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'See, judge, act' more than truth by consensus

  • 27 June 2007

Latin American bishops met with Pope Benedict in Aparecida, Brazil last month to prepare their next assembly in Havana, Cuba in July. They insisted on preparing a three part report in line with the See Judge Act method that they have followed since their famous Medellin conference in Colombia in 1968.

Perhaps this would not be remarkable, except for the fact that the use of the method was apparently a cause of controversy at Aparecida.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Vatican observer John L Allen linked the use of this methodology to what he described as "a cautious embrace of the core legacy of liberation theology, including the option for the poor, the concept of structural sin, ecclesial base communities, and the See Judge Act method of social discernment".

According to Allen, "critics see in the method an implied relativism as if truth can be manufactured by consensus employing the ‘see-judge-act’ process".

And yet the Latin American bishops in 1968 and in 2007 were doing nothing more than following a course that Pope John XXIII had outlined for them in his 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra in which he described See Judge Act as a method for "the reduction of social principles into practice".

First, one reviews the concrete situation; second, one forms a judgment on it in the light of these same principles; third, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. In this context, it is perhaps appropriate to consider the origins of this method which will forever be associated with the late Belgian priest, Father (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement, who actually coined the term See Judge Act. Cardijn himself clearly considered See Judge Act to be a core component of his legacy to the Church. Significantly, in his speech to Vatican II fathers on the schema of the future Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, he described the method as a key means for developing the "interior freedom" that "exists in germ in every human person as a natural gift” but which requires a “long education”. "I have shown confidence in [young people’s] freedom so as to better educate that freedom”, Cardijn told the Council. I helped them to see, judge and act by themselves, by undertaking social and cultural action themselves, freely obeying authorities in order to become adult witnesses of Christ and the