Suenens vs Cardijn at Vatican II

I can’t remember when I first heard that there had been tension between Cardijn and the former archbishop of Malines-Brussels, the famous Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens.

But it was confirmed for me very clearly by Fr Leo Declerck, former vicar-general of the Bruges diocese during the time of Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt, a well known Cardijn supporter and friend of the JOC (YCW).

Referring to Bishop De Smedt, Fr Declerck told me: “He was a friend of Cardijn. So was Bishop Himmer (of Tournai). But not Cardinal Suenens.” (Or words to that effect).

These words came back to me while I was reading up on the development of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.

Suenens played a key role in the launch of Schema XVII as the original draft of the document was known and was put in charge of the draft of that first version.

Thus, in July 1963, he called a meeting of experts at his episcopal “palace” in Malines to discuss the work on the Schema.

These experts included quite a number of Belgian theologians: Lucien Cerfaux, Gerard Philips, Albert Prignon, Gustave Thils, Albert Dondeyne and Charles Moeller as well as Yves Congar, Karl Rahner and others.

But not Cardijn, who was perhaps still at or near the peak of his influence around the world, particularly in the field of lay apostolate, labour and justice issues, etc.

I guess that part of the explanation lies in the fact that Cardijn was not a “theologian”, in the sense of a full time academic theologian working in a university.

But I also wonder whether the disagreements between Suenens and Cardijn may have played a role.

Actually, Cardijn was initially very surprised to hear that the work of preparing Schema XVII had been separated from the work of the conciliar Lay Apostolate Commission. To Cardijn, that work lay at the heart of the role of the Lay Apostolate Commission as he perceived it.

In any case, the Suenens archives make it clear that tensions between Suenens and Cardijn dated back at least to the early 1950s when Suenens was a young auxiliary bishop.

In their article, Les relations entre le Cardinal Montini/Paul VI (1897-1978) et le
Cardinal Suenens (1904-1996) pendant le Concile Vatican II
, Fr Declerck and T. Osaers note that this tension relates to competition (or perceived competition) between the Legion of Mary and the JOC in many countries.

Declerck and Osaer cite a letter Suenens wrote in 1953 to Legion of Mary founder, Frank Duff:

“Mgr Cardijn said that the Legion opens the way for communism in India because — he said – the best catholic forces are absorbed by the Legion, so there is no room for his movement. And the J.O.C. is the unique way to obstaculate [sic] the progress of communism since social reforms are the first need in a country where people has [sic] nothing to eat. Do you see the reasoning! In the same way every missionary who is not doing social work is a protagonist of communism! “

And in reply on 24 October 1953, Duff wrote back:

“I am much amused at the manner in which Mgr Cardijn reasons that the Legion of Mary leads directly to Communism. So it is because the Legion of Mary absorbs all the best apostolic material! That puts the J.O.C. into a peculiar light as an apostolic instrument. For if an instrument is of apostolic importance and vigour, it should as one of its virtues be capable of attracting membership to itself and that in spite of the competition of other Societies. Unlike Mgr Cardijn, Cardinal Tisserant is never tired of insisting that the Legion of Mary is of all the most efficacious for resisting atheist materialism…”.

Another article by Fr Declerck and Mathias Lamberigts,   The
role of Cardinal L.-J. Suenens at Vatican II
, provides further details on the Suenens-Cardijn conflict.

They write:

“During the 1950’s, a large number of bishops and priests were reluctant to support the Legion of Mary because it was perceived as competition for the more specialized Catholic Action and which had been given a direct mandate by the episcopate. At the 2nd International Lay Conference held in Rome in 1957, Suenens had succeeded in getting Pius XII to comment on the issue in his speech. Suenens published an article on it in 1958 (in the Nouvelle Revue Théologique).”

During the Council, Suenens continued the battle.

Lamberigts and Declerck again:

“It is also known that in October of 1962, during the composition of the lists for the election of the conciliar commissions, Suenens did everything possible to ensure that Himmer’s name would not be included on the list of the ‘Western European’ episcopates.”

Suenens continued to be unimpressed with the work done by the Lay Apostolate Commission (in which Cardijn was an expert, although he too was very critical of its work) leading him to preparing an intervention on the schema De Apostolatu Laicorum in aula at the Council on 9 October 1964:

Lamberigts and Declerck continue:

“Here, Suenens intervened regarding the concept of ‘Catholic Action’. 

“Suenens also held an intervention in the Commissio centralis praeparatoria on
this matter800. According to him, when the Commission for the Lay Apostolate failed to take his remarks (sufficiently) into account, he sent a letter, dated February 27,1963, to all the members of this commission together with a copy of his article from the Nouvelle Revue Théologique. 

“During his intervention Suenens gave his well-known plea for liberalizing
the concept of ‘Catholic Action’ in order to break through the existing ‘monopoly’ so that the Legion of Mary, which he explicitly quotes, can receive full recognition. The problem is that the initial text of the Decree gave preference to a certain, ‘historical form’ of catholic action and created the impression that other forms are not as conducive to the enhancement of the apostolic goals of the Church.”

So it’s pretty clear that the conflict between Suenens and Cardijn was of long date. 

The irony, however, is that Cardijn himself was never a great fan of Catholic Action, except in the sense that Pope Pius XI had declared the YCW itself an “authentic” form of Catholic Action.

Yet another irony is the fact that after Paul VI named Cardijn as a bishop and cardinal, it was Suenens, together with De Smedt and Himmer, who ordained him!

Stefan Gigacz