Drop the ‘judge’ in the see judge act? Or not!

“A big changeover has taken place in the reflection of the Church over the last years,” according to Bishop Emeritus Lucas Van Looy of Ghent, who claims that Pope Francis has dropped the “judge” from the see-judge-act!

This is what Bishop Van Looy wrote in an article for Caritas Europa of which he was vice-president from 2015-2020:

The adage, See – Judge – Act as a methodology for reflection has been developed into, ‘listen carefully – verify if what you heard is conformed with the reality – and finally, accompany’. The word ‘judge’ has been dropped. Who am I to judge or condemn?’ That was the Pope’s answer to the journalist when asked about the situation of same-sex marriages.

Australian Catholic University lecturer, Sandie Cornish, who is also a participant at the Synod on Synodality, made a similar comment (video below) during a webinar in Australia recently. She noted:

I think that Francis is moving beyond the old Cardijn formula. His culture of encounter and dialogue is actually post-Cardijn. It’s going deeper. It’s not just I’m looking at you and making judgments but we’re encountering one another; we’re listening to one another. That’s inherently mutual.

Well, what to say about all that? Is it true that Pope Francis has gone beyond the see-judge-act, as Van Looy and Cornish claim?

Clearly, the first question here is: does the “judge” in the see-judge-act means “judging others,” as they both claim?

Perhaps, the first place to look for the answer to this might be in the first article on the subject – actually a booklet – ever published by the JOC in Belgium in 1925. Written by Cardijn’s assistant chaplain, the Jesuit Joseph Arendt, it is entitled (in English) “Social formation by the YCW.”

A process of discernment

Here is what Arendt writes:

After looking carefully around you; when you understand all the benefits for which you are indebted to God, who has given them to you through your brothers and sisters; when, eager to repay your debt of gratitude, you have studied the needs of the young workers, your comrades, for whom you can do so much good; you will need to judge existing situations, to choose the means to use to improve them; you will have to determine the answers that are appropriate to the problems observed.

Learning to judge is difficult and you will often have to ask for help from competent and devoted teachers; directors of your study circles, for example.

You will therefore need to learn to discern what is good from what is bad; what is good from what is pleasant; what is good from what is achievable.

Arendt goes on to explain this in more detail but what’s clear from the above is first that judgment is directed towards situations NOT people. Secondly, it involves a process of personal discernment by a person enabling him or her to identify the good from the bad in a situation, in order to be able to move towards an action that will solve the problem.

Evidently, this has nothing to do with “judging others” in the sense that Pope Francis used when he asked “Who am I to judge others?”

What “judgment” in the see-judge-act process actually involves is also made even clearer in a 1922 report by the Belgian priest, Fr René Van Haudenard, who set out the method that was to be adopted by the emerging YCW study circles and movement:

First rule – Initiation to social action is based on the enquiry.

Second rule – The facts identified by the enquiry must be judged in the light of principles.

Third rule – From ideas it is necessary to pass over to action

Again, clearly, it’s the facts that need to be judged, not people.

See judge act and accompaniment

What about Cardijn himself? How does he explain the judge? Regarding this, in 1954, in a speech explaining to priests their role, he stated;

We must help the young workers to discover the problem; they are not robots, to whom we say “Do this and do that,” no, they themselves must discover the problem but through us, we must help them to discover the problem.

Thirdly, we must build the movement; our priestly responsibility is to make the discovery ourselves; we must See, Judge and Act, helping the young worker to discover the problem – they must see the problem, judge the problem, and solve the problem, and be then together, the movement in our parish, in our country, and in all the countries of the world. That is our priestly responsibility; it is not alongside our priesthood, it is our priesthood. It is the essence of our priesthood – Ite et docete – it is for this that we are priests. 

In other words, the job of the priest is NOT to tell young workers what to think or do. On the contrary, seventy years before Pope Francis, he is suggesting that the role of priests is precisely to accompany those young workers in their own discovery of the facts, in forming their own judgment of the situation, and deciding upon their own action response. That is what Cardijn meant by the see judge act as a method of formation.

A method of dialogue

Then, in 1964, in a document sent to Pope Paul VI to advise him on the drafting of his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, which was so important in orienting Vatican II towards a spirit of dialogue, Cardijn writes:

(The see judge act) starts from the most elementary and the most concrete form of dialogue which takes place around the circumstances of the life of the young worker – at work, in the family, at leisure – to lead him little by little towards the deepest internal dialogue which must reveal to him the value of his life, his vocation and his divine destiny, the wealth of the graces acting in him. Its essential method: “see – judge – act” is itself an education in dialogue!

However, this personal dialogue passes through the way of collective dialogue in all its forms:

– Dialogue with and among young workers

– Dialogue among activists, leaders, and with the mass

– Dialogue at the heart of life, in the milieux of life and for the problems of life

– Dialogue between young workers and clergy, chaplains, the Hierarchy and the whole ecclesial community

– Dialogue that seeks to unite the whole parish in the whole of life and in the milieux of life

– Dialogue with the worker organisations and other Catholic Action organisations

– Dialogue among all the institutions, with the authorities, with public opinion and its means of expression…

On the other hand, he recognises that this dialogue always remains “imperfect” and presupposes that “one continually seeks to update beginning with the realities of life and education.”

The important thing for Cardijn, however, was that such dialogue “produced tangible fruit” that “although difficult to evaluate… would never have been achieved through monologue or by teaching from on high received passively.”

In other words, the see judge act is an active method that enables its practitioners to develop their own agency, their own capacity to deal with and transform the life situations that they face at school, at work, in the family, in the community – and in the world.

Not a critical attitude

One year later in 1965, the International YCW itself set out its own understanding of the see-judge-act process. Regarding the judge, it said the following:

The characteristics of “judging”:

Judgment is not concerned with the morality or the legality of an act. Sin or not a sin? Allowed or not  allowed? Neither is it a critical attitude towards others. We don’t have to judge people to discover something sinful.

Judgment is a reflection with a view to discovering the real human and spiritual needs; to discover the thinking and the will of God as regards this and to discover in faith, God’s active presence in the situations or happenings studied.

In other words, nearly 60 years ago, the IYCW had already rejected the distorted misrepresentations of the judge with which we began this article.

However, since we began with Pope Francis, perhaps we should finish with how he himself explained the judge in the see-judge-act in an address to French Catholic Action leaders in 2022:

The second step is to judge or, one might say, to discern. This is the moment when we allow ourselves to be questioned and challenged. The key to this stage is recourse to Holy Scripture. It is a matter of allowing our lives to be challenged by the Word of God which, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says, is “living, energetic and sharper than a two-edged sword (…); it judges the intentions and thoughts of the heart” (4:12).

In a sense, it’s back to the future with Pope Francis explaining the judge just as his Jesuit predecessor, Joseph Arendt, did in 1925 as a process of discernment centred on allowing ourselves to be challenged in the light of Scripture.

A sentiment that Arendt, René Van Haudenard, the IYCW and Cardijn himself would surely all endorse.

Stefan Gigacz


Bishop Luc Van Looy, A synodal way for the world (Caritas Europa)

Joseph Arendt, Social formation in the YCW (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

René Van Haudenard, Rules for study circles (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library/seejudgeact.org)

Joseph Cardijn, Seek first (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Joseph Cardijn, Education in dialogue (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

International YCW, The enquiry method (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Pope Francis, The see-judge-act and the review of life (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)