According to Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, it was Cardijn who suggested to Pope John XXIII that he write an encyclical to mark the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, which eventually became the landmark encyclical Mater et Magistra published in 1961.
This is how Fiévez and Meert report that meeting between John XXIII and Cardijn:
When he (Cardijn) came back for another audience in March 1960, he had had a year to think over their first meeting and an idea had got into his head which he had to find words for right away:
“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!”
On the day after he got back to Brussels, Cardijn wrote out twenty pages straight off, submitted them to a few friends and sent them off to Rome. He waited for a reply with the same impatience which he gave to his own work. Four weeks later he he received a few very official lines which cooled him considerably: The Secretariat of State thanked him and was grateful for his suggestions. “That’s what happens”, he remarked, “to those who presume to give advice to the Pope! My papers have been put in a drawer somewhere . .”
As indicated, that meeting took place in March 1960. So I was more than a little surprised to find that in his book presenting the encyclical (Mater et magistra, L’Eglise mère et éducatrice, Texte intégrale de l’encyclique), also published in 1961, Pierre Haubtmann claims that in an address to the Vatican diplomatic corps on 29 December 1959, Pope John XXIII had already “solemnly announced his intention to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum by another “document”.
According to Haubtmann, who was then national chaplain to the ACO (Action catholique ouvrière) in France, “everyone understood that this document would be an encyclical although the word itself had not been officially pronounced”.
Here is what Haubtmann wrote in the original French:
Six mois plus tard, le 29 décembre 1959, répondant aux vœux du corps diplomatique, le pape annonçait solennellement son intention de célébrer le soixante-dixième anniversaire de Rerum novarum par un autre « document », qui ne serait plus centré sur tel ou tel aspect particulier de l’ordre social, mais « sur tout son ensemble, comme paraît l’exiger le temps dans lequel nous vivons »1. Tout le monde comprit que ce document serait une encyclique, bien que le mot lui-même n’ait pas été prononcé officiellement.
1La Documentation catholique, 1960, c. 147-148.
Well that certainly throws a different light on things and perhaps helps explain why no other academic reference to the origins of Mater et magistra mentions Cardijn! Still there are other testimonies backing Cardijn’s version, including by Vittorino Veronese, who had been president of COPECIAL, the Vatican body which then dealt with lay apostolate issues:
So, let’s check the source and see if there is any more context to John XXIII’s remarks. Thankfully, Haubtmann gave the reference in La Documentation catholique, 1960, column 147-148. And thankfully, I actually have bound volumes of DC for the period in question.
To my further consternation, however, there is no reference to John XXIII’s address to the diplomatic corps DC 1960 columns 147-148. Don’t tell me that Haubtmann got the page reference wrong.
A couple of hours later, after going through the first half of DC 1960 and looking online for other references to a speech by John XXIII to the diplomatic corps on 29 December 1959, I came up blank. Very frustrating! (Thanks, Pierre!)
This morning, however, I decided to check DC 1961 at columns 147-148 (why didn’t I think of it earlier?), and sure enough there it is!
Pope John’s address to the diplomatic corps was on 29 December 1960, not 1959.
So even the erudite and great Haubtmann was wrong after all! And indeed Cardijn’s meeting with John XXIII was in March 1960, nine months before the pope’s address to the diplomatic corps! The Cardijn story still holds!
Nevertheless, thanks and hats off to Pierre Haubtmann for providing the reference which I was able to verify and in this instance show to be incorrect.