Pope Francis and Vincentians • See – Judge – Act

by | Sep 13, 2017 | Formation, Systemic change

In the midst of his peacemaking visit to war-torn Colombia Pope Francis has once again pointed to the seminal document containing his vision of the Church – the Aparecida Document – a document rooted in See – Judge – Act.

See - Judge - Act: Ozanam

In the four years since he was elected, Pope Francis has visited Latin America five times. His affinity for the region goes beyond his national loyalties. Instead, it reflects the fact that Latin America can offer the rest of Church important lessons on how to keep faith alive and relevant in the face of changing social realities. Pope Francis addressed the Latin American Bishops:

“Aparecida is a treasure yet to be fully exploited. I am certain that each of you has seen how its richness has taken root in the Churches you hold in your hearts. Like the first disciples sent forth by Jesus on mission, we too can recount with enthusiasm all that we have accomplished (cf. Mk 6:30).

Vincentian Roots of Aparecida

Commentator John Donaghy tells us that the methodology which was used in the Apercida document – which he reminds us is sometimes called “the review of life method” – was very simple: see, judge, act.

“Many see that the methodology used in the Aparecida document has its roots in Belgium, where Father (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn of Belgium founded the Young Trade Unionists in 1919 (which became the Young Christian Workers in 1924),” notes Donaghy.

Many may be surprised to learn the “See – Judge – Act” methodology of Cardinal Cardijn can be traced back in some degree to Ozanam .

Drawing on this brief article by Stefan Gigacz, we can see that the lineage runs something like this:

Although it was Cardijn who formulated the famous expression “see, judge, act” it was Léon Ollé-Laprune who was mainly responsible for developing the philosophical theory that lay behind the method.

Ollé-Laprune was himself of a disciple of Frédéric Ozanam!

This inductive approach starts from the insight that God works with people in their lives. Thus it is very important to begin by observing the reality of the world. around us.
This methodology pervaded much of Catholic Social Action in the mid-twentieth century and was taken up by the Christian Family Movement.
Official papal recognition came in 1961, when Pope John XIII, in Mater et Magistra, ¶236, affirmed the importance of the method:
“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: observe, judge, act.”
Though the method is not specifically mentioned in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers noted, in paragraph 4, “the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel,” in order to respond to the challenge of the modern world.

The Methodology of the Aparecida Document: See – Judge – Act

The Aparecida Document is not the first document from the CELAM gathering of bishops to utilize that methodology. Donaghy provides further background…
The Latin American Bishops’ meetings at Medellin and Puebla used this methodology, but the 1992 meeting in Santo Domingo took a more deductive approach, starting from doctrine and then applying it to the reality of the world.
But in Aparecida, the bishops returned to the see-judge-act methodology. In paragraph 19 of the Concluding Document, they highlighted the importance of this method.
The Concluding Document of Aparecida is divided into three parts, reflecting the three-part methodology.
  • The first part, “The Life of Our People Today” looks at the reality of the world in which the bishops wish to speak.
  • In the second part, “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples,” they seek to judge that reality in the light of faith.
  • The final part, “The Life of Christ for Our Peoples,” provides some guidelines for acting.
In Honduras, this is the methodology which many priests and some bishops still use as they do pastoral planning. The methodology has been adopted in Catholic Social Justice ministry throughout the world, sometimes with minor variations.
Here in Honduras I have seen a five part cycle: see – judge – act – celebrate – evaluate. What this adds is the sense that the cycle does not close in on itself but opens into a new process of seeing, judging, and acting.
In Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, S.J., posited four stages of what they called “the pastoral cycle”: experience, analysis, theological reflection, and response. In this scheme “judge” has been divided into social analysis and theological reflection.

But what is clear is that the method starts with the experience of the people and leads to action for justice. It is not just an analytical tool.

Read the 2007 document from the Aparecida Conference, translated into English and available from the USCCB.

Reflection questions

What would it take for me to begin using such a simple method in my ministry?
What benefit(s) might there be in using it?


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