Cardijn the canonist

There is always something to surprise you in the Cardijn Archives. This week I discovered that on 9 November 1965 Pope Paul VI appointed him to the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law.

Unfortunately, he did not have much opportunity to contribute much as he died on 24 July 1967.

In the event, it also took another sixteen years before the new revised Code of Canon Law was finally promulgated in 1983.

However, I also believe that there are at least three sections (canons) of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that show traces of Cardijn’s influence.

The most significant is Can. 781 which states that “Because the whole Church is of its nature missionary and the work of evangelisation is to be considered a fundamental duty of the people of God, all Christ’s faithful must be conscious of the responsibility to play their part in missionary activity.”

Any time, we find the phrase “conscious of their responsibility” or a variant in a Church document e.g. the encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris as well as the Vatican II documents, it is a sure sign of Cardijn’s influence.

It is Cardijn’s gloss on the old Sillon definition of democracy as the social system that tends to maximise the civic consciousness and responsibility of everyone.

In fact, Cardijn actually seems to have used the terms conscious and responsible more frequently than he used his famous see-judge-act expression.

Now Can. 781 is based on Ad Gentes, the Vatican II Decree on Missionary Activity. See Conscious and responsible in Ad Gentes where I indicate several paragraphs referring to consciousness or awareness and responsibilty.

For example, Ad Gentes 35. reads: “Since the whole Church is missionary, and the work of evangelization is a basic duty of the People of God, this sacred synod invites all to a deep interior renewal; so that, having a vivid awareness of their own responsibility for spreading the Gospel, they may do their share in missionary work among the nations.”

And it continues:

“Therefore, all sons of the Church should have a lively awareness of their responsibility to the world; they should foster in themselves a truly catholic spirit; they should spend their forces in the work of evangelization. And yet, let everyone know that their first and most important obligation for the spread of the Faith is this: to lead a profoundly Christian life.”

In other words, the primary way in which lay people should promote missionary activity is through the witness of their own lives.

This is exactly what Cardijn proposed in a note critiquing an earlier draft of Ad Gentes for failing to take account of the role of lay people in missionary activity.

“All Christians are missionaries: enable them to discover in daily life, in the missions of the interior and the missions of the exterior (Pius XI) and to raise them in this spirit and later to enable them to become conscious by themselves and help them to identify their effective responsibilities in the missionary movement.”

Or as he says in the original French:

“Tous les chrétiens sont des missionnaires : le faire découvrir concrètement, dans la vie quotidienne, dans les missions de l’intérieur et les missions de l’extérieur (Pie X) les élever (dans cet esprit), et plus tard (leur) faire prendre conscience par eux-mêmes, (les aider à) s’engager, préciser les responsabilités effectives dans un mouvement missionnaire.”

In fact, Cardijn had a very broad understanding of missionary activity based on his conception of the lay vocation.

“We need to form them. Form (people) for collaboration, to support jocist (lay) missionaries, indigenous people, with a necessary link between the local organisation and the national and international organisation: responsibilities, initiatives, implementations (by lay apostles) (not separating the spiritual and the temporal – learning to build, to make bricks, to disinfect marshland, to build roads, organise meetings) wanting to build a powerful autonomous organisation through contacts, internships, visits, etc. (between local sections and regional, national and international organisations.”

In French:

(Il faudra les former) Former à la collaboration, au soutien des missionnaires jocistes (laïcs), indigènes, au lien nécessaire entre l’organisation locale avec l’organisation nationale et internationale : responsabilités, initiatives, réalisations (des apôtres laïcs) (ne pas séparer le spirituel et le temporel – apprendre à construire, à faire des briques, à désinfecter des marais, à faire des routes, à organiser des rencontres) vouloir une organisation autonome puissante, contacts, stages, visites, etc…. (entre les sections locales et les organisations régionales, nationales et internationales.”

This is really what Cardijn wanted.

Now we can also find the conscious of their responsibility phrase in two more places in the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 212 §1 Christ’s faithful, conscious of their own responsibility, are bound to show christian obedience to what the sacred Pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and prescribe as rulers of the Church.

Well, while I am sure that Cardijn would have agreed that the faithful should obedience to their pastors, I am even more sure that he would have been disappointed with such use of the phrase conscious and responsible which in his mind was associated with autonomous lay action.

In fact, many times during the drafting of the Vatican II decree on the lay apostolate he reacted strongly to the exaggerated emphasis many bishops wanted to place in emphasising the authority of the hierarchy and obedience thereto.

The phrase conscious of their responsibilities also occurs in Can. 652 §3 which refers to novices in religious congregations who “conscious of their own responsibility, are to cooperate actively with the director of novices, so that they may faithfully respond to the grace of their divine vocation.”

Again this is a reductive use of the phrase conscious of their responsibilities and I am sure that Cardijn would have been disappointed.

So while we can directly trace these elements of Cardijn’s influence on the 1983 Code of Canon Law, we can be equally sure that if he had lived long enough, the Code would have been much improved, particularly in relation to the rights and responsibilities of lay people in the Church.

Stefan Gigacz


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