insisted, “while the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace needs to become a kind of research centre for dealing with the various problems of the Third World, development, international peace, etc.”

“They operate at completely different levels and will need a completely different approach to issues,” he explained.

Copied from the ecclesiastical dicasteries

Further, the structure of the new Council of the Laity was copied from that of “the ecclesiastical dicasteries of the Curia.”

Moreover, “its specific mission, which is to help promote a genuine lay apostolate in the world and thus enrich the Church, is not sufficiently emphasised.” By this he meant the vision of “lay apostolate” outlined in Lumen Gentium’s Chapter 4 on The Laity, particularly §31 and §33.

Moreover, “the actual secular character that needs to be found in (the Council’s) ‘style’ of work and action, risks being virtually canceled out by the structure itself,” Cardijn warned.

In other words, it was a highly clerical structure with an “extremely limited number of lay members” that did not allow for “a sufficiently universal dialogue.” Moreover, continents like Asia and Africa “only very poorly represented and many of these members have no real contact with the lay apostolate at the grassroots to help with all the concrete problems that exist.”

A regrettable model

An even greater concern was the likelihood that the structure of the new Vatican Council would be copied by various bishops conferences and in dioceses.

“It is greatly to be feared,” Cardijn wrote, “that the structure and composition of the Council of the Laity will appear as an example to be followed in the various continents.” And it “would be particularly regrettable if the lay apostolate was also given such an inappropriate framework at this level.”

Here, he drew on the examples of several countries, namely Spain, Canada and Brazil, where a post-conciliar trend had already emerged “to suppress the national organisation of the apostolate of the laity, and to return to purely diocesan organisations, with a vague interdiocesan structure added.”

These structures, Cardijn predicted, “will be powerless to consider secular problems as a whole and to take sufficiently effective action.”

Moreover, “such a system will have the immediate consequence of preventing the formation of appropriate national leaders and chaplains who have a range and experience of more than very limited scope.”

Undermining the international movements

Similarly, organisation of the lay apostolate that was limited to the diocesan level would “undermine… the vital requirements… essential to the expansion and influence of any international movement,” he warned.

“Without national organisations that enjoy the necessary autonomy, international organisations will not be able to develop the consistency required to achieve effective collaboration with international, inter-governmental and non-governmental institutions of all tendencies,” he predicted.

This new experience, Cardijn foreshadowed, would “be decisive for the future of the lay apostolate in the world, to which I attach the greatest importance.”

Hence, the need to focus on the “very nature and action of the Council in order to genuinely respond to the specific needs and characteristics of the lay apostolate,” he concluded in what would be a vain appeal for change.

A devastating critique

It’s hard to imagine a more devastating, unsparing critique than this. In all of Cardijn’s archives, I have never found any other document that is remotely as critical of any member of the hierarchy, let alone a pope, than this one.

Although Cardijn sent it to Cardinal Dell’Acqua, he certainly knew that it would be passed on to Paul VI. Six months before his death in July 1967, it must have pained him to be so strongly critical of the work of a pope with whom he had worked closely for thirty years.

Regrettably, although the original Council structure was experimental and meant to be revised after five years, later iterations of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the current Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life have all failed to provide for genuine representation of the lay apostolate movements.

Indeed, the current statutes of the dicastery promulgated by Pope Francis in 2018 only mention the word “dialogue” once, and that in the context of “intergenerational dialogue.”

Although the statutes provide for a Secretary, “who may be a lay person,” the appointment of the Prefect, Secretary and other officials are all made in line “with the current norms of the Roman Curia.”

Article 3 §1 states that “the Dicastery has its own members, including lay faithful, men and women, single and married, engaged in different fields of activity and from different parts of the world, thus reflecting the universal character of the Church” who again are chosen in a completely opaque process that again “complied” with the norms of the Curia (Article 3 §2).

Fortunately, however, there is a ray of light at the end! Pope Francis approved the 2018 Statutes “ad experimentum” – just as Paul VI had approved the 1967 statutes of the original Council of the Laity.

Sixty years later, in the midst of a Synod on Synodality, it’s now surely time to review these non-synodal Vatican laity structures, in light of the Vatican II vision outlined in Apostolicam Actuositem §16 and Cardijn’s powerful critique of the 1967 model.

In this context, I suggest that it will also pay to revisit the 1964 proposals of the Specialised Catholic Action lay apostolate movements.

Stefan Gigacz


Movement proposal for a representative Council of the Laity at the Holy See (July 1964)

Joseph Cardijn, The apostolate of the laity and its new structures (February 1967)


Palazzo San Callisto, Rome, headquarters of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life

Dguendel / Wikipedia / CCA 3.0 Unported