Cardijn’s proposal to John XXIII

Sixty years ago today on 13 April 1960, Cardijn wrote to Pope John XXIII enclosing a 5000 word note entitled “L’Eglise face au monde du travail” – “The Church and the world of work/labour.”

These were the notes that the pontiff had requested to assist in the drafting of an encyclical to mark the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo’s own defining 1891 encyclical on the condition of the working masses.

As well as a tour de force of sociological analysis of the world of labour, Cardijn offered an insightful theology of work that is perhaps yet to be fully appreciated, as well as presenting a series of proposals for action by the Church, all of which remain relevant and many of which are yet to be fully implemented.

Cardijn’s checklist

Cardijn had already been preparing this project for some time. Thus, in his archives, we find a “aide-memoire” or checklist dated 6 February 1960 prepared for a meeting with Archbishop Angelo Dell’Acqua at the Secretariat of State

Here, Cardijn suggested that the proposed encyclical should also recall the “prophetic views of Pius XI” as expressed in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, i.e.

a/ sur l’importance de l’apostolat ouvrier: “Les apôtres premiers et immédiats des travailleurs seront des travailleurs”

b/ sur l’importance de l’apostolat des jeunes travailleurs: “je vois déjà, à la grande joie de mon coeur, les rangs serrées de jeunes travailleurs allant à la conquête de leurs jeunes frères et soeurs de travail”.

c/ grands progrès pendant ces dernières années

d/ et souhait ardent que ces progrès se poursuivent.

English translation:

a/ on the importance of the worker apostolate: “The first and immediate apostles to the workers ought to be workers”

b/ on the importance of the apostolate among young workers: “To Our soul’s great joy, We see in these ranks also the massed companies of young workers… striving with marvelous zeal to gain their comrades for Christ.” 

c/ the great progress of recent years

d/ the ardent desire that this progress should continue.

Pius XI’s mention of “massed companies of young workers” (Quadragesimo Anno §140) clearly referred to the emerging JOC, which was itself a remarkable occurrence just six years after the pope had first endorsed the movement during his memorable first meeting with Cardijn in 1925.

And the reference in §141 to “the first and immediate apostles of workers” being workers was another endorsement of the JOC’s approach (although the concept of a like to like or peer to peer apostolate had earlier roots).

Moreover, although Cardijn did not cite it, Quadragesimo Anno §135 also warned against “the grave dangers to which the morals of workers (particularly younger workers) and the modesty of girls and women are exposed in modern factories” in a passage that strongly recalls the JOC founders own warnings in his booklet, “La JOC et la détresse intellectuelle et morale des jeunes travailleurs” (The JOC and the intellectual and moral distress of young workers) published just a year earlier in 1930.

Having achieved such impact in 1931 no doubt emboldened Cardijn to seek to do so again in 1961, particularly in view of the forthcoming Second Vatican Council, the preparations for which were already in full swing.

This was especially so since, during their first meeting two years before, Pope John had promised Cardijn that he would promote (Specialised) Catholic Action even more than his predecessors.

Cardijn’s audience with John XXIII

Cardijn’s audience with John XXIII took place the following month in March 1960.

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert  report the conversation  as follows:

“Holy Father, next year is the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. It is time the Church talked about work again. The question is not the same in 1960 as it was in the time of Leo XIII or even in the days of Pius XI. No one could have foreseen then its present dimensions, its universality, its technological growth, its influence on all races and on the whole of youth. An encyclical on the world of work of today would have even more influence than Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo Anno, but an encyclical that is positive and open to all the collaboration that would be needed!”

“Very well”, John XXIII replied, “you write out all your ideas on the subject and send them to me!”

And Cardijn did so, responding with his paper dated 13 April 1960, which is organised in the form of a “see-judge-act” on the workers and the world of work.

The Church and the World of Work

“Never has the worker problem experienced the dimension, significance or gravity that it has today,” Cardijn wrote in his introduction.

The world was merely at “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,” he predicted.

Indeed, labour was 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.”

“Today, the future of work has become a global problem,the No. 1 problem, one might say,” Cardijn continued, strkingly anticipating the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which in 2017 launched a campaign on the Future of Work.

This issue was becoming an increasing problem, he added, listing the mechanisms involved:

 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.

Moreover, having already travelled to every continent over the preceding fifteen years, he could already see the worldwide impact that these changes would have.

“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,” he warned.

“Let no-one minimise, however, the legitimate ambitions of the new nations,” he continued, “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.”

Nor did he ignore the challenges and problems that such changes would entail. These included “the perhaps less obvious problems, apparently more anonymous but deeply felt by the popular masses, namely those which affect the worker himself:”

For most, these are sufferings of uprootedness, illiteracy, undernourishment, sickness, unemployment, poor or even no housing. For others there are problems of fatigue and psychic usury, morbid laws, mental and moral change, insecurity, criminality, promiscuity and fatalism. For a great number there is also the absence of personal and collective responsibility. For all, there is the crushing weight of social pressure where the worker sinks more and more into anonymity; there is the feeling of powerlessness and frustration in the face of the most flagrant or the most subtle injustice.

A theology of work

In contrast with these new realities that Cardijn foresaw, and in perhaps the most significant passages of his note for Pope John, he developed his own vision of “The truth of work and the world of the worker.”

“The end of work is the transformation of the wealth of nature for the service of people and for the glory of God,” Cardijn wrote.

On one hand, it is “not a punishment for sin, a kind of condemnation” but “nor is it the supreme end for those who work; one cannot turn it into an absolute, a god.”

Rather, “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,” Cardijn wrote. “Without work, there is no genuine humanity, no genuine civilisation.”

Here Cardijn contrasted his own uplifting vision of work with a perhaps more traditional Christian focus on labour as “toil” performed by the sweat of one’s brow. “The fatigues and abuses that accompany work are the consequences of sin,” he explained.

“Therefore 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,” h eadded.

Hence, “the milieu of work cannot be a cell, nor a prison.” Rather, “it must, together with the family and the whole of creation, be a temple and a sanctuary where work itself sings the praise of the Creator: ‘Laudete Dominum, omnis opera ejus!’ (Praise the Lord and all his works!),” he said in a phrase that also anticipates the title and the theology of Pope Francis’ 2016 encyclical “Laudato Si’.”

As a result, there was a need for “an increasingly sophisticated organisation of labour,” Cardijn wrote, in effect anticipating and rebutting the decline of labour organisations that has occurred over the last 60 years.

“Global coordination and planning” would be needed, he continued, in order to ensure “the sharing of all the wealth, fruits of labour, between all people.”

“Far from impairing the freedom, conscience and responsibility of people and families,” such coordination “should on the contrary assist them to ensure and safeguard their inalienable rights to full development,” he insisted.

The role of the Church

Finally, Cardijn moved to outline the Church’s own role in relation to the problematic he had outlined.

In the first instance, the Church needed to continue to proclaim the “eternal truths” relating to labour and work. However, it should not “allow itself to become enclosed in the community of the faithful,” he cautioned.

Instead, it should “open out to all people of good will” in order “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.”

More specifically, this required a focus on developing and teaching the Church’s social doctrine as well as forming lay people to enable them to “transform their milieu of immediate life, their own country and the world.”

“This formation cannot simply be theoretical; it must be accompanied by a methodical training in action; and this in its turn, in order to be truly effective in the current regime of work, requires and organisation that meets the needs and conditions of life itself,” he added.

Moreover, “as long as formation – action – organisation are not an integral part of the life and behaviour of Christian adults, the struggle against errors, false ideologies, dangerous influences will not be effective.”

Only on the basis of such formation “in apostolic contact with ‘others’,” would the Church “be able to ensure its presence and its active collaboration in all the national and international organisations; it is thus that it will provide a witness and exercise an ongoing influence in the life and milieux of life.”

Encapsulating this in a new trilogy, he called for “human formation, Christian formation (and) apostolic formation,” particularly for young workers.

“The methodical apprenticeship in the meaning of collaboration within the world of labour, which leads logically to an international, intercontinental, interracial, interreligious collaboration is the surest means to make it penetrate the consciences and the customs, the sense of concern for justice, mutual aid, confidence and friendship; conquering individual and collective egoisms that are at the base of oppositions, attitudes of violence and terrorism; to create a spirit, a will and an organisation of understanding and union which alone can ensure peace between peoples and individuals,” Cardijn concluded.


It would require another article to analyse the extent to which this vision influenced the encyclical that Pope John XXIII published a year later on 15 May 1961, Mater et Magistra.

Suffice here to say that in §236, the encyclical did indeed adopt the “see, judge, act” as its methodology.

And once the Council began, Mater et Magistra would become the most cited encyclical (16 references) in Gaudium et Spes, the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today,” which would also adopt and implement the see-judge-act method in its drafting.

Directly and indirectly, Cardijn’s proposal to John XXIII bore great fruit. Indeed, his notes for the pope bear comparison with and in fact anticipate several aspects of Pope Francis’ own encyclical Laudato Si’.

Stefan Gigacz


Cardijn, The Church and the World of Labour (

Cardijn, L’Eglise face au monde du travail (

Cardijn, La JOC et la détresse intellectuelle et morale des jeunes travailleurs (

Stefan Gigacz, See, judge, act at Vatican II (

Stefan Gigacz, The Leaven in the Council (

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques, Life and Times of Cardijn, Chap. 13, Cardijn at the Council

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno

John XXIII, Mater et Magistra

Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’