Mater et Magistra endorses the See Judge Act

On 15 May 1961 – 60 years ago this week – Pope John XXIII published his new encyclical, Mater et Magistra, Mother and Teacher, commemorating the 70th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.

Cardijn’s advocacy for the encyclical had succeeded. What’s more, the encyclical explicitly recommended the see-judge-act method that the YCW founder had founded for 40 years.

§236 read:

There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice. First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgment 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.

And §237 reinforced the importance of the Cardijn method:

It is important for our young people to grasp this method and to practice it. Knowledge acquired in this way does not remain merely abstract, but is seen as something that must be translated into action.

Cardijn naturally rejoiced at this highest level pontifical endorsement.

“I still see him joyfully entering my room, enthusiastically shouting: ‘Basil, it’s happened! See, judge, act!’,” recalled Fr Baziel Maes, then a young priest but who later became national director of the Belgian Catholic development agency, Broederlijk Delen, and chaplain to Caritas Catholica Belgica.

Gaudium et Spes

It was indeed a significant achievement as would become even clearer once the Second Vatican Council began.

On 17-20 November 1964, a meeting of the commission responsible for the drafting of Schema XIII, which would become the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today, Gaudium et Spes, officially adopted the SJA as the method of work.

“As far as possible,” the sub-commissions responsible for each chapter were instructed to:

– Start from the facts;

– Offer a Christian judgement in the light of the Gospel and the Catholic tradition, from the Fathers of the Church to the contemporary magisterium;

– Indicate concrete action orientations (pastoral aspect).

And the sub-commissions did indeed follow these instructions with varying degrees of success as we can see in the five chapters that comprise Part II of Gaudium et Spes.

Chapter 1: Fostering the nobility of marriage and the family

Chapter 2: The proper development of culture

Chapter 3: Economic and social life

Chapter 4: The life of the political community

Chapter 5: The fostering of peace and the community of nations

Chapter 3 on culture is the most explicit in its adoption of the Cardijn method, dividing its reflections as follows:

Section 1: The Circumstances of Culture in the World Today

Section 2: Some Principles for the Proper Development of Culture

Section 3: Some More Urgent Duties of Christians in Regard to Culture

A method of formation

Indeed, in 1965, Vatican II would adopt and endorse the SJA not only in Gaudium et Spes but in several other conciliar documents.

Unsurprisingly, the Decree on the Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem, recommended the Cardijn method in its Chapter 6 on Formation for the Apostolate.

In §29, we find:

Since formation for the apostolate cannot consist in merely theoretical instruction, from the beginning of their formation the laity should gradually and prudently learn how to view, judge and do all things in the light of faith as well as to develop and improve themselves along with others through doing, thereby entering into active service to the Church.

In turn, §21 of the Decree on Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes, would emphasise the practical methods endorsed by Apostolicam Actuositatem:

Let the clergy highly esteem the arduous apostolate of the laity. Let them train the laity to become conscious of the responsibility which they as members of Christ have for all men; let them instruct them deeply in the mystery of Christ, introduce them to practical methods, and be at their side in difficulties, according to the tenor of the Constitution Lumen Gentium and the Decree Apostolicam Actuositatem.

Even bishops and priests were exhorted to practise the Cardijn method, as indicated in the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops, Christus Dominus, which reads in §16:

Therefore, they (the bishops) should encourage institutes and hold special meetings in which priests might gather from time to time both for the performance of longer exercises and the renewal of their spiritual life and for the acquisition of deeper subjects, especially Sacred Scripture and theology, the more important social questions, and the new methods of pastoral activity.


After the Council, as bishops began to implement its teachings, the see-judge-act was adopted even more widely across the whole Church.

Thus, the Latin American bishops (CELAM) meeting in Medellin, Colombia in 1968 organised their reflections as follows:

I. Realidad Latinoamericana (Latin American Reality)

II. Motivacion doctrinal (Doctrinal Reasoning)

III: Orientaciones pastorales (Pastoral Orientations)

Two years later, the Asian Bishops (Federation of Asian Bishops Conference) followed suit.

In 1971, Pope Paul VI himself divided Octogesima Adveniens, his Letter to Cardinal Roy, marking the 80th anniversary of Rerum into several major sections:

New Social Problems

Christians Face to Face with these Problems

Call to Action

Pope Francis

In our own time, Pope Francis has also adopted the SJA in his latest book, Let Us Dream, which is divided into three chapters:

Chapter One: A Time to See

Chapter Two: A Time to Choose

Chapter Three: A Time to Act.


Cardijn, who died in 1967, did not live to see this success of course. Nevertheless, his method has clearly had a transformative and enduring impact on the whole Catholic Church.

And yet that’s not the whole story! As we saw in my earlier post, Cardijn’s paper for John XXIII had focused not on the see-judge-act but on his theology of work.

To what extent was that taken up in Mater et Magistra? We’ll try and answer that in another post.

Stefan Gigacz


1. Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn, work and the worker (Cardijn Research)

3. Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn and the theology of work in Mater et Magistra (Cardijn Research)


Stefan Gigacz, See Judge Act at Vatican II (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn’s proposal to John XXIII (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, John XXIII’s New Pentecost (The Leaven in the Council)

Stefan Gigacz, The Three Truths in Gaudium et Spes (The Leaven in the Council)

Medellin 1968 (Diocese Braga, Portugal)

Medellin Documents Justice and Peace (Bill Quigley)


Lawrence OP / Flickr / CC 2.0 BY NC ND