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Cardijn and Human Development

The Rise of Lay Consciousness

The following address was delivered to the conference, ‘Rediscovering Joseph Cardijn for the new millennium’, at Cardijn College, Adelaide, South Australia, October 9, 2009

By Fr. Bruce Duncan, C.Ss.R. *

Thank you very much for the invitation to join your conference under the inspiration of Canon Cardijn and the whole YCW movement. I very much regret that I am not able to stay for your whole conference and join in your conversation.

Cardijn after being made a cardinalAs we are so well aware, the social and economic context has changed greatly since Cardijn’s day, but I have been wondering what Canon Cardijn would think if he were here today.

I believe he would be in no doubt that your conference comes at a very critical time for the Church and for our country, and he would be surprised at the new challenges that face us.

First, he would be alarmed at the state of the international economy. He experienced the Great Depression of course, and would be amazed that the global financial crisis was allowed to develop the way it did, despite the warnings of people like Joseph Stiglitz overseas and Paul Toohey in Australia.
Secondly, he would not have dreamed that the world could face such a dire threat from climate change. However, very few informed people now are in any doubt that the earth is warming dangerously, and that the greenhouse gases have unleashed processes that will be very difficult to restrain. Even if the world were sharply to rein in air pollution, we would still face very severe consequences from increased temperatures, rising sea levels and threats to agricultural production.

If we fail to act energetically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the consequences will be very severe, indeed catastrophic according to many leading scientists, and alarming in the extreme. We are all aware of these scenarios, but unfortunately there is little time to repair the climate, and the effects will bear particularly heavily in the lifetimes of younger people here today.

Thirdly, Joseph Cardijn would be delighted to see the great uplift in living standards in many poorer countries, and to hear of international efforts to try to eliminate hunger and the most severe poverty everywhere, as through the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. As leading economists like Geoffrey Sachs and Amartya Sen have told us, this is the first time in human history that this has been possible. The world has the resources and know-how to achieve this.

It should be an astonishingly bright moment in human history. But unfortunately, despite pledges by all developed countries, not enough funding has been forthcoming, and this mighty effort is being further threatened both by the international economic crisis and the effects of climate change.

We might also add a fourth area of concern, dealing with war and violence, the arms trade and particularly nuclear proliferation, which involves Australia through uranium mining and also through our hosting of US military facilities.    

Such are some of the most prominent issues of our context. But what would Cardijn make of all this?

Cardijn’s influence

Cardijn  rejoiced in the energies of young people Others here will undoubtedly be speaking about Cardijn’s influence internationally and in Australia. I have been really intrigued by Stefan Gigacz’s research into the development of Cardijn’s thinking and activity, and you will undoubtedly hear more of this from Stefan during the conference.

Many of you must have heard Cardijn speak in Melbourne about 1967. Can
you still feel the energy and enthusiasm of the crowds of young YCW enthusiasts at the time? Much later, I tried to research Cardijn when I was preparing my 1991 book, The Church’s Social Teaching (out of print but on the net), but did not have access to enough of his background and writings at the time. What I learnt was how central he was to currents of progressive Catholic social thought and action during the modern period.

Cardijn stands in the line with other Catholic progressives, not just clerics like Bishop Ketteler in Germany or Cardinal Manning in England, but especially lay people like Frederic Ozanam, founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society and also a significant social activist and intellectual; Mark Sangnier of Le Sillon, of course; and a contemporary of Cardijn’s, Jacques Maritain, the French writer and activist, whom Montini, later Pope Paul VI, regarded as his friend and prime philosopher.

The influence of all of these people is reflected in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, as well as in the modern social encyclicals. Even reading Pope Benedict’s new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, one cannot help noticing how fundamental were the twin themes of awareness, or consciousness, of current social problems facing us, and our responsibility to tackle them.

As Stefan has highlighted, these two words, consciousness and responsibility, are the key to Cardijn’s thinking, and he used them repeatedly. We know that Cardijn insisted that people be firmly grounded in their real and immediate social context. He developed techniques for workers especially to reflect collectively about their local circumstances and work out what they could do to change things. But he was also concerned about the larger picture, about war and peace, refugees and poverty internationally.

Cardijn and the new encyclical

Cardijn would be attentive to how the Church internationally is responding to these matters, especially to the Pope and the bishops. He would be examining carefully the newest social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, subtitled, On Human Development.

To the surprise of some commentators, Pope Benedict has urged Catholics to regard Pope Paul’s Development of Peoples of 1967  as ‘the Rerum Novarum of the present age’ (#8). Just as Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, laid the basis for the Church’s social engagement for over a century, Benedict urges us to look at our responsibilities in terms of the global issues of hunger and poverty, of peace and sustainability. Far from backing away, as some had urged, from the social initiatives of the Second Vatican Council, of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, Benedict is extolling them.

Yet I am sure that Cardijn would be concerned that the voice of the Church on these issues is not being heard clearly enough. The bitter irony is that despite having this marvellous tradition of social concern and involvement by Catholics, many Catholics today know little or nothing of that tradition, and are unfamiliar with what it invites us to now.

Part of the problem arises from blowback against the Church for the sexual abuse scandals of recent years. This is certainly the case in the United States, and to a lesser extent here in Australia. For instance, when the US bishops speak out on urgent social issues, they are no longer listened to readily. Some of the media are quite hostile, and the credibility of the Church has been gravely damaged. It is difficult for the voice of the Church on social issues to be heard.

Moreover, we don’t seem to have Church public personalities of the calibre of the US Cardinal Bernardin, for instance. What this emphasises more than ever is the need for new forms of lay leadership and participation within the Church community. We have always had significant lay leaders, of course, and no doubt you can think of some of them as I speak. But it seems to me that we do not have enough in public forums or in proportion to our numbers and levels of expertise. Undoubtedly, lay people do not wish to take on a role as speaking officially for the Church.

The Split in the Labor Party and the Catholic Action movements in the 1950s is a reminder against advancing one’s own political views in the name of the Church. It is also worth remembering that the YCW movements at the time strongly opposed such a militant mobilisation of Catholics in the political sphere, and instead insisted that Catholics should be free in such political arenas to act on their own judgment and initiative, and to speak independently for themselves.

Nevertheless Cardijn would surely encourage a much more active laity in Australia, exercising more vigorous leadership within the Christian and civil community, individually and in a wide range of organisations inspired by the social principles of the Gospel.

It is not just that the numbers of clergy and religious personnel have been declining, but we are moving into a new era of lay participation and involvement. It is not easy to envisage what the future shape of the Church might take. Looking back now, it is easy to see how clericalised we were as a community. Though lay people are fortunately exercising many valuable ministries once performed by clergy, we don’t want to clericalise lay people.

The lay vocation to social transformation

The emphasis needs to be on expanding our sense of the lay vocation. Here Jesus’ words about the Kingdom or Reign of God are decisive. As you recall, he spoke of the Reign of God incessantly throughout his ministry, yet the concept can seem very remote and abstract to us. The idea of the Reign of God involves the social arrangements that ensure the maximum wellbeing of all people without exception. It is of course an ideal that human beings can never fully bring about, since it will come finally as sheer gift from God. Nevertheless, Jesus insists that the Kingdom is already growing among us, and transforming the earth, like yeast in the dough.

God’s Promise of the Kingdom is critical for us in another way as well, since it posits an ideal for us to aim for, an aspiration for our policies, and a stimulus to strive continually for improved social wellbeing. I like to think of the vision of the Reign or City of God as like a giant magnet pulling people throughout history to improve human wellbeing. Cardijn would understand this very well.

In the words of Pope Benedict in his new encyclical, we are called to ‘shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God.’ (#7).

So the next key words for Cardijn, as I understand him, along with consciousness and responsibility, would be SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION. It is our task, in cooperation with others of course, to help transform this world so that it adequately sustains everybody, especially those in distress or poverty. This is not foreign to the Gospel. It is at the very heart of the Gospel. It is a grave mistake to think that God is only interested in our private world of interiority or spirituality. God also insists that we take our social responsibilities seriously.

Pope Benedict reiterated this in Caritas in Veritate: ‘In the notion of development, understood in human and Christian terms, [Paul VI] identified the heart of the Christian social message’ (#13).

Benedict continues that Paul VI set out to convey this important truth: ‘that the whole Church, in all her being and acting… is engaged in promoting integral human development’, and has a ‘public role over and above her charitable and educational activities’ (#11).

Benedict urges that we must ‘rediscover fundamental values on which to build a better future. The current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment… The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future.’ (#21).

Pope Paul VI with President John F KennedyPope Paul VI in Development of Peoples insisted that it belongs to lay people, ‘without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiative freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which they live… They will certainly desire to be in the first ranks of those who collaborate to establish as fact and reality an international morality based on justice and equity.’ (DP #81).

What a call to action Pope Paul’s letter was! It encouraged an amazing response around the world, and encouraged the YCW movements in Latin America especially to take on more explicitly social and political tasks, giving birth to the liberation theology movements which have become so influential worldwide.

Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical lacks the power of Paul VI’s Development of Peoples, but its import is no less urgent. Perhaps it is even more urgent, when we consider the numbers of people still in hunger, the threat of climate change and the state of the international economy. But whether the encyclical succeeds or disappears from view will depend on how we can make it work for us, helping mobilise public opinion about the pressing need for change.

One can imagine that Cardijn would have made great use of this encyclical. Cardijn’s genius lay in two areas especially. First, he was able to distil the experience of his contemporaries and earlier groups into his method of ‘see, judge, act’ in a way which not just empowered people to change conditions in their factories or office, but developed what philosophers call ‘agency’, the ability to engage actively with groups and issues around them. For many, this sense of agency made them agents of change and social transformation wherever their lives took them. This has been the experience of many of you of course. How many of our Catholic leaders in parishes and agencies, the schools and wider community, developed their leadership qualities through the YCW.

Handling conflict in the Church

Secondly, Cardijn learned how to handle conflict in the Church itself. As we know, there are always differences of view in the Church, and people of immense good will can take opposing views, even on very critical matters. However, even when people are acting in good conscience, which we should usually presume, that does not mean that they are right. With historical hindsight, of course, we can see things more clearly.

Cardijn strongly opposed the right-wing and reactionary movements of his day, particularly around Action Francaise, and was almost condemned during the Anti-Modernist campaigns of the early 20th century. From many points of view, the pontificate of St Pius X was a disaster, setting back the renewal of the Church by decades. Cardijn escaped condemnation because of the personal support from the next pope, Pius XI. I have often wondered how different the history of the 20th century might have been had the Church had more enlightened leadership after Pope Leo XIII.

It must have been extremely difficult for well informed Catholics at the time to maintain their trust in the Church, when almost all the leading Catholic scholars were silenced and the progressive Catholic social movements hamstrung.

We can look back on this tragic period with some equanimity, because of the success of the Second Vatican Council and the marvellous social encyclicals from which we draw inspiration. But the Council only succeeded because of the long-suffering work of their predecessors, who challenged reactionary or conservative social views in the Church because of a greater loyalty to the Gospel itself. Their endurance in the providence of God eventually won the day.

Many of them did not live to see that day. Ozanam’s efforts at social reform were swept away by the conservative Catholic reaction after the 1848 revolutions in France. Because of his opposition to Action Francaise and Fascism, Maritain was regarded as a crypto-communist by some of his Catholic enemies.

But Cardijn and Maritain did live to see the Second Vatican Council embrace a new social vision of how the Church, endorsing the values of democracy, freedom of conscience and human rights, must engage with the modern world. It is also no accident that one of the chief drafters for Pope John XXIII’s encyclicals Mater et Magistra in 1961, and Peace on Earth in 1963, was Mgr Pietro Pavan, who was deeply influenced by both Cardijn and Maritain.

What do we learn from this?

First, that nobody in the Church is spared the struggle to be authentic to the full message of the Gospel. All the men and women in the Church, including even the Popes, have to figure out what is to be done, particularly in social and political affairs where opinions legitimately may differ, and we must all humbly admit that we could be wrong. In contingent affairs involving social life, the Church responds to various situations as well as it can, with the resources at hand.

As we know from history, sometimes the Church or Church representatives get it wrong. At such times, critics of the Church can be her best friends in bringing about change and reassessment of views. But it needs the keen Gospel loyalty of people like Cardijn and Maritain, who despite opposition and misunderstanding, eventually helped the Church adopt better policies. They could have given up, but their endurance proved a great service to us and the Church.

What would Cardijn think of the Church’s response now?

I suspect Cardijn would be thrilled to see so many Catholics today so well educated and with such skills to bring to the tasks at hand. No other generation, I dare say, has had such a range of expertise available to it, such opportunities.

No doubt Cardijn would urge us to consider carefully suggestions Pope Benedict has made for the reform of our capitalist economies. As we well know, the current economic crisis has done great harm in western economies, but in the developing world the consequences have been very severe. It has been estimated that over 100 million people have been forced back into severe deprivation. Already some commentators are warning that unless economic reforms are much more thorough-going, we are likely to repeat the economic fiasco a decade or two down the track.

Benedict is drawing on a long tradition of opposition to such destructive forms of liberal capitalism and the economic ideology that so corrupted financial and economic markets and governments. He is vigorously defending the Church’s commitment to social justice, greater equity in the distribution of wealth and power, and the struggle for a sustainable global order. But where are our champions of social justice in the media and public forums in Australia?

The Pope is also suggesting that we return to co-operative forms of ownership. In parts of Europe, Latin America, Canada and elsewhere, and in many parts of the developing world, thousands of cooperatives are flourishing. They offer the advantages of allowing people to take control over their own economic activities and futures, and provide structures and incentives for people to act co-operatively, strengthening social cohesion at the same time.

You will recall that the YCW in Victoria played a central role in introducing legislation that allowed the formation of co-operatives. As a result many co-operatives began, in the form of producer, marketing or consumer co-ops, housing co-ops, credit unions and so on. I suspect that Cardijn would be urging us to look again at these alternative ways of organising our economy.

The Pope also mentions the ‘Economy of Communion’ business model begun by the Focolare movement, with over 700 businesses operating effectively in Europe but distributing part of their profits into local communities. Could these work in Australia?

These are just some of the themes that emerge from this reflection on the life of Cardijn and what his example might have to offer us today.

I wish you well in your discussions, and I think many people will look forward keenly to hear how you proceed from this point.


• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.