Plus ça change: Synod bishops battle the See Judge Act

Several working groups at the current Synod on the Family are questioning the utility of the method for an “ecclesial document”, according to press reports.

Here’s what the reports say, according to George Weigel writing at Catholic News Live:

⇒ While many groups praised the “See-Judge-Act” methodology that seems to have framed the ordering of the Instrumentum Laboris, many of the circuli questioned whether this ordering of things was appropriate to the Synod’s final report, or indeed to a truly ecclesial document. “See-Judge-Act” was the motto and method of the Jeunesse ouvriére chretienne [Young Christian Worker] movement, founded in Belgium in the early 20th century by Fr Joseph Cardijn, whom Paul VI created a cardinal in 1965. The method had a considerable influence throughout the world Church, and especially in Latin America, as a way of analyzing social situations (“See”) in light of the Church’s social doctrine (“Judge”) in order to determine appropriate pastoral, social, cultural, and political initiatives (“Act”). There was no questioning of its value in those circumstances. But several groups questioned its utility as the framework for an ecclesial document that, in their judgment, ought not begin with sociology (and, according to one group, less-than-adequate sociology at that), but with Revelation, including Scripture.

The members of those groups may or may not be surprised to know that the same argument has been going on for more than a century now, since at least the 1880s when the chaplains of the newly formed Association catholique de la jeunesse française (ACJF) banned the sociological methods of Frédéric Le Play, preferring their own doctrinally based approach summarised in the formula “piété, étude, action” or “prayer, study, action”. 

During the 1890s, it was the Sillon movement created by Marc Sangnier, who transformed Le Play’s method into what they called their “method of democratic education”, which was inspired by the virtue ethics of the philosopher Léon Ollé-Laprune. See my article on the Sillon here.

In turn, Cardijn transformed this into what has since become known as the see-judge-act method. And it was a battle to have that accepted as well.

The same issue arose at the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate in 1951, where Cardijn and the specialised Catholic Action movements succeeded in having the method adopted. It was during this Congress that Cardijn gave his famous speech on The world today and the lay apostolate.

And the same battle had to be fought again at the Second Congress in 1957, where Gerard Philips was successful in insisting on a doctrinal approach. Nevertheless, congress participants ensured that the final report followed a see-judge-act framework.

Same story at Vatican II, where it was Cardinal Suenens, a partisan of the old prayer, study, action approach, who manoeuvred himself into control of the drafting of what was to become Gaudium et spes. This is why the drafting of Gaudium et spes started off with a doctrinal approach.

But it was the jocist bishops, including particularly the Latin Americans including Larrain from Chile, Camara from Brazil and others as well as the French, Canadian, and other Belgian bishops who gradually turned it around so that in October 1964 the see-judge-act was formally adopted for the drafting of the final version, under the direction of Mgr Pierre Haubtmann, a French JOC and ACO (Christian Worker movement) chaplain. Here is the story of that decision.

See the above photo, which indicates that the work of each sub-commission working on Gaudium et spes should:

  • 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).

Thus, the sub-commission on the family drafted their report following this method. And their report is what became Part II, Chapter I of Gaudium et spes “Fostering the nobility of marriage and the family“. Read it here.

The same argument re-surfaced at the meeting of the Latin American bishops at Aparecida in Brazil in 2007, where Cardinal Bergoglio was instrumental in ensuring that the see-judge-act approach was maintained. See here and here.

And of course Pope Francis used the see-judge-act in Laudato Si in May this year.

It does make you wonder though: why are BISHOPS who are supposed to be upholders of the whole teaching of the Church still debating this?

Stefan Gigacz