A whole generation of Catholics formed in the Young Christian Students and Young Christian Workers movement is receding into history. Guiding their practice was a very simple formula: See, Judge, and Act. It was proposed by a Belgian priest, Joseph Cardijn.
Catholicism is on the communitarian – not collective – end of a spectrum with individualism at the opposite end. Cardijn’s formula took seriously the different milieu, social contexts, that people live in and which affects them. People in factories, university libraries, or on sugar plantations have very different experiences of life. The Cardijn approach profoundly influenced the way Catholics - from bishops to landless agricultural labourers - set about analysing and trying to change society for the better.
The See, Judge, and Act, method became a valuable way of life for the lay apostolate, and a simple formula for analysis reflected in many official Church documents following the Second Vatican Council. ‘See’ meant asking the questions: what is happening, why is it happening, who is affected? ‘Judge’ posed questions such as what do you think about all this, what are your values, beliefs and faith saying about it? What should be happening? And ‘Act’: what would you like to change, what action will you take now, and whom can you involve? So Young Christian Student activists had an off-the-shelf method to communicate with Young Christian Workers in social movements.
Cardijn spent his life teaching Catholics how to engage with the problems of the day, how to bring about change, how to implement Catholic social doctrine. This, very briefly, is his story.
Joseph Leo Cardijn was born in November 1882 into a working class family in Schaerbeek, today a suburb of Brussels, and into the midst of a deep recession. His parents were concierges for an apartment block. The new baby was sickly and sent to live with his grandparents in Halle, a Flemish town south of the capital in the process of industrialisation with artificial-silk works, paper mills, glass works and a mining community. His parents later joined him there and his father, despite being illiterate, started in business as a coal merchant; Joseph remembered reading aloud to him from Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on capital and labour.
Joseph Cardijn earned his first pocket-money delivering sacks of coal in a hand-cart. He remembered feeling sorry for the young teenage workers he saw setting off to long hours in the mills and mines, and for his schoolmates, for whom debilitating labour awaited. Despite his parents’ expectations that he would shortly join his school friends in a Halle factory, he asked if he could stay on at school and then train for the priesthood. In the late eighteen nineties Father Adolphe Daens, who formed the radical Christlijke Volkspartei (Christian Peoples Party) - and was defrocked - had been an important influence on Cardijn.
As a seminary student in Malines, Cardijn was profoundly shocked by the hostility of his old friends, now factory workers or miners. They felt he had abandoned them for the clerical life and joined the owners who exploited them. Cardijn felt that his friends had turned away from the Church losing their childhood innocence and choosing vice. The death of his father in 1903, exhausted by a life of toil, deepened his sadness. Perhaps there was a touch of guilt. His choice of the priesthood meant that his father had lost his son’s help in the business so had not been spared the drudgery of manual work in old age. At his father’s deathbed he vowed to consecrate his priestly life to the evangelisation of the workers.
Rapid developments in Belgian national politics were occurring and the Malines Major Seminary was feeling the ferment beyond its walls. Christian Democrats were emerging and challenging the existing conservative Catholic Party. Seminary students attended a series of international conferences, 1886, 1887, 1890, on the plight of workers in Europe’s economic crisis created by the recession. They heard inspiring talks by the Dominican, Georges-Celas Rutten O.P., later to become general-secretary of the Confederation of Christian Trades Unions which was supported by Archbishop of Mechelen (Malines) Désiré-Joseph Mercier. Workers’ rights, they learnt, were of concern to Christians.
Cardijn’s thirst for knowledge as a seminarian, his energy and leadership, worried the Seminary Rector. Was he a ‘modernist’, attracted to the hotchpotch of ideas condemned by the Vatican in the 19th century? Archbishop Mercier sent him to the University of Louvain (Leuven) in August 1906 to study under Professor Victor Brants, a national figure who in 1892 had founded a department of sociology and economics, where he argued that Thomas Aquinas’ central theme of justice demanded ‘lower class representation’ in Parliament and mitigation of the impact on workers of the long depression of the 1880s. A month later, Mercier relented and approved Cardijn’s ordination, aged 23, as a priest.
The Christian Democrats saw the nascent Christian worker movement an ally in their opposition to conservative Catholic politics, socialist trades unions, and the Flemish language nationalists, the flamangants. The newly formed Catholic unions dedicated May 15th to Rerum Novarum, to rival the May Day celebrations of the Socialist unions. Such an organisation was the ultramontane Arthur Verhaegan’s AntiSocialistiche Werkliedbund, an anti-Socialist working man’s association formed in Ghent in 1891. In 1895 the Belgian bishops officially endorsed these ‘autonomous workers’ organisations’, the Catholic trades unions. This was the complex political world into which Cardijn was decanted as a young priest.
Up until – and beyond - the turn of the century in conservative Catholic circles nostalgic visions of Christian trade guilds and a harmonious corporate society were still powerful. But to keep pace with the Socialist unions, Catholic workers’ associations, were increasingly developing beyond mutual insurance schemes and palliative measures towards demands on employers, in the style of British trades unions. For a long while the Catholic unions retained a distinctive Catholic culture rejecting class conflict, emphasising respect for human dignity and the equal human worth of capitalist and labourer. This did not seem to impede their popularity. In Brussels between 1909-1913, Socialist Unions expanded from 8,000 to 18,000 members while membership of Catholic unions increased at a slightly faster rate, from 1,900 to 5,000. This growth was partly attributable to the appointment in Catholic dioceses of directors to new social secretariats. The dream of guilds was receding – but not extinguished.
There are cogent arguments that corporatist thinking and the creation of separate Catholic unions split the worker movement and weakened opposition to fascism. But there are counter arguments that union ‘pluralism’ encouraged competitive democratic procedures and ways of thinking. Catholic unionism did not encourage proto-fascist views in Cardijn. After a year at Louvain, he spent 1907-1912 as Vice-Rector and teacher at Notre Dame de Basse-Wavre school, an experience he described as ‘a providential misfortune’ and which drew him further into the realities of working conditions and the significance of the Socialist unions. His leisure time was taken up by visiting mills and co-operatives talking with workers. He had not forgotten his pledge on his father’s deathbed, and was not to be diverted.
In August 1911, Cardijn experienced the ‘best retreat’ of his early priesthood – his term - a visit to Britain’s unions towards the end of a violently repressed major transport strike, the first ‘bloody Sunday’, that had brought 3,500 troops to Liverpool on the orders of Home Secretary, Winston Churchill,. The young priest spent a fortnight in London at 425 Mile End Road, HQ of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers Union (DWRGLU), listening and learning, an experience that was to define his thinking and action. Cardijn was deeply impressed by Ben Tillett, founding member of the Independent Labour Party, general-secretary of the DWRGLU, and later Labour MP for Salford North, who spent time with him just after the London Dock strike had ended. “He [Tillett] wants first to create the strongest, the largest, the most united organisation in which he wants the workers of the whole world to feel solidarity of their interests and the unconquerable power of their union”, Cardijn noted approvingly. “Moreover he wants for every worker in particular to carry out a work of personal education, a work of moral and intellectual uplift so that each worker may feel the pressing need of more well-being and more justice”. In the 1920s there were strong echoes of Tillett within Cardijn’s passionate advocacy of the needs of young Christian workers. On his side, Tillett himself had been moved by Cardinal Manning’s personal support for him and the cardinal’s role as peacemaker in the 1889 dock strike.
In 1912 Cardijn was appointed as a curate in the parish of Laeken, North-West Brussels, containing 13,000 factory workers. Abbé Cardijn set out to know them. He formed clubs for working women where factory conditions were discussed. Three years later he was appointed director of social action for the Brussels area.
In 1914 after the German invasion of Belgium, Cardijn publicly condemned the deportation of Belgian workers to Germany. He was sentenced to six months in prison where he took the opportunity to read Marx’s Das Kapital alongside the Bible. He had a second spell in prison shortly before the end of the War. Meanwhile, he had diverted one of his women workers’ groups, mainly young seamstresses, a section of the League of Christian Women workers, into providing intelligence for the Allied forces.
Abbé Jospeh remained throughout committed to youth formation and this would also cause trouble. In 1919 he founded La Jeunesse Syndicaliste with three lay colleagues whom he had met in his parish at Laeken, Ferdinand Tonnet, Jacques Meert and Paul Garat. This new youth organisation was the precursor of Young Christian Workers (YCW); the name was changed in 1924 to defend against allegations that this was Socialism in a Chasuble. The period 1924-1925 was critical for the emergence of the YCW; by the mid-1930s it was becoming a worldwide movement. On the one hand there were the Christian Trades Unions, on the other the official Belgian Catholic Youth Association, the ACJB (Action Catholique Jeunesse Belge). For the bishops the idea of separating young Catholic workers into a separate organisation from the official national ACJB was anathema: ‘dividing the Body of Christ’. Cardinal Mercier supported this view though he respected Cardijn’s commitment to the Christian formation of workers. The ever resourceful Abbé Joseph, tacking between rival priorities, was in a difficult personal dilemma: he must have official approval for his new organisation. A visit to the Pope Pius XI was his last card.
In Rome, the story goes, Abbé Cardijn broke away from the crowd going in to a general audience and managed to beard the Pope in his private rooms. Pius XI was the son of a silk factory owner. Cardijn knew all about silk factories. And at this meeting the Pope revealed his passion for the evangelisation of the working class and his admiration for JOC/ YCW, almost certainly unaware of the disputes amongst Belgian Catholics that swirled around it. Pius XI later coined the phrase famous in the 1930s: “the Church needs the workers and the workers need the Church” which chimed exactly with Cardijn’s conviction. In 1935 the Pope gave his support to the JOC/YCW as an ‘authentic model of activism and social action’.
Cardijn had hoped his movement would influence the Socialist trades unions. By the mid-1930s the JOC had reached the Americas, Africa and Asia with, in 1938, an estimated 500,000 members worldwide. But it would be wrong to equate such numbers with influence within the secular trades unions. Gregor Siefer in his brilliant study of the worker priest movement The Church and Industrial Society wrote that despite the genuine enthusiasm of the YCW only a small avant-garde of the JOC successfully penetrated the secular worker milieu to any great extent. But the wider Cardijn methodology penetrated the whole of the Church in a remarkable way, particularly in Latin America, Philippines, and South Africa under authoritarian regimes where trades unionists were targeted by police and the military. The worker priest movement, on the other hand, also hanging loose from traditional parish ministry, ploughed a lonely furrow in Europe before being – ineffectually – banned by the Vatican.
The YCW had 2 million members in 69 countries by 1957 when a World Assembly, the first YCW International Council, brought 32,000 young members together in Rome. The See, Judge, and Act method was endorsed by Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magister and Pacem in Terris in the early 1960s. Its emphasis on analysing the local context in the light of the Gospel became second nature to the progressive bishops of Latin America. And as students linked up with militant workers, things began to change radically led by the bishops of the NE of Brazil. This, was where Cardijn’s methodology had its most impressive impact and in no small measure, contributed to the formation of the Partido dos Trabalhadores PT (Workers’ Party) which took power under the Presidency of Lula da Silva in 2003.
Joseph Cardijn was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1965, two years before his death and burial at Laeken, his first parish. He made a significant contribution to the Second Vatican Council. The bishops and theologians preparing the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, (Joy & Hope), were explicitly instructed to use his See, Judge, and Act method of analysis. The process for his beatification started in 2013. In a time of fear and lack of historical humility, he has much to be remembered for and to teach the Catholic Church today.
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