Joseph Cardijn (1882–1967) was a Belgian Catholic priest best known for his lifelong dedication to social activism and his commitment to improving the lives 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 this task. Working-class Belgians in that era tended to see the church more focused on serving the interests of the aristocracy.
When Cardijn was made an assistant priest near Brussels in 1912, he began to work with factory laborers. In 1915, he became the director of the city’s Catholic social work. In the years following the First World War, he started to organize young Catholic workers around Brussels; the group was soon christened the “Young Christian Workers.” A spinoff was the “Young Christian Students” movement.
Joseph Cardijn was well known and greatly respected at the University of Leuven. He passed away in a Leuven hospital 1967, when I was a seminarian in that city. I never met him, unfortunately, but I had already learned much about him. I was active with a Young Christian Students group while a college student in Detroit.
Cardijn’s biggest 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 Cardijn’s death in 1967, Pope Paul VI honored him and his prophetic ministry by appointing him a cardinal. Today, most 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 that 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, and did reveal divinity as well as authentic humanity. He was cruelly executed by the Romans, who found him a dangerous troublemaker. 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 female disciples. He lives. His spirit guides us today. Too many Christians still ignore the major role played by Jesus’s female disciples.
In our historical-critical look at the past, we should be reminded to avoid some of the aberrations we might find there. 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, tyrant, and scoundrel. A couple people on Facebook “unfriended” me when they read my article. Thankfully, there is life after Facebook. Among early Christian Fathers, we know today that a number of them were outright misogynists, including Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354–430), and the 13th-century Dominican theologian Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas. 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 critical observers can be immediately challenged, repudiated, or outright denigrated via the internet. 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 of course in political and religious rhetoric, and in the ongoing pandemic. Right now, as hospitals again fill up with COVID-19 cases, I am becoming very impatient with the nonsense of anti-vaxxers, and especially with 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. This crosses the line from ignorance into danger.
Another alarming trend that concerns me these days is “cancel culture.” On the left and the right, cancel culture has become a sociocultural virus. It is being used by misguided Christians as well. For example, I recently read about a fellow who for several years was a well-liked and respected teacher in a Catholic high school. He announced that he was going to marry his male partner. Shortly after his announcement, he was fired from his job and informed that he would be banned from working in any Catholic school in the diocese. Parents protested his being fired but were informed by the school administration that their children would be expelled from school and made unwelcome at any Catholic school unless the parents stopped their protests—a form of Catholic cancel culture.
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 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 behavior that could fall under the umbrella of “cancel culture”: he has pushed for boycotts, called for the firing of his critics, and has used his platform, particularly Twitter, to attack people. In 2017, he 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 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.” How do people display and practice truth and honesty? How do they display and practice falsehood and deception? Do we take time to compare a person’s rhetoric with that person’s actual behavior? How do we help people clarify their own values, and how do we clarify our own?
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?
Having lost their leader in Washington, it appears that Trump-supporting Republicans have settled on Orbán as the new authoritarian leader to admire. He is anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and anti–free press. The Conservative Political Action Committee, which holds the largest annual gathering of conservative activists and politicians in the United States, is now planning its next big conference in Budapest in 2022.
We should also be thinking critically about the rise of conspiracy thinking within our political discourse. In October, 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 embrace a range of unsubstantiated beliefs. They center on the notion that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, consisting mostly of elitist Democrats, conspired to undermine Trump in the last election. The lead speaker at the October 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, and Caviezel’s speech was quoted approvingly by a far-right US Catholic bishop, Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler in Texas. Strickland is strongly anti-LBGTQ and insists that Catholics cannot be Democrats.
We indeed have much to carefully and critically observe and think about these days—and much that calls for concerted action.
John Alonzo Dick is a retired professor of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). He holds licentiates in historical theology from the University of Nijmegen and KU Leuven, and doctorates in religious studies and historical theology from KU Leuven. For 30 years he taught courses about religion and values in American society at KU Leuven and the University of Ghent. He is the author of The Malines Conversations Revisited (1989), From Malines to ARCIC (1997) with A. Denaux, and Aggiornamento?: Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI (2013) with J. Mettepenningen and K. Schelkens. This year he published Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington. He maintains a weekly blog at foranothervoice.com.