The methodology used in the Aparecida document has its roots in Belgium, where Father (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn of Belgium founded the Young Trade Unionists in 1919 (which became the Young Christian Workers in 1924).
The methodology which he used – sometimes called “the review of life method” – was very simple: see/observe, judge, act.
This inductive approach starts from the insight that God works with people in their lives. Thus it is very important to begin by observing the reality of the world. around us.
This methodology pervaded much of Catholic Social Action in the mid-twentieth century and was taken up by the Christian Family Movement.
Official papal recognition came in 1961, when Pope John XIII, in Mater et Magistra, ¶236, affirmed the importance of the method:
There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice. First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgment on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: observe, judge, act.
Though the method is not specifically mentioned in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers noted, in paragraph 4, “the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel,” in order to respond to the challenge of the modern world.
The Latin American Bishops’ meetings at Medellin and Puebla used this methodology, but the 1992 meeting in Santo Domingo took a more deductive approach, starting from doctrine and then applying it to the reality of the world.
But in Aparecida the bishops returned to the see-judge-act methodology. In paragraph 19 of the Concluding Document they highlighted the importance of this method.
The Concluding Document of Aparecida is divided into three parts, reflecting the three-part methodology.
- The first part, “The Life of Our People Today” looks at the reality of the world in which the bishops wish to speak.
- In the second part, “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples,” they seek to judge that reality in the light of faith.
- The final part, “The Life of Christ for Our Peoples,” provides some guidelines for acting.
In my work in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, this is the methodology which many priests and some bishops still use as they do pastoral planning.
The methodology has been adopted in Catholic Social Justice ministry throughout the world, sometimes with minor variations.
Here in Honduras I have seen a five part cycle: see – judge – act – celebrate – evaluate. What this adds is the sense that the cycle does not close in on itself but opens into a new process of seeing, judging, and acting.
In Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, S.J., posited four stages of what they called “the pastoral cycle”: experience, analysis, theological reflection, and response. In this scheme “judge” has been divided into social analysis and theological reflection.
But what is clear is that the method starts with the experience of the people and leads to action for justice. It is not just an analytical tool.
2007 document from the Aparecida Conference, translated into English and available from the USCCB.