Responsible for international contacts of the Social Weeks of France


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«The Expierence of Western Europe with Christian Social Policy»

June, 12


Ladies and Gentlemen,


As we all know the 19th century was a century of profound changes in the economic and social life of Europe, especially of Eastern Europe. The dramatic human consequences of industrial capitalism and the injustice it bred are well known and could not possibly leave Christians indifferent in the period when new ideologies, different forms of socialism, and the scientistic trend are developing. The Church has made an attempt to adapt to this new context: the majority of its members remained traumatized by the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise of republican ideas. But a minority discovered the necessity of «social Catholicism»: in France, since 1833, with Frederic Ozanam; in Germany, with His Grace Ketteler, bishop of Mayence and Abbot Kolping, in England with Cardinal Manning, in the USA, with Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, and so on. These pioneers demanded not only the development of charity but also a more social legislation, a more just one, that shows more solidarity, especially regulation of the work of children and state health coverage.

This trend of social Catholicism circulated during the whole 19th century – especially during its last twenty years – and it found an official expression in 1891 when Rome published the encyclical « Rerum novarum. » But it did not find an effective place of meeting, nor an institution where its thinking could really be elaborated, contrary to what happens in Germany where popular universities develop. It was referring to these that militant Christians, lay people, in 1904 thought up the creation of the Social Weeks, caring about the penetration into social relations of those demands of justice which imply the assertion of faith. They want to offer a contribution to Christian social doctrine, so that it not depend directly on the hierarchical structure but on a «filial» relation with the Church.


The main stages of the history of the SSF (Social Week of France)


The history of the SSF cannot be mentioned without being located in the middle of events both religious and political, at a national and international scale.

Very schematically we can bring out four main stages in the history of the SSF.



From 1904 to 1914


The first years were not easy. Christians concerned about social issues, starting with bishops, are a minority. The initiators of the Weeks seemed for some people too much subjugated to the hierarchy, for others much too «modernist»

The topics of discussion, at the beginning very general, concentrated abruptly on the only subject that will be looked into with the clarification of different aspects of it. This method, very pedagogical, has been preserved to the present.

Thus the Weeks take place every year in a different city through the whole of France. That is why it was possible to speak about them as a «travelling university.»

Their spirit is well defined by their first president, Etienne Lorin, who wrote : «As practicing Catholics we want ... to become conscious of what Catholicism postulates and entails from the social point of view and to pass the demands of justice which are implied in the assertion of our faith...»


From 1919 to 1939

Between the two world wars the SSF became a place of reflection and doctrinal elaboration of social Catholicism. This was a period of getting progressively acknowledged by Rome : the Secretary of State began every year to send a message to the organizers of the Weeks and their public.



The Social Weeks became more and more important in French society and became an acknowledged and accepted issue, especially when they tackled new topics such as problems of population (1923), social problem of colonies (1930), and the disorder of international economics (1932).


From 1945 to 1973

After World War II the SSF started a period of renovation continuing with concern about the formation of Christians but with an attempt to find a new style.

They contributed actively to the formation of militants involved in the political and trade-union sphere, especially the leaders of Christian democracy and industrial and agricultural trade-unionism. New types of speakers appeared next to philosophers, theologians, academics and the chaplains of Catholic Action: high officials, economists, lawyers, specialists in the humanities and health. The SSF realized more and more their social approach through the economy and politics.

But the social situation changed progressively: acceleration of a technical nature turned social hierarchies upside down and produced new phenomena which are not always treated by the Social Weeks with enough apprehension. On the other hand, there existed a growing gap between the traditionally-dominating concern about consensus on behalf of the organizers of the SSF and the rise of disruptive behavior, especially in the political sphere. Finally the events of 1968 destabilized all institutions: the Social Weeks were not an exception.

Surprisingly the euphoria of the reconciling aggiornamento provided the sessions with a more and more important public, more than 5000 people in Lyon in 1973, but this was not enough to guarantee the Weeks their adaptation for the evolution of society and the Church.

A profound crisis began in 1973 : the Social Weeks disappeared practically until 1987. During this crossing of the desert, some involved Christians remained active, organizing numerous meetings of limited importance, destined for specific socio-professional circles.


Since 1987

In 1987 a small team tried to restart the Weeks and define their orientation in the following way : «The Social Weeks are a place of reflection and exchange of ideas concerning the problems of society from the point of view of Christianity. They have a clear identity which is based on ethical and theological roots in the context of biblical anthropology and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. These roots do not locate them in an exclusive, reserved space, but in a space largely open for all those who think that the dignity of the person is absolute and that the solidarity of human beings is an essential condition of social life.»

The new team was cautious. The Weeks took place every second year and not every year until 1996 ; they took place only in Paris or near Paris until the session in Lille in 2004. They wanted first of all to recreate their image and to find again their public.

In recent years the topics of these Weeks tackled problems whose dimension was not only social but also «societal.» For example, from 2000 to 2008 the following topics were dealt with: evolution of work, issues of bioethics, violence, money, Europe, the transmission of values, « What is a just society?, » « Live differently for sustainable development, » and, this year, « Religions : Menace or hope for our societies. »

To conclude this presentation of the story of the Social Weeks of France, I would like to emphasize some points which I find very important in the recent evolution of the SSF:

- the first one has to do with the evolution of our public. An important quantitative evolution: between 2200 and 2600 from the years 2001 to 2003; nearly 5000 in 2004 for the 100th anniversary session in Lille; since then between 3500 and 4000.

- the second point is connected with the location of Social Weeks. We have seen that from 1904 to 1973 the SSF changed their location every year from one region of France to another. Since 1987 they have left Paris only once in 2004 to go to Lille for a session of great European dimension: out of nearly 5000 participants, 1000 came from countries other than France, of which up to 50 Ukrainians. But since then the Weeks have been present out of Paris thanks to the existence of up to 15 particularly dynamic regional satellites: thus they are a national and not only Parisian reality.

- I have just mentioned the European dimension of the Weeks: this is the third point I would like to emphasize. At the end of the 1990s the people responsible for the Weeks realized that the subjects they tackled in their sessions could not be dealt with without being placed in the European context. It is at the scale of the European Union and even further of the whole European continent that the challenges of a more human and more just society have to be put forward. Convinced by these new realities, the SSF and Central Committee of German Catholics (Zdk) created progressively a network called Initiatives of Christians for Europe – IXE, which at present gathers up to 12 countries of Central and Eastern Europe, among which are Ukraine and the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv represented by Antoine Arjakovsky.

- Finally, it seems important to emphasize the following point: at present there exists a tendency to make the Social Weeks of France not only a place of dialogue and exchange but also a place of suggestions and of taking positions in the name of the principles of Christian social thinking. In a tough society, marked by materialism and individualism but showing strong expectations in the subject of sense, the SSF have a certain responsibility for the manifestation of signs of hope and for suggesting initiatives coherent with the social thinking of the Church, for more justice and respect for the dignity of man at the national and international level.


Has the model of the SSF been exported out of France ? It really was, but the experiments done had unequal successes.

In the years following the launch of the SSF, Social Weeks were launched in the Netherlands in 1905, in Spain in 1906, in Italy in 1907, in Belgium and in Mexico in 1908, in Switzerland in 1906, in Quebec in 1920... And I would mention also for the record the Katholikentag of Germany, mass manifestations of German Catholics since 1848, where numerous topics close to those of the SSF are tackled.

Generally the countries where these Social Weeks experienced a great regularity

in their duration are rare. Among the factors on which their success seems to depend we could mention the organizational capacity and the coherence of the structures in charge, as well as support on behalf of the religious hierarchy.

Let us mention also the project of European Social Weeks launched by Belgian and Dutch Christians in the 1990s : this project of ecumenical dimension was put into practice three times, in 1997 in Brussels (Belgium), in 2000 in Bad Honnef (Germany) and in Bratislava (Slovakia) in 2003. The future of this initiative constitutes at present the object of reflection in connection with the officials of the COMECE.


The relations of the SSF with the Catholic hierarchy

It was lay people and not clerics who launched the SSF in 1904. History has retained the names of Marius Gonin from Lyon and Adéodat Boissard from Lille. Thus the SSF are not an initiative of the hierarchical Church but of the faithful, profoundly marked by the word of the Church expressed in 1891 in the encyclical « Rerum Novarum » and concerned about making it known and about the promotion of its being put into practice.

It goes without saying that the activity of leaders of the SSF established contacts with the Church of France from the very beginning, contacts which were more or less strong depending on the period but always existent.

Thus the lay people in charge of the SSF keep the bishops informed of the topics chosen for the annual sessions, they discuss them, they ask for their support in making their Days known. They maintain closer relations with those bishops who are particularly sensitive to the social dimension of Christian life. But it is of great importance for them to preserve their responsibility for the choice and for the tackling of annual topics not in the spirit of distrust of the ecclesial hierarchy but because they are convinced that it is because of their responsibility for the faithful lay people. By doing that they make their contribution to the perspectives traced by the Second Vatican Council in the decree relating to the Lay Apostolate, especially in § 19 and 24.

While receiving a delegation of French bishops in February 2004 Pope John Paul II declared : I would like to greet the work of the Social Weeks of France, an institution to which you are very much attached and which is getting ready for the celebration of its 100th anniversary. During annual meetings which gather more and more participants, which indicates that its research responds to a veritable expectation, the participants have the possibility to pose themselves the questions which our world is facing, in the light of the Gospel and the social Doctrine of the Church, which continues to become enriched since the encyclical « Rerum novarum » of my predecessor Leo XIII. I rejoice in the ties that the Social Weeks promote and develop in Europe, thus creating on the continent a movement of reflection on more amd more complex questions of today’s world and uniting people in the elaboration of the foundation of tomorrow’s society.

This relation of trust is essential. It is in trust that the mission of the Social Weeks of France take root.




The SSF have known a growing success in recent years. At the beginning of the year 2000 their public did not exceed 2000 people. Since the Social Week in Lille in 2004, in which 5000 people took part, of which 1000 came from countries other than France, they have gathered between 3000 and 4000 participants. What is this success about?

The first reason, very general, seems to be the fact that our Days are addressed to a very large public: elderly people and former militants of Catholic Action, forever faithful to the Weeks ; younger people who appreciate diversified and high quality information about the problems of society or are directly interested in the topic under consideration; more generally, people who are looking for elements to get convinced in an issue without running the risk of being recruited or manipulated by partisan discourses. To summarize, the SSF are the places where one can be informed, can reflect, debate and freely shape an opinion; in our country such places are rare.

Another reason of success : the SSF tackle subjects which really worry their public. During every session the participants are invited to choose from a list of numerous topics those to which they attach the most importance. The members of our Council take certainly into account this selection in order to make their final decision. Thus the topic of the 2009 session will concern «new forms of solidarity.»

In spite of their positive aspects, in spite of the level of those who participate in it and in spite of all our efforts at communication, the SSF enjoy only a weak fame: one will find only a slight echo of them in the mass media. Its title «Social Weeks of France» is not very eye-catching today. For some people their Christian references often discredit them a priori.

And, nevertheless, the Social Weeks are more and more known and appreciated in ever wider circles. They constitute an original reality in the French landscape, in Christian circles and beyond them.