It’s often said that the SJA in Catholic Social Teaching can be traced back very far.
Indeed, this is certainly true to the extent that the see, judge, act is a natural method of discernment and decision-making that can be traced back to Aristotle’s Ethics and to St Thomas Aquinas’ analysis of the virtue of prudence.
More recently, Pope Pius XII was the first to make specific reference to the method, e.g. in his allocution to the YCW in Rome in 1957.
Mater et Magistra
However, the first encyclical to make specific reference to the SJA was Mater et Magistra by Pope John XXIII in 1961. It reads:
236. 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: look, judge, act.
237. It is important for our young people to grasp this method and to practice it. Knowledge acquired in this way does not remain merely abstract, but is seen as something that must be translated into action.
Although it is often overlooked, §237 is important in this context, highlighting the fact tha the SJA is a method of formation by action.
The Second Vatican Council adopted and mentioned or referred to the SJA in several documents.
It also specifically applied it in the drafting of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today, Gaudium et Spes.
Gaudium et Spes
In fact, Part II of Gaudium et Spes comprises five separate SJAs on various topics:
Chapter 1: Marriage and family
Chapter 2: The development of culture
Chapter 3: Economic and social life
Chapter 4: The life of the political community
Chapter 5: Peace and the community of nations
Each of these chapters was drafted by a different sub-commission and each of these sub-commissions applied the SJA in a slightly different way (and perhaps better or worse).
Chapter 3 on the Development of Culture perhaps offers the most classical implementation of the SJA, dividing its work into three parts:
Section 1: The Circumstances of Culture in the World Today
Section 2: Some Principles for the Proper Development of Culture
Section 3: Some More Urgent Duties of Christians in Regard to Culture
Thus Gaudium et Spes both adopts the method and offers an example of its implementation.
The Vatican II Decree on the Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem, also specifically adopts the SJA in Chapter VI , which is entitled “Formation for the Apostolate.”
Thus, §29 reads (in part):
Since formation for the apostolate cannot consist in merely theoretical instruction, from the beginning of their formation the laity should gradually and prudently learn how to view, judge and do all things in the light of faith as well as to develop and improve themselves along with others through doing, thereby entering into active service to the Church. This formation, always in need of improvement because of the increasing maturity of the human person and the proliferation of problems, requires an ever deeper knowledge and planned activity. In the fulfillment of all the demands of formation, the unity and integrity of the human person must be kept in mind at all times so that his harmony and balance may be safeguarded and enhanced.
In this way the lay person engages himself wholly and actively in the reality of the temporal order and effectively assumes his role in conducting the affairs of this order. At the same time, as a living member and witness of the Church, he renders the Church present and active in the midst of temporal affairs.
Again, we see how the SJA is highlighted as a method of formation for lay people that enables them to engage and make the Gospel present in life (“temporal affairs”).
Following Vatican II, the popes also continued to adopt and apply the SJA in various pontifical documents.
Pope Paul VI published his Apostolic Letter, Octogesima Adveniens in 1971 to mark the 80th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s pioneering encyclical, Rerum Novarum.
He divided it into three main sections, which also follow the SJ
Part I: New social problems
Part II: Fundamental aspirations and currents of ideas
Part III: Christians face to face with these new problems
And it concludes with a “Call to Action.”
Ten years later, in a much more philosophical encylical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), Pope John Paul II also paid homage to the SJA in §7:
It is precisely these fundamental affirmations about work that always emerged from the wealth of Christian truth, especially from the very message of the “Gospel of work”, thus creating the basis for a new way of thinking, judging and acting.
More recently, Pope Francis has adopted the SJA method in his social encyclicals, notably, Laudato Si’ in 2013, which in fact devotes three chapters to the judge section.
Chapter 1: What is happening to our common home?
Chapter 2: The Gospel of creation
Chapter 3: The human roots of the ecological crisis
Chapter 4: Integral ecology
Chapter 5: Lines of approach and action