5.1.3 ‘See, judge, act’

Back to 5.1.2

Unit 5 Contents



I quoted the following statement by Pope John Paul II, back in Unit 1 (1.2.5).

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

Taking action in society means participation in some form of shared project, whether in the workplace or in voluntary activities (see 4.1.1).

But how can we go about actually doing this?  What is the relationship between what we find in CST and campaigning for justice in practice?  As this half-way point in Module B marks a shift in focus from theory to practice, we start this unit by addressing this question.

Unit 3 spoke about Adolf Daens, a Belgian priest.  Directly inspired by Rerum Novarum, Daens began to campaign for better conditions for workers in the 1890s, formed a new political party, and was elected to the Belgian Parliament (3.2.1).  You might recall that I mentioned another priest in Belgium who was influenced by Daens, namely Joseph Cardijn.  Of these two, it is now Cardijn who is much better known, and this is partly because he pioneered a method that has become widely known for connecting study of CST with engagement in social action for justice.

In the 1910s, Cardijn began a ministry alongside young industrial workers to enable them to act in solidarity for better conditions. This led to the formation of the Young Christian Workers movement, which continues today, with more than more than three million members across the world.1. This work became the mission of Cardijn’s long life – he died in 1967, just two years after Pope Paul VI had made him a Bishop and Cardinal.

The next reading is two very short introductions to Cardijn and his influence.


Reading (1p + 2pp)

Website of Young Christian Workers, Ireland,

Our founder: Joseph Cardijn

Wikipedia entry: ‘Joseph Cardijn


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

The second of those web pages refers to the method of engagement that Cardijn 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 pay for a large proportion of workers in care homes is the statutory minimum wage? Why is it that no-one can get a government permit to sell produce in this marketplace in Tunisia without paying some kind of bribe to an official?  Why is it that a disproportionate number of people crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to southern Europe are from the small country of Eritrea?  Such questions mean, in turn, 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 Scripture, for example the ‘just government strand’ within it that was introduced in Unit 2. 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 also understanding what human dignity and solidarity really require, 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, as different challenges come up, you need to go on making use of the method.

One of the advantages of ‘see, judge, act’ is that it avoids a premature rush to judgment.  It demands that people look carefully at an issue in order to understand, in a wider and longer term context, what is really going on and why.  This is the opposite of rashly demanding change that might well turn out to make things worse.   Related to this, ‘see, judge, act’ means that people will be less likely to draw on the Church’s teaching in ways which might sound good but actually prove misleading.  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.



Are there social problems that have affected you directly – perhaps to do with working conditions or poverty or conflict? Can you think of how they could be 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

Mater et Magistra, published in 1961, 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.

This method makes clear that we all need to think through how CST ‘applies’ in the specific contexts in which we find ourselves.  These might be social activities in which we are participating already, or others in which we might become involved in future.  Social contexts differ greatly, which makes very clear that there is a limit on the capacity of the Church centrally to prescribe what is needed in each context.  This was 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)


Optional reading

For much more on Joseph Cardijn and his influence, see






End of 5.1.3

Go to 5.1.4 From ‘see, judge, act’ to the ‘pastoral spiral’

Module B outline

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  1. The source of this figure is http://www.ycw.ie/aboutus/international.php (accessed Jul. 2011). 

  2. ‘See, Judge, Act – Fifty years of Catholic social practice’, statement by Cardijn Community International, 20 May 2011, accessed (Jul. 2011) at http://www.cardijn.info/2011/05/20/see-judge-act-%E2%80%93-fifty-years-of-catholic-social-practice/