See, Judge, Act: A process for social justice groups

The year 2011 is the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s Encyclical Letter Mater et Magistra, and the decade-based anniversaries of several other encyclicals. In honour of these anniversaries, the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council has prepared educational materials which will be made available throughout the year to parishes, social justice groups and schools in Australia. These materials are titled Reading the Signs of the Times.

In Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII picked up Pius XII’s expression the ‘signs of the times’ and used the phrase to call the church to renewal in its own life and in its involvement in the world by ‘reading the signs of the times’. In his writings he himself set about reading the hopeful and concerning signs of his time. In Mater et Magistra he affirms the process of See, Judge, Act as a way of reading and responding to the signs of the time:

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 judgement on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what 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.


Seeing, hearing, and experiencing the lived reality of individuals and communities. Naming what is happening that causes you concern. Carefully and intentionally examining the primary data of the situation. What are the people in this situation doing, feeling, and saying? What is happening to them and how do you/they respond?

– What do you know about this issue or what did you observe?

– What specific facts can you cite about this issue or experience?

– What did you learn or observe?

– How do you feel in the face of this issue or experience?

– How does it touch you personally?


The word ‘judge’ is used here in a positive sense – to analyse the situation and make an informed judgement about it. This involves two key parts: social analysis and theological reflection.

Social analysis

Social analysis helps us to obtain a more complete picture of the social situation by exploring its historical and structural relationships. In this step, we attempt to make sense of the reality that was observed in Step 1. Why does this situation exist? What are the root causes? To answer these questions, we need to examine:

Economic factors:

Who owns?

Who controls?

Who pays?

Who gets?


Political factors:

Who decides?

For whom do they decide?

How do decisions get made?

Who is left out of the process? Why?

Social Factors:

Who is left out?

Who is included? Why?

Historical Factors:

What past events influence the situation today?

Cultural Factors:

What values are evident?

What do people believe in?

Who influences what people believe?

Social Analysis assists us in naming the ‘heart of the matter’ which we then take to the theological reflection.

b. Theological Reflection

Theological  Reflection  explores  the  experience  and  its  deeper  analysis,  in  dialogue  with  the  religious tradition. From this conversation we gain new insights and meanings. Two important sources of this tradition are the Scriptures and Catholic social teaching. How do they serve as a measuring stick for this experience?

–          What Scripture passages can help us to interpret this experience?

–          How do biblical values us to see this reality in a different way?

–          What does Catholic social teaching say about this issue? What key principles from Catholic social teaching apply to this situation? (For example: human dignity, the common good, human rights, the option for the poor.)

Insights from the theological reflection lead to ideas for action


Planning and carrying out actions aimed at transforming the social structures that contribute to suffering and injustice.

From your information (Seeing) … and analysis and theological reflection (Judging) … what action needs to be taken –

•          to change the situation?

•          to address root causes?

If no action is clear, what additional research is needed?

How would you transform the structures and relationships that produce this situation?

How can you act to empower those who are disadvantaged in this situation? How will you evaluate the effectiveness of your action?