Cardijn in the historiography of Vatican II

Stefan Gigacz

Cardijn in the historiography of Vatican II

The absence of Cardijn

The lack of reference to Cardijn in the Alberigo-Komonchak History may to some extent be more easily understood in taking a broader look at the existing historiography of the Council.

Thus, Herbert Vorgrimler’s five-volume Commentary on the documents of Vatican II only mentions Cardijn twice in passing, both in relation to the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem. More surprisingly, this pattern is repeated in the twenty-odd volumes of Yves Congar’s Unam Sanctam collection devoted to the history of the Council, where we again find only two albeit significant footnote references to Cardijn’s role in relation to Apostolicam Actuositatem.

Harder to fathom is the almost total lack of attention to Cardijn in the historiography of the Belgian contribution to the Council. For example, the conference papers gathered in the volume The Belgian contribution to Vatican II simply list Cardijn in an appendix naming thirty-four “Belgian theologians who influenced Vatican II.”1 In the same vein, Jan Grootaers 700 -page collected essays on the Council, Actes et acteurs à Vatican II, refers to Cardijn’s intervention on religious liberty only as one of a series of “weighty” interventions on the subject.2

Even specialised studies of the Council documents pay almost no attention to Cardijn’s role. Thus, Maria Teresa Fattori’s study of Apostolicam Actuositatem makes only passing reference.3 And as recently as 2015 at a conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the decree on the laity, Philippe Goyret’s keynote speech contains not a single reference to Cardijn.4 Similarly, Giovanni Turbanti’s 800-page thesis on the drafting of Gaudium et Spes only makes three references to Cardijn, citing his criticism of the draft schema as failing “to start from reality” plus passing mentions of his conciliar speeches.5

In another striking recent example of this lack of awareness of Cardijn’s conciliar role, American theologian Maureen Sullivan notes in The Road to Vatican II: Key Changes in Theology the shift from deductive to inductive methodology in Gaudium et Spes. Here, she cites Romano Guardini as “one of the earliest proponents of the kind of thinking that would emerge at the Council,” Congar as “a forerunner” and Chenu as a major proponent of the new methodology, with no reference whatever to Cardijn.6

The result is that Cardijn thus appears in the existing historiography of the Council as at best a marginal figure. This immediately raises the question of how a man who was at the height of his global influence during the late 1950s (and even into the 1960s) could disappear so comprehensively from view in such a short space of time.

Contemporary accounts

Examining the journalistic records of the Council reveals a similar although more understandable lack of reference to Cardijn. Thus, the three-volume Council Daybook, a compilation of Catholic News Service reports, only mentions him twice.7 But this is also the case for Gerard Philips, chief drafter of Lumen Gentium and Pierre Haubtmann, main compiler of the final draft of Gaudium et Spes who garner not a single mention. Given the oath of secrecy required of Council participants, the absence of reference to Cardijn and other periti can be explained by the fact that journalists did not have access to the drafting commissions and that periti had a mostly backroom role.

Thus, Henri Fesquet’s 1150-page compilation of reports for the French newspaper Le Monde simply mentions that lay auditor Marie-Louise Monnet had been inspired by him thirty years previously. René Laurentin’s three-volume account does not mention Cardijn at all. Xavier Rynne only mentions Cardijn once as does Ralph Wiltgen’s The Rhine flows into the Tiber.

On the other hand, Cardijn hardly fares any better in the proliferating genre of published Vatican II diaries. Perhaps the major exceptions here are Congar’s account of a weekend with Cardijn at a Swiss retreat house helping the latter to prepare his conciliar speeches, André-Marie Charue’s citation of Paul VI’s desire to enable Cardijn to defend his conception of Catholic Action, and Helder Camara’s suggestion of a mass honouring Cardijn at the end of the Council. Even here, though, the overwhelming impression is that Cardijn’s role, at least until he became a cardinal, was mainly on the sidelines although it needs to be pointed out that as yet there are no published diaries by participants in the preparatory and conciliar lay apostolate commissions.8

Significantly, a number of comments concerning Cardijn are also quite negative and these no doubt reinforced a perception that despite his earlier profile, he was now well past his prime. Thus, Congar expressed his surprise at the lack of regard for Cardijn among Council Fathers at the Fourth Session, while Camara described Cardijn’s first intervention on religious liberty as a “disaster” owing to his poor Latin. Two days later, Henri de Lubac joked at Cardijn’s tendency to Latin neologisms such as “juvenes abandonnati” or abandoned youth. The fact that Cardijn’s deafness caused him to fail to hear the bell indicating that his time was up added to the impression that at eighty years old his time was all but up.

Discerning Cardijn’s role

Archival sources

In stark contrast with his absence from the historiography and contemporary accounts, Cardijn’s personal archives, now housed in the Belgian state archives, immediately reveal that he played a particularly active role at Vatican II, with 102 often bulging folders devoted to his conciliar work.9 This is comparable in extent to the archives of other major conciliar actors, such as Philips10 and Haubtmann.11

Of these, thirty-four documents carefully numbered in red pencil in Cardijn’s own handwriting stand out. They comprise seventeen papers written for the PCLA, eleven more for the LAC, a speech drafted by Cardijn for Brazilian Archbishop Jose Tavora as well as his five interventions as a Council Father, two of which were submitted in writing while three were delivered in the Council hall.

Other dossiers detail Cardijn’s extensive contacts with John XXIII and Paul VI during the conciliar period while others yet document his European and intercontinental travels, which continued until his 1967 death. Even more important here are the records of the drafting of his book, Laïcs en premières lignes.

In addition, the archives of the JOC Internationale in Brussels contain nine thick folders documenting the activities of the movement in relation to the Council. Taken together, these indicate the scale of investment by Cardijn and the JOC Internationale in the Council, putting in the shade that of many conciliar bishops and indeed national groups of bishops.

Nevertheless, while these dossiers begin to illuminate the extent of Cardijn’s involvement in the Council, it is much more difficult to discern his impact on its deliberations. Certainly, it is possible to identify many similarities between points and concerns raised by Cardijn and those articulated in the conciliar documents. But how to identify Cardijn’s role in the formulation of these texts from those of some 3000 Council Fathers and periti?

Biographical accounts

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert’s biography, entitled simply Cardijn in the French original, devotes a chapter to his role at Vatican II, which offers several pointers here. Thus, the authors highlight Cardijn’s struggle, particularly in the PCLA, where he “made it his duty to react against the tendency which had been particularly marked since the second world war, to try and identify and limit the lay apostolate to exclusively religious witness.”12

For Fiévez and Meert, this was Cardijn’s key battle at the Council:

For him such a disincarnate conception lacked all realism and the greater number of his notes were written to affirm and stress that the authentic lay apostolate is centred within secular life and in the midst of secular realities; this, for the laymen, is the proper field of his baptismal consecration. He called this: the layman’s specific lay apostolate; his essential and primordial apostolate, distinct from the Priestly Ministry and capable of transforming the daily life of the world.13

But who were the proponents of this “disincarnate” conception confined to “religious witness”? Writing in 1969 only two years after Cardijn’s death, Fiévez and Meert were too diplomatic to say.

In any event, Cardijn’s views eventually triumphed, the authors tell us, resulting in his “joy” at “finding, in two of the major documents of the Council, Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, the declarations on the role of the laity which he had so long wanted from the Church.”14 They remain silent, however, regarding the role played by Cardijn in achieving those declarations. Indeed, they seem to imply that much of the credit belongs elsewhere, concluding that “while he had his real share both in the preparatory work as well as in the debates of Vatican II, it was by his life and his work, with all the many lines of inspiration to which he gave birth, that he has his place as one of its great precursors.”

1D. Donnelly, Joseph Famerée, Mathias Lamberigts, Kareem Schelkens, (Eds.), The Belgian Contribution to the Second Vatican Council, Peeters, Leuven, 2008.

2Jan Grootaers, Actes et acteurs à Vatican II, Peeters, Leuven, 1998: 75.

3Maria         Teresa Fattori, La Commissio “De Fidelium Apostolato” et lo Schema sull’Apostolato dei Laici (Maggio 1963 – Maggio 1964) in MT Fattori and Albert Melloni (Eds.), Experience,         organisations and bodies at Vatican II, Bibliotheek van de Faculteit der Godgeleerdheid, Leuven, 1999 at 299-328.

4Philippe Goyret, Il decreto Apostolicam actuositatem Le grandi novità dell’insegnamento conciliare sui laici, 2015:         (Accessed 17/06/2016)

5Giovanni Turbanti, Un concilio per il mondo moderno, La redazione della costituzione pastorale “Gaudium et Spes” del Vaticano II, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2000.

6Maureen Sullivan, The Road to Vatican II: Key Changes in Theology, Paulist Press, New York, 2007: 46.

7Floyd         Anderson (Ed.), Council Daybook, 3 volumes, National Catholic         Welfare Conference, 1964-66:         (Online version) (Accessed 14/06/2016)

8One diary that may shed light on Cardijn’s role is the unpublished conciliar diary of the English peritus, Mgr Derek Worlock, who worked closely with Patrick Keegan and was close to the YCW.

9Marguerite Fiévez et Françoise Windels-Rosarts, Inventaire du Fonds Cardijn, Archives de l’Etat en Belgique:                 

10Leo         Declerck and W. Verschooten, Inventaire des papiers conciliaires de monseigneur Gérard Philips, Secrétaire adjoint de la commission doctrinale, Bibliotheek van de Faculteit der Godgeleerdheid – Peeters, Leuven, 2001.

11Anne-Marie         Abel et Jean-Pierre Ribaut, Documents pour une histoire du Vatican II, Inventaire du Fonds Pierre Haubtmann, Institut catholique de Paris, 1992: (Accessed 18/06/2016).

12Fiévez-Meert, Chapter 13, Cardijn at the Council:—cardijn-at-the-council         (Accessed 14/06/2016)

13Fiévez-Meert, Chapter 13, Cardijn at the Council:—cardijn-at-the-council         (Accessed 14/06/2016)

14Fiévez-Meert, Chapter 13, Cardijn at the Council:—cardijn-at-the-council         (Accessed 14/06/2016)