Joseph Cardijn (1882 – 1967) was a Belgian social activist best known for his lifelong dedication to social activism and working towards the improvement of the working class. He blamed the death of his mine-worker father in 1903 on harsh labor conditions. Many of his former schoolmates working in the mines and mills believed the church had abandoned them, which prompted Cardijn to found a social movement dedicated to helping them…Working-class Belgians in that era tended to see the church more interested in serving the interests of the aristocracy. 

When Cardijn was first made an assistant priest near Brussels in 1912, he began to work with factory workers. In 1915, he became the director of the city’s Catholic social work. In the years after the First World War, he began to organize young Catholic workers in the Brussels area to evangelize their colleagues. The group was named “Young Christian Workers.” A spin-off was the “Young Christian Students” movement.

Joseph Cardijn was well-known and greatly respected at the University of Leuven and passed away in a Leuven hospital 1967, when I was a seminarian in Leuven. I never met him unfortunately but had already learned much about him. I was active with a Young Christian Students group when a college student in Detroit.

The big Cardijn impact on my life, however, was his stress on critical thinking. He really helped me become a careful and questioning observer. His famous exhortation that we need to “See, Judge, and Act” could also be my motto. As a teacher I have always tried to engage people in critical thinking. Cardijn I am sure was far better at it than I have been. But I keep working on it…

Just two years before Joseph Cardijn’s, Pope Paul VI honored him and his prophetic ministry by appointing him a cardinal. Today must people know this remarkable Christian as “Cardinal Cardijn.”

See, Judge, Act — Thinking about the past:

I guess I find it easy to be a critical thinker about the past. I still give lectures and write about the “historical-critical method.” I understand, for example, the place and meaning of biblical mythology about Adam and Eve and about Noah and the great flood. 

I am not surprised that many contemporary scholars suggest that the Hebrew prophet Moses may have been a legendary figure, but a Moses-like figure existed in the 13th century BCE. I am surprised when contemporary “biblical experts” on the Internet say Moses wrote the Pentateuch. There is no way “Moses” could have written the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were  composed between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Indeed there once was a belief in both Judaism and Christianity that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. Those days passed long ago.

I truly believe that “Yeshua,” our historical Jesus from Nazareth, did live, did reveal divinity, as well as revealing authentic humanity. He was cruelly executed by the Romans, who found him a dangerous trouble-maker. Some of Jesus’s fellow Hebrews, unfortunately, felt the same way. But Jesus was later experienced very much alive. The earliest witnesses to that were some of his women disciples. He lives. His spirit guides us today. Too many Christians, however, still ignore the major role played by Jesus’ women disciples… 

In our historical-critical look at the past, we should be reminded to avoid some of the aberrations of the past. At the beginning of October, for instance, I published a couple articles about Christopher Columbus who was hardly a saintly explorer. He was a murderer, a tyrant, and a scoundrel. A couple people on Facebook “unfriended” me when they read my article. But there is life after Facebook.

Among early Christian “fathers” we know today that a number of them were outright misogynists. Among them are certainly: Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354 – 430); Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century; and his pupil Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church, 13th century. Nor should one forget the great Reformers Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin  (1509-1564).

See, Judge, Act — Contemporary life:

But what about the challenge of being a critical observer, thinker, and activist today? It is more difficult because via Internet critical observers can be immediately challenged, repudiated, or outright denigrated. They can be  “cancelled.”

There is certainly a lot of falsehood and pure nonsense in our contemporary world that is packaged and promoted as truth. We see that of course in political and religious rhetoric. And in the ongoing Covid pandemic. Right now as hospitals again fill up with COVID-19 cases, I am becoming very peeved at the nonsense of the anti-vaxxers and especially with the “Christian” anti-vaxxers. They have fed themselves such a steady diet of falsehoods that they are unable to respect and respond to contemporary medical science. They are not just ignorant and foolish. They are dangerous people.  

Another alarming trend that concerns me these days is “cancel culture.” On the “Left” and on the “Right” cancel culture has become a socio-cultural virus. It is being used by misguided Christians as well. I recall many examples. Right now I am thinking about a fellow who for several years was a well-liked and respected teacher in a Catholic high school. He announced recently that he is going to marry his male partner. Shortly after his announcement, he was fired from his job and informed that he will be banned from working in any Catholic school in the diocese. Catholic cancel culture. Parents protested his being fired but were informed that their children would be expelled from school, and made unwelcome at any Catholic school unless the parents stopped their protests.

Cancel culture has been compared to a modern day “witch burning.” It has certainly been used by religious groups to eliminate “troublesome people.” It is greatly manipulated and distorted by people on the far right. Former US President Trump once said: “The goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated and driven from society as we know it.” Really? This is just another Trumpian falsehood. In fact the former-president himself has quite a history of engaging in cancel culture behavior. He has pushed for boycotts, called for the firing of his critics, and has used his platform, particularly Twitter, to attack people. In 2017, Trump went after football players who knelt during the National Anthem as a form of protest against racial inequality, calling for them to be fired and encouraging fans not to support the league. That is real cancel culture.

Cancel culture is unhealthy because it primarily creates more hateful polarization. Engaging in a respectful exchange of opinions while working toward the same goals is how we will thrive and grow as a society. Yes, there is a time to disagree and to vigorously dialogue. But how to respect each other through discussion and debate is and remains our Christian challenge.

See, Judge, Act — Values Clarification:

Thinking about helping people become well-informed critical thinkers today, I suggest we start giving classes in “values clarification.” (I did that in the 1970s and 1980s.) How do people display and practice truth and honesty? Or how do they display and practice falsehood and deception? Do we take time to compare or help people compare a person’s rhetoric with that person’s actual behavior? How do we help people clarify their own values? How do we clarify our own values?

For example, I would like to see more people critically examining the rhetoric and actual policies of Viktor Orbán who has served as Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010. As the Boston College historian, Heather Cox Richardson, observed in a recent column, Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy, replacing it with “Christian democracy.” He wants to replace multiculturalism with “Christian culture,” and wants to stop immigration. He rejects “adaptable family models” and promotes “the Christian family model.” Is this really Christian? Values clarification?

Having lost their leader in Washington DC, it appears that Donald Trump-supporting Republicans have settled on Orbán as the new authoritarian leader to admire. He is anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-free press, and anti-democracy. The Conservative Political Action Committee, which holds the US right’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists and politicians is now planning its next big conference in Budapest in 2022.

The far right is quite active these days. Last weekend, the leaders of the QAnon far right conspiracy movement gathered in Las Vegas to discuss the state of the world and the future of their movement. QAnon members, as I have written, embrace a range of unsubstantiated beliefs. They center on the notion that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, consisting mostly of elitist Democrats, undermined former-president Donald Trump. The lead speaker at last week’s QAnon gathering in Las Vegas was the actor Jim Caviezel, who is best known, among conservative Christians, for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Caviezel’s speech, amounted to a call to arms against the liberal worldview and concluded with the proclamation that “the Storm is upon us.” This was a direct invocation of QAnon’s central conspiracy theory. On Monday, Caviezel’s speech was quoted approvingly by a far right Catholic bishop. “All need to listen to this speech,” wrote Joseph Strickland, the anti-Biden, Bishop of Tyler, Texas. Strickland is strongly anti-LBGT and insists that Catholics cannot be Democrats.

And so we do indeed have much to carefully and critically observe and think about these days. And much that calls for concerted action…

  •  Jack

PS I have a couple big projects on my calendar in coming days and am taking a week off. I plan to return after Veterans Day.

13 thoughts on “See — Judge — Act

  1. Thank you, Jack. Always the excellent observer, educator and communicator! You dedication to working towards our collective appreciation of the truth is much appreciated.

  2. Dear Jack,
    Thank you for clearly pronouncing that we Catholic/Christians are wise to use our own common sense and intellects to determine what is good and moral. We need the perspective of history for clarity but, ultimately, we must think for ourselves. If someone wants to label a position “good” by simply slapping on the Christian label, it needs to pass the credibility test of seeing if everyone is better or just a favored few. Thanks for sending this important message. Have a well deserved break!

  3. Hi Jack. I really appreciate your outlining salient points of the far-right which fly in the face of Jesus’ message to say nothing of their opposing basic democratic values and captured in the person of Orban. I hadn’t known that the largest conservative group is meeting in Hungary! This speaks volumes (to me) of the very conservative outright adoption of totalitarian principles. I hope between now and 2024 there are enough sensible Republicans to outnumber the extremists. (I’m also praying that the forces of the Universe remove the Republican kingpin in a fitting way, such as jail.)

  4. Thank you for writing so simply about the culture wars in the U.S. The meeting of the Evangelical Church and the Conservative Catholic Church in the 1970’s over Women’s obligation to use their own very informed consciences started it all in my opinion. Not just about Abortion but about war, family, and social institutions like schools and media education. Atlantic Magazine this month has a good article regarding the history and the breakdown of the evangelical church in America. This is Election Day in the US. Let us hope and trust In God

  5. Jack, as always your words are like swords cutting to the facts through the annals of theological history and here shedding light on contemporary failures of Catholics to be Christian in the true sense of the word. I am so often overwhelmed by the dross and drivel of online writing that I quit trying. But you don’t. And I want to honor you for that. But it takes its toll. You sound angry here and it made me wonder if you are practicing enough self care. A break is a good idea. Also, check out Commonweal’s November issue. I can’t tell you how much joy and hope I gained reading about lay Catholic communities living out values of simplicity, justice, and service. I couldn’t read the ones with pictures of monks and priests, but that’s my issue. They may well be doing excellent work, too.

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