Cardijn, work and the worker

This month we celebrate the 130th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, which has come to be regarded as the origin of modern Catholic Social Teaching. But it also marks the 60th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s first social encyclical, Mater et Magistra, which was itself a revolutionary document in its own way and time. Indeed, only four years later, it would become the most cited document in the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today, Gaudium et Spes (16 citations).

For this reason, it’s worth recalling that it was Joseph Cardijn, who in February 1960 first made the original proposal to John XXIII for an encyclical to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum and to update Catholic social doctrine – as Cardijn referred to it – in the light of the massive changes that had transformed the world during the 20th century.

The pope enthusiastically welcomed Cardijn’s suggestion, requesting him to send suggestions for the encyclical. Upon returning to Brussels, he wasted no time in drafting a 5000-word paper for the pope on “The Church and the World of Labour,” all organised in his classical see-judge-act format.

Here is a new summary of Cardijn’s paper.

Part I: The history of labour and the universal dimension of the worker problem

“The face of the world of labour has completely changed,” Cardijn began.

“Even the attitude of society and public opinion with respect to the worker problem has completely changed: an attitude of fear and defiance among some, an attitude of confidence and hope among others, an attitude of seriousness and responsibility among all those with responsibilities,” he continued.

Moreover, these changes were not the “end point.” Rather, they were “merely the beginning of a vertiginous transformation, both concerning work itself and all the actors who are engaged in it, and concerning the unheard of repercussions of this transformation on all aspects of the life of the whole of humanity,” Cardijn explained.

“Not only the manner and life of work have been and are continuing to be transformed from day to day, but labour is in the process of turning the whole world on its head, creating an increasingly technological world, changing the very regime of work as well as the various aspects of human life – personal, family, social, cultural and recreational, political, national and international,” Cardijn predicted.

“Today, the future of work has become a global problem, the No. 1 problem,” he added.

“It is increasingly becoming so: through the perfecting of new labour processes, which have spread rapidly in every country and among all races; through the growing number of wage workers, both young and adult – and particularly women and young girls – in all sectors of professional life (production, trade, finance, administration, teaching, transport, publicity); through the power of new technologies which overcome all obstacles and thus transform the face of continents as well as the life of peoples; through scientific, social and ultimately philosophical problems that have led to this evolution, through which man increasingly masters matter at the risk of allowing himself to become dominated by it.”

“Some may say that these elements of vertiginous transformation only concern a minority and in practice only apply to a few western countries that are particularly developed from the technological point of view. Let no-one minimise, however, the legitimate ambitions of the new nations, which are becoming conscious of the role that they will have to play in the concert of peoples, on condition of ensuring – for themselves and for all so-called under-developed countries – the most scientific, technical, commercial and economic equipment.”

Sixty years, it is hard not to marvel at Cardijn’s clear sighted view of not only of all these events but the direction in which the world was moving.

Part II: The truth about work and the world of the worker

The judge or Truth of Faith section of Cardijn’s paper is equally remarkable, offering perhaps his most developed reflection on work or theology and philosophy of work.

The Church has a mandate to make known these truths, “which must be a the base of a world regime for truly human and Christian labour,” he argued, explaining this in three points:

1. The end of work is the transformation of the wealth of nature for the service of people and for the glory of God.

“Work is not a punishment for sin, a kind of condemnation,” Cardijn emphasised. Nor is it the supreme end for those who work; one cannot turn it into an absolute, a god.”

Above all, “human work is a privilege, an honour, because it demands the collaboration of man in the divine work of Creation and Redemption in order to satisfy in an increasingly adequate way the needs of the community,” he explained. “Without work, there is no genuine humanity, no genuine civilisation. The fatigues and abuses that accompany work are the consequences of sin.”

Hence, “workers are not ‘the wretched of the earth,’ machines or slaves; they are not objects, instruments of toys; they are the sons and daughters of God; they are the very end of work.”

2. This is why the Church, as divine Providence itself, desires, encourages and recognises the value and the legitimacy of all progress in science and technology.

The Church wants these things “not for the benefit of a tiny minority, but so that they will enable the needs, both spiritual and material, of the whole of humanity to be satisfied.”

“No progress – either in production, commerce, or in the distribution of the processes of fabrication, nor in the advertising of the products fabricated – can serve to deceive, degrade, enslave individuals and collectivities; all perfectionment in and through work must serve to enlighten, to raise and to free them from error and oppression,” Cardijn insisted.

3. Technological and economic progress demands an increasingly sophisticated organisation of labour, within which various interests must be reconciled for the good of all.

“The world of work will always be composed of actors associated in various capacities: capital, management, implementation, etc.,” he noted.

Hence they must work “together – in the scrupulous respect for persons, with a clear understanding of the rights and duties of each one, in a loyal desire for reciprocal justice” in order to “build the community of work.”

Nevertheless, “while the regime and forms of labour have changed over the last century and although the conditions of working life have improved, it nevertheless remains true that the defence of the worker remains an overriding objective.”

Trade unionism therefore “remains a necessity and a right and it is unceasingly necessary to rediscover the healthy forms in which it can develop freely and effectively.”

Similarly, employers united professionally have a duty to seek “fraternal collaboration” with their workers.

Work and the worker

Not satisfied with the above, Cardijn later added a final few paragraphs highlighting and emphasising the primacy of the human person, the worker.

“The first truth that is the source and the principle of all the others is: work is the necessary and primordial act of the human person,” he explained. “No work without workers. It is by this necessary and primordial act that the human person provides and must provide for the needs of his person and of his family; needs that are increasingly developed and elevated, that human work itself develops in its production and its extension.

“One cannot deform the link between work and the worker; the worker does not exist for work, but work for the worker, for himself, for his family, for his development and his elevation, and this not for a minority but for the whole of humanity.

“This truth is at the base not only of the person, of the family taken individually, but of the person as a social person, but of the national and international community.

“It is in this sense that we say that the worker by and in his work is the necessary and irreplaceable collaborator of God in the execution of his plan of love in the work of Creation; and after original and actual sin in the work of Redemption.

“The worker, conscious of the meaning and of the purpose of work collaborates with the redeemer in restoring the divine order in the world of work and in the world quite simply; the worker by his collaboration participates in the earthly and eternal glorification of God Creator and Redeemer,” Cardijn concluded.

Work, in Cardijn’s vision, was therefore not a punishment or a burden but a vocation and mission sharing in God’s own work of creation and redemption – a stunningly positive and uplifting view that contrasted with the negative conception inherited from the story of humankind’s banishment from the Garden of Eden.

Part III: The specific role of the Church

In the third section of his reflection, Cardijn set forth his conception of the mission of the Church.

“The Church’s mission is not to realise itself the transformations which have just been mentioned, nor to create scientific, technological, economic, social and political institutions responsible for the world of labour,” he noted.

On the contrary, “the means for achieving these objectives forms part of the immediate responsibility and initiative of people themselves, both governments and private associations.”

Rather, the Church had “a duty to spread the eternal truths that must guide both individuals and collectivities in the search and use of technologies and institutions, which all must be at the service of man, his temporal vocation and his eternal destiny.

“Teaching these truths, integrating them into the whole of human and Christian life, forms an integral part of its evangelising mission, in which the hierarchy, the priesthood and the laity have their distinct but essential roles in the expansion of the Reign of God on earth.”

Nor was it enough to teach this to Catholics, Cardijn warned. Instead, “it must open out to all people of good will.”

“This is why it wishes to collaborate with all the human institutions, both private and public, national and international, which seek in the respect of their reciprocal mission, the means to ensure the happiness of peoples and the Reign of God.”

To achieve this, Cardijn spelled out four methods:

a) Promoting understanding of Catholic social doctrine, a role in which priests, religious and lay people all had a role.

b) Formation of the laity as a particular priority based on Cardijn’s classic trilogy of “formation, action and organisation.”

c) Making a priority to educate young people beginning their working lives.

d)  The promotion of international, intercontinental, interracial and interreligious collaboration.

Cardijn’s advocacy

On 13 April 1960, Cardijn sent his paper to Vatican Secretariat of State, Cardinal Angelo Dell’Acqua.

But he did not let the matter rest.

On 23 December 1960, Marguerite Fiévez, who was working for Cardijn as his secretary, wrote to Mgr Pietro Pavan, a professor of Catholic social doctrine at the Pontifical Lateran University, enclosing both Cardijn’s proposal to the pope as well as another earlier paper entitled “Priests and the social doctrine of the Church” that Cardijn had also prepared for circulation among his contacts in Rome.

“This is a great opportunity to reconnect with you albeit by a completely different path!” wrote Marguerite Fiévez, who was clearly familiar and on good terms with Pavan, no doubt through her involvement with the COPECIAL, i.e. the Permanent Committee for Congresses of the Apostolate of the Laity.

“Before his departure for Africa a few days ago, Monsignor Cardijn asked me to send you the attached note, on ‘Priests and the social doctrine of the Church.’ Following the line of the Pontifical Commission for the Apostolate of the Laity in preparation for the coming Council, Monsignor Cardijn is concerned with many fundamental issues that you find expressed in the various notes he drafted for the Commission in question. If he had your views on it, I think he would then be in a position to judge whether after a few modifications he would be able to present the note to the Commission at one of the coming sessions.”

In other words and without saying so, Cardijn knew that Pavan was involved in the drafting the planned encyclical. And asking him to comment on his paper was Cardijn’s diplomatic way of making sure that Pavan read it.

“If you would like extra copies, I would be happy to send them to you,” Marguerite added, all but confirming that she and Cardijn also knew that Pavan was part of a drafting team.

As well as Pavan, the team included Msgr Agostino Ferrari Toniolo, a professor of labour law and grandson of the Italian Catholic Action pioneer and follower of Frédéric Le Play, Giuseppe Toniolo, Msgr Santo Quadri, chaplain to ACLI, the Italian Catholic Workers Organisation, and Msgr Luigi Civardi, a longstanding chaplain and writer on Italian Catholic Action, who was also personal confessor to the pope.

All this is a perfect illustration not only of Cardijn’s extensive network of contacts in Rome but of his quiet but supremely effective advocacy methods!

But of course he would have to wait until 15 May 1961 to know whether he had been successful.


2. Stefan Gigacz, Mater et Magistra endorses the See Judge Act (Cardijn Research)

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

Joseph Cardijn, Trip to Rome of Mgr Cardijn and Romeo Maione (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Joseph Cardijn, The Church and the World of Labour (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Joseph Cardijn, Cardijn – Archbishop Dell’Acqua 13 04 1960 (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Joseph Cardijn, Priests and the Social Doctrine of the Church (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn’s proposal to John XXIII (Cardijn Research)
Stefan Gigacz, John XXIII’s New Pentecost (The Leaven in the Council)
Stefan Gigacz, Fiévez writes to Pavan about Cardijn’s suggested encyclical (Cardijn @ Vatican II)
Celebrating the birth of Catholic Social Teaching (Australian Cardijn Institute)