2.3.1 ‘See, judge, act’

Back to 2.2.9

Unit 2 Contents


The first screen of the module quoted the following statement:

The social message of the Gospel must not be considered a theory, but above all also a basis and a motivation for action. (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #57)

This raises a big question.  How should we study CST if what we learn is to be more than head-knowledge?

A parallel question might be asked by people who are not students but are activists in work for justice and the common good.  How can we act in practice in ways that draw on and are informed by CST?

With these two questions, we are addressing the relationship between CST and activism.

Since about the 1920s, a method has been developed for understanding this, for connecting up study of CST and engagement in social action. Inspired by Rerum Novarum and aware of great needs among working people, Joseph Cardijn, a Belgian priest, began a ministry alongside young industrial workers to enable them to act in solidarity for better conditions.  This became his life’s mission, and led to the formation of the Young Christian Workers movement, which continues to flourish today, with more than more than three million members across the world.1

As in introduction to Cardijn and his influence, look at these two web pages.


Readings (1p + 2pp)

1. Website of Young Christian Workers, Ireland,

Our founder: Joseph Cardijn

2. Wikipedia entry: ‘Joseph Cardijn


But how could such a mission be done?  It wasn’t quite enough to hand out copies of Rerum Novarum and say ‘Get on with it!’

The second of those webpages refers to a method of engagement which Cardijn developed that he summarized as ‘see, judge, act’.

To start with, you try to ‘see’ the world around you as it really is.  You look closely at the social conditions and the issues people find they are dealing with.  To do this, you have to learn something about the social and economic context, and to try to understand why things are as they are.  For example, why is it that wages are at this level and haven’t been raised for six years?  Why is this particular issue about overtime at the centre of current conflict in the workplace?  In turn, this means that you need to have a sense of the relevant history.  How did we get here?  How come things have turned out like this?

So first you have to look closely at the world around, in order to see it clearly.

Then you need to try to understand how various insights and principles from Christian faith bear upon the situation – how things appear in light of the gospel.  So you look to the Scriptures, for example the prophetic tradition which was introduced in Unit 1.  You look also at the Church’s social teaching, to learn how it sheds light on the issues that you have seen are at stake in your specific context.  You look to these sources as a Christian working with other Christians, in order to form an assessment, a judgement, of the situation.  Your assessment might be: at first it appeared that the main issues were X and Y – but in light of ‘seeing’ the situation more clearly and understanding what, say, human dignity and solidarity entail, we can now see that what’s at stake is Z.

So you have formed a judgment.  And in light of this you need to act in a way that both is consistent with it and will be effective in changing the situation for the better.  See, judge, act.

Of course, that won’t be the end of things.  Solutions to social problems are not easy, and making progress on one issue may mean that people’s focus turns to another.  So you need to go on making use of the method, as different challenges come up.

One of the advantages of ‘see, judge, act’ is that it avoids a premature rush to judgment.  It demands that people work hard to understand what is really going on and why, and thereby to see things in a wider and longer term context, instead of rashly demanding change that might well turn out to make things worse because it isn’t based on ‘seeing’ clearly.   Related to this, it means that people won’t look to the Church’s teaching in ways which might sound good but actually prove to be irrelevant.  The discipline of ‘seeing’ before making a judgment enables people to come to a better grasp of what the issues are and, therefore, which parts of the Church’s teaching to study and learn from.



Can you think of social issues – including perhaps those that have affected you directly – which could be helpfully addressed using the ‘see, judge, act’ method?


Joseph Cardijn’s work was already widely known when, in 1960, he had an audience with Pope John XXIII and discussed with him the writing of what would become the encyclical Mater et Magistra.  “At the pope’s request, Cardijn prepared a twenty page dossier of ideas and suggestions for the envisaged encyclical.”2

Published in 1961, Mater et Magistra says (#236):

There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice. First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgment on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: look, judge, act.

In this way the ‘see, judge, act’ method became part of the Church’s teaching.  Cardijn himself was made a Cardinal in 1965.

This method makes clear that we all need to think through how CST ‘applies’ in our own specific context.  This point, and the corresponding limit on the capacity of the Church centrally to prescribe what is needed in each context, were emphasized by Pope Paul VI in the document marking the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1971.  In the following extract from this, the ‘see, judge, act’ approach is referred to almost explicitly in the third sentence, as the numbers I’ve inserted show.

There is of course a wide diversity among the situations in which Christians – willingly or unwillingly – find themselves according to regions, socio-political systems and cultures…

In the face of such widely varying situations it is difficult for us [the papacy] to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities [1] to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, [2] to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and [3] for action from the social teaching of the Church. This social teaching has been worked out in the course of history and notably, in this industrial era, since [Rerum Novarum]… It is up to these Christian communities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in communion with the bishops who hold responsibility and in dialogue with other Christian brethren and all men of goodwill, to discern the options and commitments which are called for in order to bring about the social, political and economic changes seen in many cases to be urgently needed.  (Pope Paul VI, Octagesima Adveniens, 1971, ##3-4)


End of 2.3.1

Go to 2.3.2 Using the ‘pastoral spiral’ in study of this module

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  1. Source: http://www.ycw.ie/aboutus/international.php (accessed July 2011). 

  2. ‘See, Judge, Act – Fifty years of Catholic social practice’, statement by Cardijn Community International, 20 May 2011, at http://www.cardijn.info/2011/05/see-judge-act-fifty-years-of-catholic.html (accessed Mar. 2014).