See judge act or spiritual conversation?

What method should dioceses and Church bodies use in the process of synodal discernment? Should they follow Cardijn’s “see-judge-act” process that has become a staple since the Second Vatican Council? Or what about the Ignatian-inspired “spiritual conversation,” the method followed during the Australian Plenary Council and the First Assembly of the Synod on Synodality?

The question seems to have arisen in the Australian Archdiocese of Brisbane, which is organising a SYNOD24 Consultation Session with Bishop Tim Norton SVD ahead of its own Synod to be held in October this year.

The aim of the Synod, according to Bishop Tim, is to “discern the practical and Spirit-led actions that we need to undertake to be a more co-responsible church on mission.”

A forthcoming consultation session will look at the following three points:

A brief outline of the aims of the SYNOD24

Spiritual Conversations

Exploration of SEE. JUDGE. ACT.

“By the end of this session, we hope to have generated some ideas around practices within the Archdiocese that should be affirmed, knowledge/learnings/experiences that can be harnessed and shared for the benefit of all, and where the gaps and needs are,” Bishop Tim explained in a letter circulated in Brisbane.

I am not sure what the thinking is behind this. Is it a matter of choosing whether the Synod will follow the “Spiritual Conversations” method or the “See, judge, act”? Or deciding how the two methods work together?

It’s an intriguing issue and one that I suspect has also arisen in the context of the Synod on Synodality. Participants in that Synod are bound to confidentiality so I have not asked any of them. Nevertheless, I have heard vague echoes of dissatisfaction from the direction of Latin America, in particular, that the question of “spiritual conversation” or “see, judge, act” has caused some tension.

The Latin American bishops at Medellin in 1968

Historically, this makes sense since it was the Latin American bishops at the CELAM conference in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, who first adopted the “see-judge-act” as their working method in the wake of Vatican II. Indeed, in its final report, each of the sixteen documents followed the see-judge-act, as the contents of the chapter on Human Promotion indicate.

Writing in the introduction to the report, CELAM president, Dom Avelar Brandao Vilela, and secretary, Bishop (now Blessed) Eduardo Pironio, explained the thinking of the conference.

The Church in Latin America was entering “into a ‘new period of its ecclesiastical life,’ according to the wish of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, a period characterised by a profound spiritual renewal, a generous pastoral charity, an authentic social sensitivity,” they wrote.

In a document that is often redolent of Cardijn’s influence, they continued:

God has flooded the Latin American continent with a great Light which shines on the rejuvenated face of the Church. This is the hour of hope. We are aware of the grave difficulties and the tremendous problems that confront us, but now more than ever, the Lord is in our midst building up the Kingdom.

The duty of probing, implementing and actualising begins now. It is a matter of studying the approved conclusions in depth, sharing them with all the People of God and determining the best way to apply them.

This is a task incumbent on the National Episcopal Conferences serving the particular needs and demands of each country. They are all impelled by the same Spirit of God which leads to a profound renewal and a genuine concern for men. They are all faced with the problem of a true human promotion, achieved in relation to the demands of justice and peace, of family and demography, of education and youth. All are interested in the essential task of evangelisation and growth in the faith, which would be the result of a renewed program of pastoral care of the masses and the elite, a living and organic catechesis, a fruitful and expressive liturgy.

In other words, the see-judge-act method was chosen as a means to enable the Church to confront the challenges of the present time, following the example of the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the world of today, Gaudium et Spes, which was itself drafted explicitly following the Cardijn method, as I have written elsewhere.

But clearly the CELAM bishops did not wish to limit the use of the see-judge-act to dealing with the problems of the world. On the contrary, they seem to have assumed its relevance in addressing the changes that they saw were needed in the Church:

All are concerned with an evangelical revision of the visible Church and its structures, a revision that inspires the lay apostolic movements, the ministry and life of the priests, the activity of religious men and women, the actualisation and solid formation of the clergy, the testimony of evangelical poverty, the coordination of pastoral plans at different levels and the wise use of mass media.

Aparecida 2007

Nearly twenty-five years later at the Santo Domingo CELAM conference, conservative bishops sought to change this, returning to a more traditional doctrinal approach to its deliberations.

But the issue again came to a head at the next CELAM conference in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007. The outcome, with Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, playing a key role in drafting the Final Document, was a resounding re-endorsement of the see-judge-act.

§19 of the concluding document explains this choice:

In continuity with the previous general conferences of Latin American Bishops, this document utilizes the see-judge-act method. This method entails viewing God with the eyes of faith through his revealed word and life-giving contact with the sacraments, so that in everyday life we may see the reality around us in the light of his providence, judge it according to Jesus Christ, Way, Truth and Life, and act from the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ and universal Sacrament of salvation, in spreading the kingdom of God, which is sown on this earth and fully bears fruit in Heaven.

This choice was based on the positive experience of the Latin American Church with the method:

Many voices from the entire continent, offered contributions and suggestions along these lines, stating that this method has been helpful for living our calling and mission in the church with more dedication and intensity. It has enriched theological and pastoral work and in general it has been helpful in motivating us to take on our responsibilities toward the actual situations in our continent.

More precisely:

This method enables us to combine systematically, a faithful perspective for viewing reality; incorporating criterions from faith and reason for discerning and appraising it critically; and accordingly acting as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ. Believing, joyful, and trusting adherence to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and involvement in the church are preconditions for assuring the effectiveness of this method.

The bishops further explained this over the course of the document, beginning with the See section in Chapter 2 entitled “The view of reality by missionary disciples,” §33:

The peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean are now experiencing a reality marked by great changes that profoundly affect their lives. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we feel challenged to discern the “signs of the times” in the light of the Holy Spirit, to place ourselves at the service of the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus who came so that all might have life and “and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10).

Part II entitled “The joy of being missionary disciples to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ” comprises the “judge” section of the document.

Echoing Gaudium et Spes again, it began with the “Good News” of human dignity, the family, and human activity, starting with human work. It further moved on to consider “The vocation of missionary disciples to holiness,” “The communion of missionary disciples in the Church,” and “The formative itinerary of missionary disciples.”

Part III entitled “The life of Jesus Christ for our peoples” comprised the “act” section of the document. It organised this section this under the sub-titles “the mission of the disciples in the service of full life,” “the Kingdom of God and promoting human dignity” as well as families, persons and life, and more broadly, peoples and culture.


It would be interesting to do a detailed comparison of the Medellin and Aparecida documents. On one point in particular, we can note a difference or development, namely in the use of the terms “discern” or “discernment.”

The term “discern” only appeared three times in the Medellin documents. Nevertheless, it did so in a significant manner:

United we shall endeavor to respond to modern man’s problems. Let us reflect together, relying on God’s grace to discern the signs of the times.

Aparecida took this much further with “discern” and its variants appearing 32 times. Again, as we saw above in §33, the aim was “to discern the ‘signs of the times’” but this time it made explicit that this is to be done “in the light of the Holy Spirit,” a very Bergoglian touch, perhaps. §41 added that this reality should be viewed “with all its aspects together, discerning them in the light of the Gospel.”

§94 further spoke of discernment “in the light of the magisterium” while §95 emphasises that “Jesus Christ is the fullness of revelation for all peoples, and the
fundamental reference point for discerning the values and deficiencies of all cultures, including indigenous cultures.”

Moreover, the process of discernment was not limited to the see or judge processes but also applied to the act, as illustrated in §139. Hence, the need to “contemplate Jesus Christ as the gospels transmit him to us to so we may know what He did and to discern what we must do in present-day circumstances.”

Further, §181 pointed to the collective dimension of this discernment process with “the bishops find(ing) in the episcopal conference their space for discerning in solidarity the major problems of society and the Church.”

Similarly, in §275, the Aparecida document observed how Church communities in Latin America “have courageously persevered in promoting people’s rights, they were clear-sighted in critically discerning reality in the light of the church’s social teaching and credible through the coherent testimony of their lives.”

It’s clear from the above, I believe, that the see-judge-act process, as conceived by the Latin American bishops, and particularly by Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is itself an integral or holistic process of discernment.

Indeed, this harks back to the very first extended presentation of the see-judge-act process entitled “Social formation by the YCW” by Cardijn’s assistant as chaplain to the YCW, the Jesuit Joseph Arendt SJ, in 1925.

“You will therefore need to learn to discern what is good from what is bad; what is good from what is pleasant; what is good from what is achievable,” Fr Arendt wrote, illustrating that discernment has always been integral from the beginning.

Spiritual conversation

What then is “spiritual conversation”? And what does it have to do with the see-judge-act?

Fortunately, we have an explanation of the method on the Vatican Synod website:

As it explains in the introduction:

Spiritual conversation focuses on the quality of one’s capacity to listen as well as the quality of the words spoken. This means paying attention to the spiritual movements in oneself and in the other person during the conversation, which requires being attentive to more than simply the words expressed. This quality of attention is an act of respecting, welcoming, and being hospitable to others as they are. It is an approach that takes seriously what happens in the hearts of those who are conversing.

Thus, there are two necessary attitudes that are fundamental to this process,” it explains, namely” active listening and speaking from the heart.”

The aim of spiritual conversation is therefore “to create an atmosphere of trust and welcome, so that people can express themselves more freely.” Moreover, “ultimately, this interior attentiveness makes us more aware of the presence
and participation of the Holy Spirit in the process of sharing and discernment.”

“The focus of spiritual conversation is on the person to whom we are listening, on ourselves, and what we are experiencing at a spiritual level.” and the fundamental question is: “What is happening in the other person and in me, and how is the Lord working here?”

And it goes on to set out the series of seven steps to be followed in the process:

  1. Preparation
  2. Gathering
  3. The First Round (of discussion)
  4. Silence
  5. The Second Round
  6. Silence
  7. The Third Round
  8. Review and Report

And this review and report involves “briefly review(ing) and reflect(ing) on
how the conversation proceeded, and decid(ing) on the main points” to be reported from the conversation.

There are perhaps two things that are particularly striking here. The first is the emphasis on listening to the other with a process to facilitate that.

But the second from the point of view of the see-judge-act is precisely the absence of any action component.

No specific action are envisaged – at least not explicitly – either on an individual or collective level.

This no doubt made sense at the First Assembly of the Synod, where a major objective was to overcome reticence and perhaps even mistrust among participants who hailed from different or even opposed sectors of the Church.

Hence, Pope Francis’ often repeated insistence that the Synodal process is a spiritual and not a political process.

In addition, it also raises the question for the Second Assembly as to how the Synod will articulate its action proposals. As it is explained on the Vatican Synod website, the spiritual conversation process does not appear to envisage this.

See-judge-act as a tool for conflict resolution

In this context, it is perhaps also worth pointing out here that in an early form of the see-judge-act articulated by the French philosopher, Léon Ollé-Laprune, during the 1890s, the very purpose of the method was precisely to bring together people of opposing views in order to see together, judge together and decide.

Thus each person must apply him or herself more than ever, better than ever, to courageously and faithfully looking at the principles and the facts in order to make him or herself more than ever, better than ever, capable of seeing clearly, judging and deciding, precisely because it is hardly fashionable to do so any longer.

“By a sustained application of this process,” Ollé-Laprune wrote in the Preface to the Third Edition of his classic work, Le prix de la vie, “people will be able to protect themselves from falling into prejudice and error.” Moreover, “by means of this process, they will also be able to regain consistency and find ways to become closer and unite.”


To conclude, as I believe I’ve shown above, the whole see-judge-act process done well is itself an integral process of discernment leading through to action both in the world and the Church.

The emphasis on listening offered by the “spiritual conversations” approach can certainly add a new dimension to the way in which the see-judge-act is done. But it surely cannot replace it.

While the CELAM report from Medellin remains a vital reference, the Aparecida Final Document stands out here as a timeless model of synodal discernment based on the see-judge-act.

Let us hope then that both the Brisbane Synod and the Synod on Synodality will turn more to the see-judge-act approach while incorporating the valuable insights of the spiritual conversations approach.

Stefan Gigacz


The Church in the present-day transformation of Latin America in the light of the Council : Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, Bogotá, 24 August, Medellin, 26 August-6 September, Colombia, 1968 (CELAM)

Final Document, CELAM Conference, Aparecida, Brazil, 2007 (CELAM)

Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes

Stefan Gigacz, The leaven in the Council: Joseph Cardijn and the Jocist network at Vatican II (Australian Cardijn Institute/Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Joseph Arendt SJ, Social formation by the YCW (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Spiritual Conversation (Synod on Synodality)

Léon Ollé-Laprune, Preface, Third Edition, Le prix de la vie (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)