Democracy at Vatican II

Democracy at Vatican II:

Towards a New Pentecost for the Lay Apostolate


It is not an accident that the term ‘lay apostolate’ originated in the mid-19th century in the midst of the people’s revolutions that characterised the birth of the modern world. Combining a Greek word for ‘people’, laos, with another Greek term, apostle, that in the Catholic tradition had previously been restricted in usage to the successors of Jesus’ original Twelve Apostles, the notion of the lay apostolate emerged as an integral part of the struggle for democracy.

The amazing story of this democratic lay tradition deserves to be better studied and needs to be better known. I believe it also has tremendous relevance for the future of the lay movements facing the challenges of a globalised world confronted by the challenges of development, war and peace, and even a potential clash of civilizations.

Here I would like to present an outline of the three main stages of this history. I hope that this will set the stage for a better comprehension of the importance of renewing the democratic lay apostolate for the 21st century.

The Men of 1848: The First Generation of the Modern Lay Apostolate

Daniel O’Connell, Frederic Ozanam and Adam Mickiewicz? What do these three names have in common? Each of them were lay Catholics who personified the struggle for national liberation and the emergence of democracy in their respective homelands in the first half of the 19th century.

Inspired by the French Revolution after studying in France as a youth, Dan O’Connell (1775-1847) – the Liberator – devoted his life to the emancipation of the Irish people. Elected to the British Parliament in 1826, as a Catholic he was unable to take up his seat until the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829. His successful methods of political organisation were adopted by the British reformers, the Chartists, in the 1830s. Stopping in Paris on his way to Rome at the end of his life in March 1847, he was welcomed by French radicals as “the most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe”.

Less than a year later, revolution broke out in France and across Europe in February 1848. Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853) – a 35 year old university lecturer best known for his role in the foundation of the Society of St Vincent de Paul – joined with other progressive Catholics in welcoming the new republic as “the only form of government henceforth possible in a country where all forms of royalty are outmoded”.

A supporter of the “democratic and Catholic line” advocated by the socialist Philippe Buchez, Ozanam also collaborated in publishing the pro-Republican New Era journal, which sought to inspire the new social order with Christian principles. “It’s time for Catholics to cross over to the barbarians camp, in other words, to the side of the people, of democracy,” Ozanam wrote. “The (revolutionary) slogan, liberty, equality, fraternity is nothing less than the Gospel itself. I believe in the renewal of the entire ancient social order…in relying on the people who are the real allies of the Church.”

Meanwhile, at the height of the February Revolution, the Polish writer and patriot, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), visited Pope Pius IX in Rome, reassuring him that “God’s spirit is in the heart of the French people”. Like O’Connell, Mickiewicz had already spent his whole adult life from 1830 in the struggle for Polish independence. Like Ozanam, he edited a radical newspaper in French, The People’s Tribune that advocated a program of social reform and solidarity among peoples. Yet outside of his homeland, the role of Mickiewicz whose influence in Poland surpassed that of a Victor Hugo in France has remained largely unknown.

These men were pioneers of the modern lay apostolate. Refusing to take refuge in the past, they faced up to the twin challenges of the emerging modern world – the industrial and democratic revolutions. “We have confidence… we are optimists,” said Ozanam, speaking of the future, “… but I have never hidden the dangers of the present situation from myself.”

The future in Ozanam’s view lay with “the new society that must emerge from the European revolutions” and which under the influence of Christianity would eventually “regenerate the world”. “I have always believed in the invasion of the barbarians,” he wrote in the summer of 1848 comparing the advent of the revolutionary government to the arrival of the ancient barbarian invaders in Rome, “I believe in it more than ever. It will be long and murderous but destined sooner or later to bend under the law of Christianity.”

And yet, within months of this prediction, conservative forces supported by many influential Catholics, succeeded in electing Napoleon III as president, but who would two years later stage a coup d’état that would install him as emperor of an authoritarian government. Other revolutionary initiatives across Europe were also quickly suppressed. Much later in a 1925 audience with YCW founder, Joseph Cardijn, Pope Pius XI lamented that the events of 1848 heralded the “the greatest tragedy of the 19th century”, which was “the loss of the working class by the Church”.

O’Connell had already died and Ireland was in the throes of the Great Famine. Ozanam, still young but in failing health, found himself marginalised within the Church, indeed some of his former colleagues sought to have him excommunicated. By 1853 he was dead, aged 40. Two years later Mickiewicz followed him to the grave, bringing to a close the first generation of modern lay apostolate pioneers. It would take another 50 years before Catholic social action would recover from these setbacks but the witness of these pioneers lived on in their memory and their writings.

The Emergence of the Sillon: Prototype of the Lay Movements: 1848 – 1910

The fallout from 1848 and later from the events of the ‘Paris Commune’ in 1871 led to a polarisation of society that has some striking parallels in the “for us or against us” mentality that has appeared since September 11, 2001. For their part, progressive Catholics refused to accept the growing polarisation between the dominant bourgeois liberalism and the emerging hardline socialism. Rather than seeking a midway path (a third way) between these ideologies, those who followed in Ozanam’s steps preferred to seek a ‘new’ way based on new thinking and new methods of social action.

Among those who took up this challenge, probably the most important was Fr Alphonse Gratry (1805-1871), who had previously recruited young Ozanam as a lecturer at the Stanislas College of which he had been director. Gratry had already published a manual of social action in the midst of the events of 1848. A philosopher, who can be justly considered as the French counterpart of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Gratry challenged the narrow scholastic philosophy that dominated Catholic intellectual discourse of the time, preferring to return directly to the great philosophical sources including Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

Influenced also by the German mathematician and philosopher Liebniz, Gratry proposed an “inductive” method that transcended the narrow “deductive” approach then common in philosophy. Drawing on Plato’s edict to “seek the truth with your whole soul”, he sought to instill an attitude of openness to recognising philosophical and theological truth whatever its source. His disciple, Leon Ollé-Laprune characterised Gratry’s life work as laying the foundations for the development of a “New Philosophy” that would underpin the Christian response to the modern era, just as Aquinas’ writings had done for the medieval world.

Also a philosopher, Léon Ollé-Laprune (1839-1898), was another of those influenced by the ‘men of 1848’ who explicitly modeled his life on that of Ozanam. Choosing to teach at a state-run institution, the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure, rather than at a Catholic institution, he eventually had a huge impact on a broad range of students. These included Jean Jaurès, founder of the French Socialist party as well as Maurice Blondel and Henri Bergson, two of France’s greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Emile Durkheim and a whole generation of young Catholic intellectuals.

In his books, Le morale d’Aristote (Aristotle’s Ethics) and Le Prix de la Vie (The Price of Life), he developed Gratry’s philosophy, seeking also to articulate an ethical basis for modern democratic society. Where Aristotle had seen the virtue of prudence (phronesis) as the fundamental virtue for political leaders, Ollé-Laprune realised that the emergence of a genuinely democratic society depended on each person developing civic virtues. He understood also that a state ideology or religion was no longer adequate to assure social cohesion in a pluralist modern society. As with democracy, social unity began with the recognition of the role and contribution of each  individual, he wrote, foreshadowing the Christian personalist philosophy that would be articulated by his students and successors. He saw the Catholic Church as having a key role in promoting this ethical and social vision. Speaking to a group of university students at Stanislas College in 1892, he called for a “movement of opinion” that would promote the role of each person in the building of a new society.

Within months, a group of Stanislas students led by Marc Sangnier (1873-1950) had launched a journal, Le Sillon (The Furrow), to promote these ideas as well as starting a study circle, The Crypt, for Stanislas students. By 1897, they launched a nationwide campaign to promote social study circles among students and young workers. So successful was this campaign that a movement began to form around these study circles which developed what they described as “a method of democratic education”.

According to an article in an early Sillon bulletin, these study circles did “not discuss abstract or vague subjects”. Rather they began with what young people “have already told their friends, what they have seen, what has struck them… what they have just done themselves at the youth club or in the workers circle”. Their method, therefore, was to “bring characteristic facts… susceptible of illustrating the main lines of a question.” The Sillon study circles quickly progressed to organising systematic enquiries on diverse topics including abuse of army recruits, workplace safety, etc.

In this, the Sillon explicitly adapted the empirical and inductive sociological enquiry methods developed by a pioneering sociologist, Frederic Le Play (1806-1882), who had also known Gratry, and turned them into tools for raising consciousness and developing action. “Our way of studying social facts also contains something very special: every social school must practise the method of observation and experimentation,” wrote Louis Cousin, a lay Marianist brother and Sillon counselor. “In such conditions, study … becomes consciousness,” he continued.

As Marc Sangnier commented, anticipating the “see, judge, act” method later developed and made famous by Cardijn: “Every citizen must: 1° Know the state of the country; when the situation is bad, he must 2° seek solutions; and lastly, having found the solutions, he must 3° act.”

Thus drawing on Ozanam’s example of committed lay action, Gratry’s inductive approach, Le Play’s method of enquiry, Ollé-Laprune’s analysis of prudence as the democratic virtue, the Sillon succeeded in building the first “movement” directed to mobilising young lay Catholics into social action. The spirit of the Sillon is perhaps best summarised in their definition of democracy as an ongoing process oriented towards encouraging each person to play their own role in civil society:

“Democracy is the system of social organisation that tends to maximise the civic consciousness and responsibility of each person.”

Not only did the Sillon develop and implement a radical method of democratic education, from 1906 it also openly challenged the conservatives of “Catholic Action”. It actively combated the ‘Action Française’, a reactionary and racist organisation which was also supported by many Catholics including a number of bishops, cardinals and even Pope Pius X himself. It was no surprise then that the Sillon attracted strong opposition within the Church.

Monsignor Benigni from the Secretariat of State in the Holy See even described Marc Sangnier as resembling “those kinds of molluscs that must be crushed into dust because, when cut into pieces, each part grows into a new and even more dangerous creature”.

On 25 August 1910, Pope Pius X wrote to the French bishops condemning the democratic methods of the Sillon, calling for the resignation of its existing leaders and demanding that the new leadership place themselves under the direct control of their bishops. “All members of the Sillon, such as it is, work only for a sect”, according to the papal letter, “…the Sillon, the eye fixed on a chimera, conveys socialism,…(it) is a miserable tributary of a great movement of apostasy organized to establish everywhere a universal church that will have neither dogma nor hierarchy…and which, under pretext of liberty and human dignity, will bring about in the world…the legal reign of delusion.”

Incredibly faithful to the Church, the Sillon leaders resigned immediately leading to the closure of the first genuine Catholic lay movement of democratic social action. Four years later, the outbreak of the Great War brought down another tragic curtain on the second modern generation of the lay apostolate.

Cardijn and the Lay Apostolate Movements: 1912 – 1967

The closure of the Sillon sent shockwaves through the Church whilst the loyalty of Marc Sangnier and the Sillon leaders attracted much sympathy. When Marc Sangnier died in 1950, the Paris Nuncio, Angelo Roncalli, later to become Pope John XXIII, wrote that Sangnier’s humility and nobility in accepting the admonition of Pius X was “a measure of his true greatness”. Indeed, Roncalli described hearing Marc Sangnier speak around 1903 as the “most vivid memory of my whole young priesthood”.

Roncalli’s appreciation matched that of another young priest of the time, Belgian Joseph Cardijn (1882-1967), who in 1912 began to organise young workers in the Brussels parish of Laeken. Cardijn and his key collaborators, Victoire Cappe (1886-1927) and Fernand Tonnet (1894-1945), had both been trained in the methods of the Sillon which had a branch at Liege, Cappe’s home town. It was clear to everyone that Cardijn identified completely with the Sillon, as he proclaimed publicly, inviting Marc Sangnier as an “international apostle” to give a public lecture in Brussels in 1921.

It was therefore no surprise in 1924 when Cardinal Mercier of Malines-Brussels, who was also close to the Action Française, decided to close down the embryonic movement which was to become the Young Christian Workers (YCW). Here Cardijn benefited from the widespread dismay at the closure of the Sillon and the desire that had developed in the Holy See under Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI to see a new movement emerge within the Church in the line of the Sillon. In fact, Benedict XV had already requested Sangnier to relaunch the Sillon while Pius XI, in one of his first pontifical acts, sent a message to an International Democratic Peace Congress organised by Sangnier in 1922.

The sympathy for Sangnier and the fact that Cardijn was publicly identified with the Sillon were therefore key factors in enabling Cardijn to gain a personal audience with Pius XI in 1925 in which the pope adopted and blessed the emerging YCW movement. This was the signal that many had waited for since 1910. By 1927, the YCW had spread to France, founded by Fr Georges Guérin, a former member of the Sillon, and it is clear that the lightning spread of the YCW throughout France was largely the work of the long dormant Sillon network.

Making a prophet of Mgr Benigni, other “specialised” movements also quickly emerged, notably the Young Christian Farmers (JAC) movement, which also appears to have grown directly out of the former Sillon rural groups. It was around the same time that the Young Christian Students (YCS or JEC) movement also began. The Sillon’s influence can also be seen in a range of other international catholic organisations, including Pax Romana, and indeed the Conference of International Catholic Organisations which was launched in 1927 as the “Conference of Presidents” at the initiative of a former Sillon chaplain, Fr Eugène Beaupin. The Sillon can therefore justly be considered as the prototype of the later international lay movements and notably the specialised lay movements, also known as ‘specialised Catholic Action movements’. Indeed, the Sillon’s impact even crossed the Atlantic to the USA, where Dorothy Day and Pierre ‘Peter’ Maurin, who was also a former sillonist, founded the Catholic Worker movement.

Given the Sillon’s conflicts with early French Catholic Action movements, it is another historical paradox that many of its successors became famous under the appellation Catholic Action. In fact, the early YCW also strongly resisted being linked with Catholic Action. However, Pius XI opened the way to a compromise on this issue with his famous and misunderstood definition of Catholic Action as the  “participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy”. Pius XI, who was born like Ozanam in liberal Milan and identified himself with the 1848 tradition of autonomous lay action, clearly intended to broaden the concept of Catholic Action to accommodate the type of action envisaged by the Sillon. This was further evidenced in 1935 when he recognised the YCW which had a completely autonomous internal lay structure as an “authentic model of Catholic Action”.

Cardijn himself always remained ambiguous about the term Catholic Action, never ceasing to insist on the notion of ‘specialised Catholic Action’. When Pope Pius XII later broadened Catholic Action even further to include all kinds of lay Catholic spiritual, charitable activity, Cardijn seized the opportunity to abandon the term in favor of his preferred concept of ‘lay apostolate’. In this Cardijn always remained faithful to the sillonist influences of his youth.

Victory at Vatican II

It is striking to find references in virtually every one of Cardijn’s key speeches to the Sillon definition of democracy as maximizing the consciousness and responsibility of each person. “What is needed,” he said at the First International Congress on the Lay Apostolate in 1951, “is the active presence of pioneers who are fully conscious of their double vocation, as Christians, and as human beings, and who are bent on assuming their responsibilities to the full, knowing neither peace nor rest until they have transformed the environment of their lives to the demands of the Gospel.”

Similarly, in his three speeches as a Council Father at Vatican II, Cardijn returned over and over to this concept. Turning to the role of young people, he said: “We have assisted them to see, to judge and to act by themselves, undertaking social and cultural action, freely giving obedience to the authorities, in order to become adult witnesses of Christ and the Gospel, conscious of being responsible for their brothers and sisters in the whole world.”

The echoes of Cardijn’s statement and the Sillon’s notion of democracy can be found in the Vatican II Constitution on the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (No. 55):

From day to day, in every group or nation, there is an increase in the number of men and women who are conscious that they themselves are the authors and the artisans of the culture of their community. Throughout the whole world there is a mounting increase in the sense of autonomy as well as of responsibility. This is of paramount importance for the spiritual and moral maturity of the human race. This becomes clearer if we consider the unification of the world and the duty that is imposed upon us, that we build a better world based upon truth and justice. Thus we are witnesses of the birth of a new humanism, one in which man is defined first of all by this responsibility to his brothers and to history.

Even more striking is the reference in the opening lines of the Decree on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (No. 1):

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.

Nor is it by chance that the opening paragraph of the Decree on the Apostolate on the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, contains the following reference (No.1):

An indication of this manifold and pressing need is the unmistakable work being done today by the Holy Spirit in making the laity ever more conscious of their own responsibility and encouraging them to serve Christ and the Church in all circumstances.

What we find here in these and other conciliar texts is the culmination and vindication of 150 years of struggle within the Church for recognition of an autonomous tradition of lay democratic action. Although the word ‘democracy’ never occurs in any of the 16 conciliar documents, Cardijn and indeed his allies at the Council succeeded in embedding the Sillon’s definition of democracy in the key Vatican II conceptions of religious freedom, lay apostolate and the role of the Church in the world. It is an extraordinary achievement and surely also encapsulates Pope John’s own vision for a Church facing the world with Ozanam’s confidence and optimism.

The impact of this can be seen clearly in Karol Wojtyla’s 1972 manual for implementing Vatican II, Sources of Renewal, in which the future pope sets out the Church’s major tasks as “The Formation of Consciousness” and “The Formation of Attitudes” including “participation” and “human identity and Christian responsibility”. It is hard to imagine a clearer endorsement of the methods and principles of the lay apostolate movements belonging to this democratic tradition coming from the bishop of Cracow, in whose cathedral Adam Mickiewicz lies buried.

Towards a New Pentecost for the Lay Apostolate

In the light of this history, it is one of the great paradoxes of the post-Vatican II church that many of the lay movements in the Sillon and Cardijn tradition went into a decline from which they have only recently started to emerge.

And yet the democratic tradition has borne fruit in other areas, notably in Latin America where the lay movements were the seedbeds of the basic Christian and ecclesial communities movement. These communities likewise played a remarkable and still poorly recognized role in the struggle for democracy against the US-backed dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s.

Similarly the lay movements provided an important seedbed for the emergence of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001. Chico Whitaker, co-founder of the WSF is himself an alumnus of the Brazilian IMCS movement (JUC) as well as a long-time co-worker with Bishop Helder Camara.

The struggle to restore Polish democracy from communism can also be traced back to this democratic tradition, notably through KIK, the Polish Pax Romana affiliate, a number of whose members played key roles in the birth of the Solidarity movement.

It took a long time after 1848 before the birth of the Sillon. Forty years after Vatican II, perhaps the situation is maturing for a new flowering of lay movements in the democratic tradition.

Just as Pope John XXIII prayed that Vatican II would lead to a New Pentecost for the Church, let us pray for a New Pentecost for the lay movements ready to take up the challenges of the globalised age of the 21st century.

Stefan Gigacz