Seek, Judge, Act – the Sertillanges side of the story

I’ve written recently about the role of Léon Ollé-Laprune’s Aristotelian “See Judge Decide” formula in the development of Cardijn’s See Judge Act. But there’s also a lot more to the See Judge Act story.

Let’s start with another quote that intrigued me for a long time. Back in the 1980s, when I was visiting the USA for the YCW, I met a parish youth minister in Chicago. From memory his name was Tom.

Tom told me that “the see, judge, act was based on Aquinas’ analysis of the virtue of prudence” or words to that effect.

Well, that was something new for me and I was intrigued but also embarrassed because I did not know this! So I did not dare to ask him for the source of his claim!

In fact, it’s a claim that I heard a number of times – always in the US, never in any other country.

Eventually, thanks to Mary Irene Zotti’s history of the US YCW, A Time of Awakening, I discovered what I believe to be the source, namely a quote from the Dominican writer Francis Wendell OP writing in Laymen, Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity: Text and commentary, Catholic Action Federations, Chicago, 1966:

“The See, Judge, and Act method, conceived by Thomas Aquinas, activated by Cardinal Cardijn, and canonized by Pope John XXIII is indeed a continuing process and a discovery that is invaluable to the layman. It keeps the person with his feet in the order of reality and his head and heart in the realm of faith.” (Page number not cited).

So, according to Wendell, Cardijn got the method from St Thomas, a big claim! The thought stayed with me and finally several years later, I did a course on philosophy in which I chose to write an assessment paper on the subject of prudence.

And sure enough, St Thomas did seem to divide prudence into three parts:

1. Counsel or deliberation (See)

2. Judgment (Judge)

3. Commands or precepts of action (Act).

See here for a similar online analysis:

At one level, the link with St Thomas gelled with the fact that at the start of the 20th century, the University of Louvain, its Insitute of Philosophy directed by the future Cardinal Desiré Mercier, was a hotbed of the revival of thomist thought. Moreover, one of Cardijn’s professors, Msgr Simon Deploige, was a professor at the Institute of Philosophy but who also taught sociology.

On the other hand, Cardijn hardly ever refers to St Thomas.

Perhaps, I wondered, the link was through MD Chenu, the great Dominican medieval scholar, neo-thomist, historian and theologian. Chenu was living in Belgium at the Dominican study house, Le Saulchoir, which was then located near Tournai, not far from Lille. But Cardijn only met Chenu in 1928, whereas the SJA dates from 1914.

Then I realised that there was another Dominican philosopher in residence at Le Saulchoir at that time, who is in fact quoted by Cardijn and many of whose books can be found in Cardijn’s library: Fr Antonin Gilbert, born Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges.

Sertillanges was a prolific writer and a number of his books can now be found online in French or English at

What’s more Fr Sertillanges had also worked very closely with Marc Sangnier’s Sillon movement.

The stars were starting to line up.

And sure enough in Sertillanges’s 1916 La philosophie morale de St Thomas Aquin, we find:

Prudence being the rule of action (recta ratio agibilium), the various roles of prudence are based on the postulates of action.

The first is counsel, which in in ethics represents invention. “Take counsel, in effect, is to seek (or search).”

The second is judgement, which applies to that which has been found consecrates it.

The third, and the most important of all, because it characterises the virtue of prudence with respect to purely intellectual dispositions, is the imperium. We know what an ingenious conception St Thomas makes of this. It forms an immense part not only of his ethics, but his psychology and even his metaphysics of the soul is based on this word. We have emphasised it considerably as one of the most original thomist concepts. All this can be summarised as follows: The imperium represents the practical reason playing its ultimately practical role, that is to say restraining action itself, in view of imbibing reason, instead of resting with theoretical determinations. (My translation)

Original French


In three words: Seek, Judge, Act.

Now, although Sertillanges’ book was published in 1916, the odds are that he was already teaching this framework in his courses at the Institut Catholique de Paris well before that date and this would have been known among his followers, in particular, among the Sillonists.

Recall Ollé-Laprune’s Aristotelian formulation of See Judge Decide (or Conclude) based on his understanding of Aristotle’s virtue of prudence, the practical virtue necessary to all in a democracy, as the Sillonists believed.

Sertillange appears to have revised Olé-Laprune’s version into a more Thomist-inspired formulation of Seek, Judge, Act.

And from there, it’s only a single step of combining the two in order to arrive at Cardijn’s See, Judge, Act.

Well, I can’t prove that it happened exactly like that but I reckon that it is a fair approximation.

There may yet be more light to be found on this subject, particularly in the writings of Msgr Deploige.

Nevertheless, it’s evident from Sertillange and Ollé-Laprune that the Sillonists had a very clear understanding of the prudence as the practical virtue forming the basis of their concept of democracy as the system “that tends to maximise the civic consciousness and responsibility of every one”.

Moreover, both Ollé-Laprune’s Le Prix de la Vie and Sertillange’s La philosophie morale de St Thomas remained in print until World War II. Sertillanges even published an updated version of his book in 1946, shortly before his death in 1948.

What this means, in effect, is that most YCW (and other specialised Catholic Action chaplains) of the inter-war period would have thus been formed in and possessed a sound philosophical understanding of the See Judge Act.

As seen above with Wendell’s book, this understanding also persisted across the Atlantic in the USA for many years.

Elsewhere, however, this philosophical understanding of the See Judge Act, to the extent it ever existed, gradually faded from view.

Significantly, however, this prudence based conception of the See Judge Act has found its way into the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine which states in Paragraph 547:

Acting with prudence

The lay faithful should act according to the dictates of prudence, the virtue that makes it possible to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means for achieving it. Thanks to this virtue, moral principles are applied correctly to particular cases. We can identify three distinct moments as prudence is exercised to clarify and evaluate situations, to inspire decisions and to prompt action. The first moment is seen in the reflection and consultation by which the question is studied and the necessary opinions sought. The second moment is that of evaluation, as the reality is analyzed and judged in the light of God’s plan. The third  moment, that of decision, is based on the preceding steps and makes it possible to choose between the different actions that may be taken.

Homage then to Joseph Cardijn, Léon Ollé-Laprune and Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges.

One day, however, we will have to return to the Belgian side of the story.

Stefan Gigacz