The roots of the Suenens-Cardijn conflict

We have seen previously that Suenens-Cardijn tensions date back at least to 1953 when Suenens wrote to Legion of Mary founder Frank Duff reacting to what he interpreted as Cardijn’s criticism of the Legion of Mary.

Here again are the quotes from Suenens’ letter, cited by Leo Declerck and T. Osaers in their article Les relations entre le Cardinal Montini/Paul VI (1897-1978) et le Cardinal Suenens (1904-1996) pendant le Concile Vatican II:

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…

The first minor point to make is that Cardinal Tisserant, who was a Frenchman working in the Holy See, was not an opponent of the YCW as far as I can see. Indeed, unlike Suenens, Tisserant actually attended the YCW’s 1957 pilgrimage to Rome. Nevertheless, Frank Duff was simply responding to Suenens’s description of the YCW’s attitude to the Legion of Mary, communism, etc.

Unfortunately there is no indication of where, when or to whom, Cardijn made the alleged statements, quoted by Suenens, nor is any context given. Still, that’s clearly how Suenens understood what Cardijn had to say.

On the other hand, it would be quite uncharacteristic for Cardijn to base his argument on the need or the way to fight communism.  He systematically rejected this approach on many occasions.

Suenens’ second objection seems to be that Cardijn is promoting “social reform” as the “first need” in a country where people do not have enough to eat. In the first instance, one wonders what Suenens would regard as the ‘first need’ in a country where many people are starving!

But it is also highly significant that he interprets Cardijn’s approach as “social reform”. I believe that this is almost certainly a reference to the “méthode sociale” or “social method” pioneered by Frédéric Le Play, and which formed the basis of the see judge act method. As I have written elsewhere, the Le Play method starting from ‘observation of the facts’ was transformed by Marc Sangnier’s Sillon movement into their ‘method of democratic education’, which was in turn taken up by and transformed into the jocist see judge act method.

So Suenens’ objection thus seems to be against the YCW method. However, the way he way he phrases his comment, namely social reforms are the first need implies that he understands the see judge act as a process of purely structural social change, rather than a process beginning with and involving the transformation of persons. In any case, it is clear that Suenens has little understanding of the see judge act method. 

Now we do have another source available for understanding Cardijn’s thinking at the time that Suenens wrote to Duff. Declerck and Osaers do not cite the date of Suenens’ letter but since Duff’s reply was dated 24 October 1953, it was probably at most a couple of weeks earlier.

This means that Suenens was writing soon after Cardijn had published his reflections on his trip to Asia in an article, Glimpses of Asia, in the IYCW International Bulletin dated 15 June 1953. And as vicar-general of Malines-Brussels at that time, Suenens had access to all publications by Cardijn and the YCW, which required his nihil obstat.

And what does Cardijn say in that article? He starts as follows:

Once more I discovered a new world, with its vastness, its problems, dangers and threats, its opportunities and wealth,.. and above all, the immeasurable mission field offered by Asia to the apostolate of missionaries, priests, religious and lay people — men and women to the apostolate of the Church. 


I met a highly civilized people: gentle, courteous and gracious… The Indian people are profoundly religious. They give a sacred meaning to human beings, to life and to institutions.

When one enters their temples and follows the ceremonies, prayers and offerings: when one sees the inscriptions and other religious signs in houses and on door fronts and altars; when one contemplates the vast crowds of men, women, children and young people at processions, pilgrimages and religious festivals; when one remarks the complete absence of concern for the opinion of others, of scepticism, of mockery or attacks on religion, one wonders with anguish what can be offered to this people by the doctrines, concepts and methods which are not only empty of every religious idea, but radically and inexorably hostile to every religious interpretation and import of man, life, the family, work and society.

But there are also grave problems:

Asia is a continent of hunger, stillbirths, infantile mortality, short life span, of epidemics, hovels, homeless, beggars and illiterates. For hundreds of millions of men there are no doctors, no school teachers, no midwives, no nurses, no hospitals, no sanatoria, no medicines. The statistics are terrifying.

A moment’s reflection on the situation is enough to see the problems rising. The population of Asia will determine the fate of the population of the world. No technical force will be able to hinder this phenomenon. The colored races will decide the future of the white race.

In the past there have been many injustices, abuses, errors and. prejudices which are sufficient to explain the differences in living standards, of culture of civilization, with all the resulting opposition and mistrust.

Will the class struggle which has ravaged our western countries be followed by a race struggle, which would ravage every continent?

And what about communism?

Communism? I met it everywhere, in every town, every factory, every slum quarter, every village. It is the most dynamic and missionary movement of our time. It is simultaneously exploiting the contrasts within the countries and regions, and the oppositions toward the outside. The ground lends itself admirably to this tactic. The continent of hunger offers the best breeding ground for its propaganda.

It is by uniting the situations and problems in a single perspective that one begins to see the point to which the world and the human race have come. There is no longer any question of delay if the final catastrophe is to be staved off. And fear cannot guide our research and our solutions; we must be led by love, by respect for truth, by the certainty of progress, the certainty of salvation for the smallest and most humble who must be infused by that Creative Spirit Who is to renew the face of the earth:

“Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created,

and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth….”


And social work?

The Church enjoys an unheard of prestige in India and Asia. Her universities, colleges and schools, her foundations for the relief of the sick, lepers, blind, deaf, dumb, tuberculous, orphans and for all of the abandoned, have earned her the admiration and gratitude of authorities and the masses.

The celebration of the 19th centenary of the arrival of the Apostle St. Thomas in India and of the fourth centenary of the death of St. Francis Xavier were occasions for gauging the greatness of the work and heroism of the missionaries. Today the Church is “established” in most of the countries of the continent, with its hierarchy, its clergy, its different rites. Yet we must measure the work accomplished alongside the vast task to be finished.


And yet despite all this, little progress has been made:

No impression has been made as yet on the Asian bloc. Christians remain on the fringe of things, on one side, sometimes at a distance. They are not the leaven in the mass. On considering Asia, one asks the following question: has Christianity become a western, European, white Christianity, compromised by the errors and abuses of the white, western and European peoples in Asia? We must not hesitate to study this problem. But what is most necessary, given the needs of Asia and the new structure of the world, is to revise the methods and means of spreading the Gospel. The social problem — from whatever point of view one looks at it: rural or worker; professional, economic or social: hygiene, resources, security, duration, conditions or remuneration of works culture and fundamental education — demands the attention, the intervention and the action of the Church or of its members. With a view to this action in Asia, it will be necessary to evolve a new conception of the increase and training of clergy and missionaries, their utilization and distribution in teaching, the parochial ministry and in social action.

So, for Cardijn, what’s needed is not more social work, which the Church has already been doing for many years and making little impression, but “revision of the methods and means of spreading the Gospel”. As always, the starting point for Cardijn is the “social problem”, not “social works” as Suenens expresses it. In short, Cardijn is proposing the adoption and extension of the YCW method to Asia by a genuinely lay-led Church:

But in Asia, more than in any other continent, the apostolate of priests and missionaries will of itself be unequal to the missionary task.

There is need besides, of doctors, teachers, welfare workers, midwives, nurses, leaders and active members of workers’ movements, trades unions and social movements; fundamental educators, ready to cooperate with one another in every environment: rural, urban and industrial, in the gigantic task of uplifting the peoples of Asia. All efforts should be devoted to multiplying, training and supporting these peoples in order to prepare and equip a native laity which is the only thing capable of meeting the needs of the near future and of enabling a native Church to play its full part in India, Japan and all the other Asian countries.

Thus, the YCW method will lead to the formation of a “native laity” capable of meeting the needs of their own people.

Cardijn concludes:

Today we do not only need a Saint Thomas, we need a whole team of thinkers and scholars, priests and laymen, imbued with the spirit of saint Thomas, to seek out and define the principles of the solution. Then the Church and Christians will be able to bring the necessary light and love to the rebuilding of the world: a light and a love capable of enlightening, uniting and saving every race and every nation.


This, of course, is based on Cardijn’s conception of the specific vocation of lay people to transform the world. And this is evidently another part of the conflict with Suenens, who does not seem to recognise this concept of the lay apostolate, dismissing it simply as nothing more than working for “social reform”.

It is this failure to understand and consequent rejection by Suenens of the jocist method and conception of lay apostolate that forms the basis of his conflicts with Cardijn at Vatican II.