Chapter 2: Frederic Ozanam and his social commitment
The struggle for social justice
Through his life and work Frederic Ozanam revealed that the social question cannot be limited to the economic order. Rather it is intimately connected with the moral attitude of people and is bound up with religion. Therefore Christians have to take a position and assume serious obligations and responsibilities. Life ought to be based on the moral virtues, especially those that directly govern human relations: justice and charity. Today everyone, including non-Catholics, recognize that social reform is impossible unless it is accompanied by a moral renewal.
Frederic lived at a time when the concept of the social question began to come into focus. The thoughts expressed in his letters, articles, and other writings appear to be in greater harmony with the thinking of our time than with the thinking of the nineteenth century. In many ways he was a precursor. Though he was only twenty-three we see in him what could be called a prophetic spirit. Frederic defended and made it very clear that social Catholicism was quite different from traditional charity. People were becoming aware of the new situation that was caused by the evolution of society and affected the working class in every aspect of their lives. In light of the effects of the social disorder he resolved to discover its causes in order to seek effective remedies.
The social situation at the beginning of the nineteenth century
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution, with its manufacturing organization, had given rise to a new social class, the working class. The members of this group were characterized by complete dependence on a salary that was obtained by selling their physical strength in exchange for work in a factory. In order to obtain work these people could offer nothing more than their strength and found themselves at the mercy of the employer. The old established order, the Ancient Regime that gained prominence during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was greatly altered as a result of the political, social, economic and territorial changes that occurred throughout the nineteenth century — changes that would affect not only Europe but the rest of the world.
During the sixteenth century manufacturing had become a traditional European way of doing business. Specialized and non-qualified artisans worked together in the same workshop and were supervised by well financed patrons. The organization of their work was adapted to traditional artisan methods. At the end of the eighteenth century mechanization became centralized and so did labor. As a result the workers could no longer see the result of the collaborative effort of their action. Their work was dehumanized and the personal relationship with the employer disappeared. The massive utilization of machinery often made the physical ability and the strength of the operator irrelevant.
Together with a visibly growing population, a massive army of impoverished persons was forming and they provided flexible and abundant labor for the businesses of the industrial revolution. The rural workers were attracted to the cities because of agricultural transformations and the dream of higher wages paid by the manufacturers during the early period of the industrial revolution.
The living conditions were worse in the city than in the rural areas … a peasant could always survive during a crisis through other activities or through the support of the community.
The urban proletariat were obliged to live in cities in very unhealthy conditions: inadequate sewage systems, continual shortage of food supplies, inadequate housing that led to crowding people in basements and attics and resulted in a fifty percent mortality rate among children younger than five years of age.
In the midst of these tragic and sad realities, Frederick wanted to find a solution and wrote to his cousin with whom he shared his plans: We ought to work with enthusiasm and with noble ideals to provide a better future to workers who are crowded together in the large cities, burdened and overwhelmed by unbridled selfishness, poor outcasts of our society that proclaims freedom and equality.
Life in the factories was equally difficult. The usual work day consisted of between twelve and sixteen hours of labor that was extended to both day and night shifts. Children, women and men worked the same hours and the only distinction was the wages they earned.
Even though social conflicts were probably as old as history, nineteenth century society, begotten through the industrial revolution, seemed to bring to the surface a dimension of these conflicts that had not been previously experienced. This new and very visible conflict was expressed in terms of the new social element: liberalism1 which joined material progress and the law of maximum profit and then forgot its ethical obligations toward the class that was entombed in misery because they had to sell their physical strength for a wage which became less and less while at the same time the workers became more and more dependent on “free contracts.”
The attitude of Frederic Ozanam with regard to the social situation
It must be made clear that as Frederic Ozanam became involved in the social struggle he did not take on the role of an agitator but rather at every opportunity he attempted to be a reconciler who united the power of love with the power of wealth and poverty, abundance and misery. He sought Christian reconciliation between both sides, between the poor and the capitalists whom Karl Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, stated were engaged in a class struggle.
Years before the call of Marxism, Frederic, as a professor of Commercial Law in Lyon in 1839, addressed this theme of class struggle and thus revealed his prophetic spirit. The two camps that were spoken about were the employers (owners) and the employees (the workers). He refuted and rejected the idea of state control, a theory that was proposed to confront the believers of the laissez faire policies. Thus this clear thinker attempted to reconcile the respective interests of both sides that form modern society. The political question is opposed to the social question, the struggle between poverty and wealth and selfishness … this struggle will be disastrous if charity does not intervene and become a mediator and if Christians do not respond to this situation with the power of love.
In the historical context in which he lived, Frederic subordinated all his activity to the social question. This was the center of his actions: the struggle for charity and justice. He gave primary attention to these concerns and did so in the midst of a world where the majority of people were absorbed in financial matters generated by the industrial revolution. We cannot say that he was as such a sociologist but he was especially sensitive to the social problems of his era.
It has always been necessary to determine “the how” and “by what means” people can share in the wealth that proceeds from their activity. At the same time justice and oppression were not new concepts. Nevertheless people in the nineteenth century had to confront these problems with a new understanding of history. Industry, during the first half of the nineteenth century, grew in unimaginable proportions. The use of machinery in factories and the affluence of capitalists increased the number of people involved in production. This gave rise to the development of solutions for some economic aspects but completely ignored the ethical-social aspects, as well as the lived reality of the great majority of workers.
In an essay which he wrote at this time Frederic touched on this theme with a clear and concise denunciation: The old school of economists did not know the great social danger of insufficient production. There was no other solution but to strengthen and multiply production through limited competition. There was no other law of work than that of personal interest, that is, the insatiable desire of the owners for wealth. On the other hand the school of modern socialists considers that all evil arises from the unequal distribution of wealth and they believe that they have saved society by suppressing competition, thus making the organization of work the food of laborers and forcing people to exchange their freedom for the new promise of happiness and pleasure. These two systems, one of which reduces human destiny to production and the other which promises a new happiness, lead people along different paths, both of which eventually end in materialism.
As seen by these notes, these aspects did not leave Frederic indifferent. His principles separated him from both liberalism and socialism. He did not, however, exclude any political party or economic system but insisted that these different systems preserve justice and charity.
As a professor he taught Commercial Law at Lyon and in his lectures he took advantage of the opportunity to deal with the delicate question of relations between workers and owners. He spoke with the clarity of an upright spirit and with the conviction of a social Christian … a conviction based on justice and charity. Most of all he spoke from a lived experience of direct contact with people who were poor.
Social Christianity, which was in its initial phase of development, wanted to distinguish itself from traditional charity and not only endeavored to assist the poor but also wanted to prevent social misery in the future through the reform of the social structures of society. Ozanam struggled to defend the principles that were taught by Catholic doctrine. Those principles were: the person of the workers should be respected; workers’ duties to their family and the obligation that this implies should be safe-guarded; workers should be able to fulfill the precepts of religion, especially the observance of Sunday; the physical and moral safety of laborers should be assured in the factory and above all else it is necessary to recognize that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God.
These principles led Frederic to the conclusion that the social question was a moral reality and as such, was also a religious reality. Frederic did not limit the social problem to a conflict between rich and poor nor did he claim that individual charity was anything more than a necessary immediate response to an urgent need.
Duroselle reflected on this in his writings: It is necessary to know how to situate Ozanam’s action within the social framework of the last century. It was a time when workers were unprotected, unorganized, lacking their own leaders, abandoned by government, exploited by the leaders of industry, living in brutal and miserable conditions. They appeared to be resigned to their detestable situation. The objective of Ozanam’s work was to substitute social justice for alms. He proposed to strengthen the faith of people who were members of the forgotten classes through disinterested and fraternal assistance. He engaged in a hidden but effective work of bringing people together from both classes. He realized that this could only happen if rich people, who ignored the poor, came to know in a very real and concrete way the misery of the workers.
It is true that these pioneers began with charity but soon they realized that individual action was not enough to confront the new social-economic situation. During this era only a few people with prominent positions within the Church raised their voices to denounce these travesties. Cardinal Croi, the archbishop of Ruan, in his pastoral letter of 1838 which dealt with the observance of Sunday as a day of rest spoke out against child labor. This was a public denunciation, an attempt to make people aware of their obligations, an attempt to form the conscience of the faithful in this matter that seriously affected the lives of children: In every era school and orphanages have been established for children, works worthy of praise. But what really is the fate of children? Open your eyes and look! These tender plants are required to produce fruit at a time when they can only give forth flowers. As a result of prolonged and excessive hours of labor their budding strength is exhausted and now, unable to exert either their mind or body, they perish like withered lifeless plants. Poor children! May legislators be pressured to extend the protection of the law to these children so that future generations will see that we, so proud of our progress and discoveries, so filled with self-satisfaction, established strict laws to prohibit the killing of children by forcing them to work.
During a time when new philosophical and unorthodox doctrines were being proclaimed, Frederic experienced the need to clarify Catholic doctrine. We see him at an early age engaged in dialogue with utopian socialists, for example, in the Conference of History and later in the Circle of Students. We do not know if he critically analyzed and reflected on the social question or if he engaged in a full study of the means of production and wages, nevertheless we know that his study of law introduced him to these concepts.
Ozanam and utopian socialism
In September 1848 Frederic wrote an essary about the origins of socialism and through historical criticism pointed out the dangers posed by these different schools of thought that in many ways were in accord with traditional Christian thought. Their main error was giving new names to old virtues, changing the evangelical counsels into rules and making the ideal of heaven a reality on earth. These “new ideas” often led to confusion especially among those less educated.
Frederic attacked and denounced utopian socialism which proclaimed: The collective ordering of human affairs though a process of cooperation for the purpose of the well-being and happiness of all. Thus production and the distribution of wealth were emphasized over politics.
In France the proletariat were less numerous than in England but their greater sensitivity to political ideas and to social and historical changes provided the social movements with men of profound thought who reflected on the conditions of industrialization and formulated ideal solutions which included experiences in new social archetypes. They not only spoke out against injustice but also put forth plans for future cities.
These groups shared some common elements. In general they preferred evolution over revolution, peaceful means over violent means. They spoke of harmony among the classes rather than a class struggle. In many of their writings we find echoes of Rousseau’s ideas about the innate goodness of the human person. Social change is not focused on the revolutionary ability of the proletariat but on the bourgeois’ progressive conviction and acceptance of the need for change. These groups, however, gave greater attention to their plans than to the means to accomplish these plans.
In 1802 the Geneva Letters of Saint Simon were published. These writing were founded on the principle of each one according to their ability and each ability according to their works.
Sinat-Simon accepted as fact the reality of industrialization. He developed a theory about the ethics of work and was the first one, after Babeuf, to view society as divided into classes: the idle rich (aristocrats and financiers living on private income) and the producers (bankers, workers, business men). He believed that the private property of the producers should be respected but the private property of the idle rich was the cause of the poverty and the inequality that was inflicted upon the workers. For the first time the idea of the exploitation of man by man was expressed. Living in an industrial society meant that politics should be subordinated to the economy and this implied that with the passing of time the State would become extinct.
Saint Simon had a great influence in France and beyond and the bourgeois were most affected. He had many disciples who adhered to his doctrine, e.g., the historian Therry and the philosopher, Auguste Compte.
Charles Fourier was an important follower of Saint-Simon because his theories found great acceptance among the artisans. At the same time he was viewed with suspicion by the proponents of industrialization. He developed a social system that was in harmony with the world of the manual laborers. For him the basis of social transformation was to be found in the creation and proliferation of groups called phalansteries: communities composed of 1,600-1,800 persons who were involved in agricultural and industrial activities. In this ideal society women were fully incorporated into the labor activity of the community and children were involved in a radical socialization process through education. The phalansteries would be the political and economic base of society, substituting for the State and would be established through the philanthropic cooperation of wealthy people.
Among the utopian socialists we mention here Louis Blanc, an ardent opponent of private property who founded National Workshops and Cabet who developed his theory using ideas expressed by Plato and Thomas More. Later all of these ideas would be rejected as utopian theories and in fact would be criticized by Marxist socialists who accused them of substituting their own world of fantasy for reality.
Social dimension of justice and charity
What is new about Frederic’s contribution to justice and charity? He emphasized the fact that the social dimension of these duties is bound up with the transcendent dimension. He believed that charity did not dispense one from justice and justice did not make charity unnecessary. Several times he repeated the words: Let charity fill out that which justice is unable to do alone.
The social Catholicism of Ozanam was radically opposed to liberal Catholicism. Frederic looked for social reform and even though Christianity had a social character that was revealed in so many institutions that were established through the ages, yet it was obvious that the institutions of the nineteenth century were even more necessary because of the changing situation.
Frederic expressed his agreement with regard to the legality of private property and the responsibilities that this implies, but added that this always should be governed by justice and charity. He united justice and charity in such a way that he was led to oppose the socialization of private property that was initially defended by the utopians and liberal Catholics. Basing himself on Thomas Aquinas and tradition, Frederic defended private property because he felt that it made people more dedicated to and more interested in production. This did not mean, however, that private property could be possessed in some absolute manner.
Ozanam defended private property but affirmed there were social implications. People had to be prepared to share what they possessed with those who had less and that nothing was possessed in an absolute manner. Even though in justice people ought to guard their patrimony, nevertheless charity ought to make them willing to dispose of their property in such a way that others might also receive benefits. He endeavored to put aside traditional charity in order to live more fully social Catholicism.
In 1836 the horrific conflict of the new proletariat continued and as a result Christians had an obligation and a responsibility to do everything possible to alleviate this enduring tension. At times Frederic gave the impression of being obsessed with this conflict and with almost identical words he wrote to different people and expressed what could be called the foundation of his social thinking: The question that agitates the world around us is not a question of individuals or a question of political forms, but rather a social question. It is a struggle between those who have nothing and those who have too much. It is a violent clash between opulence and poverty that makes the earth tremble beneath our feet. Our duty as Christians is to place ourselves between these two irreconcilable enemies and convince one side to divest themselves of their wealth and fulfill the law of charity and justice and then convince the other side to be willing to accept these benefices. Again, as Christians, we must convince some people to put aside their demands and other people to move beyond their negativity so that equality becomes an operative reality in human relations.
In his letter dated November 13, 1836 this same idea is repeated to the famous artist in Lyon, Janmot, and again in March 1837 to Leon Courniet. Frederick stated that “interests” and not “opinions” are the cause of this division and in the name of justice and charity prays that Christians will place themselves in the middle of this situation so that rich and poor might become accustomed to seeing themselves as sisters and brothers. In this way the barriers that separate them will be destroyed and they will become one flock with one Shepherd. Continuing this line of thought he stated that the love of neighbor demands above all else that one act with justice and move beyond the principle of giving to another what is due. Yes, charity goes beyond justice and moves individuals to voluntarily divest themselves of their goods in favor of the poor. Charity also creates collaborative efforts for social progress and ultimately gives rise to peace between the different social classes. Charity does not measure the cost of sacrifice when the misery of the other is so obvious. Frederic wanted to provoke the wealthy to act with justice and charity in alleviating the needs of the poor.
The precursors and contemporaries of Frederic Ozanam in the struggle for social justice.
Ozanam did not discover the social question. Before him there were precursors in this area of social justice, especially in his native city. We can say that they were people who wrote and denounced and placed themselves on the side of the oppressed even though the majority of them were theorists.
Through their pastoral letters, the bishops were the ones who most manifested their concern for the abuses of the industrial revolution. During the Lenten seasons of 1837-1841 Bishop Belmas, bishop of Cambray, denounced the insatiable thirst for wealth that consumes people and makes them sacrifice their time, strength, and health. They become involved in all kinds of activities to increase their wealth and share only the most minimal proportion of their gains with others.
In 1845, Bishop de Rendu, the bishop of Annecy, wrote a report to the king of Sardinia in which he pointed out the ever more difficult situation of the proletariat. He stated: In addition to their ambition for power and glory our society today has acquired an incredible desire for wealth which has led industry to the high point of its influence. At the same time, industry has created a working class that has been gathered together in our cities or in some specifically established place. They depend on management which uses them according to their own needs and the workers must willingly consent to these agreements. This is indeed a most arrogant attitude on the part of industry. If the working class is not the largest group in all places, then it is the most despised in society and it is clear that society is not concerned about them. In pagan societies the workers were slaves and in the Middle Ages they were servants. Slavery was the result of cruel, harsh and inhuman legislation (the pagans were unaware of the law of charity). Feudal law preserved slavery but in a new form and Christian customs supplied for the law’s imperfection. Modern legislation has done nothing for the proletariat. Yes, it is true that it has protected their life in as much as they are men but it is also true that they have forgotten these individuals as workers and have done nothing for their future. The law provides for man but leaves the worker aside.
Bishop Giraud, the archbishop of Cambray, also denounced the law of work. He wanted to clarify the errors of the socialist system that did not include religion or ethical principles in their plans for a better society. In his documents and writings he presented a series of solutions, for example, respect Sunday as a day of rest, put an end to the oppression of man by man and the oppression of the weak because of their sex or age. Confronting the socialist doctrine of the time he compared this doctrine to the gospel and concluded that every theory begins with the gospel, especially in so much as they refer to the material well-being of people.
In presenting these documents we do not want to give the impression that all the members of the French hierarchy shared the same social insights or that they came to the same conclusion when seeking a just solution to this situation. In general, the bishops of this era did not understand the physical and moral harm that the social system inflicted on the workers and did not see structural reform as a remedy for the present evils.
At the same time it cannot be said that the Church closed her eyes to the plight of the proletariat. A pamphlet was published “Is it true the Church is not interested in the social problem?” We cannot respond affirmatively but we can say that a group of lay people went beyond the many theories that were being proposed as a solution and engaged in effective action to change the social situation.
Frederic Ozanam gave bread to the hungry and did not present some plan for the future that was built on dreams. On one occasion he wrote: the social sciences and the reforms that they proposed are not learned by studying books or participating in political lectures. Rather it is necessary to climb the stairs of the homes of the poor, to sit with them and listen, to feel the cold they experience and thus enter into their desolate heart. Only when the poor have been studied in this way, in their homes, in the hospital, in the workshop, in the cities and rural areas, in all the conditions in which God has placed them, only then can we begin to understand them and only then are we able to consider some solution because then we have experienced all the elements of their formidable situation.
Ozanam found support for his social action plan but his ideas were not understood by many Catholics of that era. At the end of the century, with the publication of Rerum Novarum, his ideas and his plan of action were recognized for their importance.
Frederic’s love for the poor
Every Christian is invited to go to Galilee to encounter Jesus. For Ozanam the poor were the place for this encounter, the poor were the gospel, the good news that led him to the Kingdom. In the poor he met an incarnated Christ who transformed men and women, freed them and opened them to saving grace and the gratuitous donation.
The love of Christ encountered in the poor urged Frederic on in his service: Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40). Frederic thought and, like the apostle John, considered service a sacred duty: whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).
We can say that Frederic imbibed the love of the poor from infancy. His home, his family, was the first school where the poor were treated as the incarnation of Christ according to Matthew 25:40. His father, a doctor, exercised his profession as a true ministry of charity. He healed not only the bodies of his patients but also their spirits. This man used every means to serve to poor. He climbed stairs, stairs that at times led him to the attics of the poor. He became tired and fatigued. He listened to promises of payment for his services, promises that in many cases were unable to be fulfilled. But in these cries of the poor he saw God at work. He clearly understood that in their ragged, seemingly despicable appearance, these poor people were in reality a visible sign of God where one encounters the unique and true criteria for salvation.
His mother acted in a similar way. When we understand the example that Ozanam witnessed we can easily see how and why he became an apostle of charity.
One day during his time as a professor at the Sorbonne, he remembered his parents and said to his listeners: Gentlemen, however vast this world may appear to be, it is yet too narrow for us, for our desires and for our hopes, especially since after a brief while it will have six feet of clay to offer us. It is too confined for our memories of the past, especially for those who had parents who loved the poor and loved us, who spent themselves so that we might be men of good-will2.
From his infancy Frederic came in contact with the harsh realities of life and not because his family was in need … in fact his family was able to provide for their basic needs such as food and clothing. Frederic experienced poverty through the patients that his father cared for at little or no cost.
Through these experiences God prepared Frederic to be able to confront and meet the needs of others. In one of his letters he communicated his thoughts about the uselessness of accumulating wealth, including accumulating an inheritance for one’s children. Children who are raised in situations of great wealth are tempted to move though life with their arms folded and they often become lazy: I am filled with thanks to God for having brought me into the world in one of those situations on the border of hardship and ease, which is used to privations without permitting enjoyment to be completely unknown, where one can go to bed with all his wants assuaged, but where one is no longer distraught by the continual clamors of necessity. God knows, with the natural weakness of my character, what dangers the softness of the wealthy or the abjection of the indigent classes would pose for me. I also feel that this humble position in which I find myself has enabled me to serve others in a better way3.
Ozanam moves into action
When Frederic was twenty years old he found himself in a different geographical location, but his love for the poor was expressed in the company of other companions from Lyon, in organized assistance, in personal and charitable service toward those in need. This action was framed with a Christocentric gospel foundation and was done in imitation of Christ. In this love for the poor he was an effective instrument in fulfilling the divine command of love and service: you will love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39); whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40). His heart was filled with love and he considered love of neighbor a sacred duty in order to achieve his final destiny with God. What can we do in order to be true Christians but consecrate ourselves to that which is most pleasing to God? Let us assist the poor in the same way as Jesus and let us place our faith under the protective wings of charity.
Through his example Frederic demonstrated that the followers of Jesus must opt for him through their relation with the disinherited, not because of their qualities but simply because they are filled will love and cannot do anything else but love. The Christian does not love because the other is loveable but rather because the other is a human person. In a letter written in 1836 he explains to his friends the way of discovering God in the poor: If we do not know how to love God as the saints loved him, that should be without a doubt a reproach to us … for it seems necessary to see in order to love and we see God only with the eyes of faith … we see the poor with our human eyes; they are there before us and we can put our fingers and hands on their wounds and the scars of the crown of thorns are visible on their foreheads … they are our masters and we are their servants. They are the sacred images of God whom we do not see and not knowing how to love God we love him in the person of the poor.
The activity of Frederic Ozanam, his charity toward the poor, was indeed an expression of the theological virtue of charity. His supernatural love of the neighbor was an expression of his love of God. Love and service reached out and fatigue and his own health were ignored especially during the cholera epidemic. On that occasion he organized a group of young people to help those who could not travel to the hospitals. He described this situation in his letters: Entire streets depopulated in a few nights but pardon and grace harvesting all the time with full hands; all the poor people wishing to die in the priest’s arms: then the unheard of homage, the shouts of joy, the flowers scattered beneath the feet of the new Archbishop, His Grace Dr. Sibour, as he made his pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Genevieve. Then again, the gratitude of families, the emotion of the crowd, who were astonished and amazed that young men should, for the glory of Jesus Christ, leave their homes to enter the stricken faubourg, to nurse the sick and bury the dead4.
Ozanam wanted to give of himself and this total donation encountered the image of Christ in the poor. He became present to the poor through personal, direct and practical contact, uniting spiritual and material charity. When he spoke about dealing with the poor he continually insisted on personal contact, visits to their homes, dialogue and conversation, becoming aware of their problems and participating in their sorrows and needs.
His Vincentian spirit
The charity that Ozanam practiced was one of accompaniment, a charity that involved a personal commitment, a charity that was respectful and accommodating, in accord with the characteristics of the patron of the Confraternities, characteristics that Saint Vincent often spoke about to the Daughters when he said: Your chief concern will be to serve the sick poor, treating them with compassion, gentleness, cordiality, respect and devotion5.
Even though his financial situation was never prosperous, Frederic knew how to save and deprived himself of comforts and things that he might have liked to have in order to assist his brothers and sisters in need. The money that he received from the articles that he wrote as a student, together with the money that his mother sent him, became the source for his charitable assistance. He mother was aware of this activity: The conference to which I belong has voted a little preliminary fund of 15 francs for the poor to pay their debts. I wait anxiously for you to send the 18 francs for my subscription and with Folconnet’s 12 francs, I can make my offering of 4 or 5 francs6.
He felt the need to give, to give of himself. He not only gave from his surplus but on various occasions offered to others what he himself needed. His love and service on behalf of the poor was always motivated by self-sacrifice and unselfishness and he recommended and, like the apostle Saint Paul, spoke about this service to others in season and out of season. On August 2, 1848, during the General Assembly of the Conference at Saint-Sulpice, when Frederic substituted for the president Adolfo Baudon who was ill, he stated: Sons of Saint Vincent de Paul, let us learn of Him to forget ourselves, to devote ourselves to the service of God and the good of others. Let us learn of Him that holy preference which shows great love to those who suffer most7.
He also congratulated Léonce Cournier and the progress that was being made by the Conference in Nimes: We are still only in our apprenticeship in the art of charity. Let us hope that one day we will become able and assiduous workers. Then, in the different circumstances where Providence will have placed us, we will strive to be like those born more blessed and more virtuous around us, then, when you will share your successes with us, we will reply with ours, and from every place in France there will arise a harmonious concept of faith and love and praise of God8.
The charity of Ozanam was based on the evangelical precept, when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3). He made clear the difference between charity and philanthropy. From Paris he wrote: Charity must never look behind itself, but always ahead, because the number of its past benefits is always very small, and the present and future misery it comforts is infinite9.
Frederic held up the Church as a model of charity … the church has nineteen centuries of doing good and is not concerned about calculating past costs but rather moves out toward the future. Thus the Church is different from other philanthropic associations that come together in assemblies, render an account of their funds, establish relationships and remember past events. Frederic stated that for these organization charity is some type of adornment through which they are able to recreate themselves, but charity is like a tender mother who keeps her eyes fixed on the infant she carries at her breast, who no longer thinks of herself, and who forgets her beauty for her love10.
Frederic lived a charity that was contemplative and active, with profound roots in the mystery of the suffering Christ and with a power that enabled him to act in accord with his convictions.
In order to give his affirmations of Catholic faith their full value Frederic became a visitor and a servant of the poor and through his works of charity he became a missionary of the faith among his companions. This was his way of being a witness to Christ in imitation of his patron. He warned people about certain parallels between the proletariat and the slaves of the Middle Ages. Thus for a like evil, a like remedy! He looked at the gospels and centered his reflection on the image of the good Samaritan: The humanity of our day seems comparable to the traveler of whom the Gospel speaks: it also, although it took its way in the roads marked out for it by Christ, has been attacked by the cutthroats and robbers of thought, by wicked men who have robbed it of what it possessed: the treasure of faith and love, and they have left it naked and wounded and lying by the side of the road. Priests and levites have passed by, and this time, since they were true priests and levites, they have approached suffering themselves and wished to heal it. But in their delirium, they did not recognize them and were repulsed by them. We, weak Samaritans, worldly and people of little faith that we are, let us dare nonetheless to approach the sick one … Let us try to probe his wound and pour in oil, soothing his ear with words of consolation and peace; then, when his eyes are opened, we will place him in the hands of those whom God has constituted as the guardians and doctors of souls, who are also, in a way, our innkeepers during our pilgrimage here below, so as to give our errant and famished spirits the holy words for nourishment and the hope of a better world for a shield. This is what is proposed to us, the sublime vocation God has given us11.
All of this seemed to be little in light of Frederic’s attempts to encourage, in one way or another, those who were under his influence, but charity began to set their hearts on fire and this love was given its rightful place for it was seen as more important than all the other virtues.
The struggle for structural change
The love that filled Ozanam and that he projected toward the poor as well as his awareness of unjust structures which created poverty, spiritual poverty as well as material poverty, led him to consider a form of assistance and promotion that went beyond anything that was being done by either the State or the Church at that time.
He made concrete attempts to change present structures. With regard to assistances he wrote: We believe in two types of assistance: one form humiliates those who are being helped and the other, respects them. During these difficult times, the government as well as all people who, because of their religious or humanitarian convictions, serve the poor … everyone must choose between these two ways of serving others. Assistance becomes humiliating when it only provides for the earthly needs of people, when it is simply concerned about the sufferings of the flesh, the cries of hunger and cold, cries that create feelings of pity even in those who help animals … like in India where the English have hospital for dogs and laws that prohibit the mistreatment of horses. Assistance becomes humiliating when there is no reciprocity, when one hands over a piece of bread, some clothing, some materials for the house … when providing assistance to others is done to soften the cries that disturb and upset our life in the city. But assistance is respectful when it takes into account the lofty dimensions of the other, the dimensions of their soul and heart, their religious, moral and political education, all that would free them from their passions and in some respects free them from their need … assistance is respectful when it seeks the freedom of the other and all that can make the other great … assistance is respectful when it unites that bread that nourishes to the visit that brings comfort, to the advise that enlightens, to the handshake that lifts up the discouraged spirit. Assistance is respectful when the poor are treated with respect and not simply as equals, when they are treated as our masters, as people sent by God to prove the veracity of our justice and charity. In these situations assistance is respectful because it is mutual assistance … anyone who today shares some words of comfort may tomorrow have need for the same words of comfort.
In the article that Frederic wrote we see that his vision of assisting and promoting others, like all his doctrine, is extraordinary. He pointed toward that which today is called pastoral care for the unemployed and in his newspaper published these bold words that were directed toward the government: You are going to open in Paris a certain number of public places where the poor can warm themselves. This is very helpful, but have you considered how to occupy the time of these individuals during these long afternoons? Will you give these many workers simply propaganda concerning their vices, or will you take advantage of this opportunity to occupy their time in an honorable way, to instruct them so that they return to their homes as better people?
With these words Frederic pointed out the psychological deterioration of people who are unemployed and who feel useless. From a perspective of solidarity Ozanam viewed everyone as his equal or superior to him. He rejected any view that saw people as cogs in a wheel, whose capacity for work or physical strength could be exploited at any cost.
Frederic heard the cries of the poor and long before any official doctrine of the Church became effective in this regard, he used every means available to him to free them from their numerous slaveries. What today appears to be a powerful and irresistible aspiration of people, namely, the struggle for liberation, this lay Christian fervently placed himself at the service of this cause even though, like every precursor, his ideas were not accepted by many people and he became the victim of their harsh criticisms. He knew how to step back in silence and give way to others.
His drawing near to the poor was constantly inspired by faith and this strengthened him as he confronted the different tasks of liberation. His involvement with and closeness to the actual situation of the poor meant that his actions were not some mere abstractions, devoid of content.
Roots of misery and the means to combat it
Frederic wrote an article, The Causes of Misery, for the newspaper L’Ere Nouvelle in which he analyzed the social situation and the principle causes of said situation.
With his understanding of the gospel and the Church’s tradition, he desired to free the poor by showing that poverty is a scandal produced by the evil of people, thus when there is a lack of goods people should share based on justice and not charity. God, just and rich in mercy, is necessarily with the most poor … Jesus preached the good news to them and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is theirs.
Ozanam wrote: God did not create the poor but rather human will has created these situations. He went on to explain that God did not place human beings in the midst of a changing world without giving them two gifts: intelligence and free will.
In reality the poor are the most suffering victims of the structures of sin that in the course of history continue to create situations that favor the wealthy and the powerful. The poor are often helpless before the violation of their most fundamental rights and experience their human dignity trampled upon in a thousand different ways. In the poor we see an expression and a realization of all that is opposed to the plan of the Kingdom of God. Their situation in life, beginning with their dependence, is in open contradiction to the eternal plan of God.
Therefore charity ought to engage us in instructing and making people self-sufficient so that they no longer need material assistance. Creating a state of dependency makes people insecure because even though today the hunger of poor is alleviated they are obliged to hope that tomorrow they will have something to eat.
Ozanam also gave much importance to the intellectual role of charity. For this reason he can be considered the initiator of what we call education of the people. In Lyon he opened a club with a library where twice a week he instructed the soldiers in reading, writing and mathematics … as he taught these men, they in turn opened their hearts and received counsel.
It is necessary to awaken the intelligence and strengthen the will. The role of true charity is not to make itself indispensible but to prepare people to provide for themselves so that they do not have to rely on the assistance that is given to them. Charity ought to prevent misery and help when some unforeseen event deprives people of their livelihood.
Ozanam had a lofty vision with regard to the destiny of the human person and it was this vision that motivated him to consider the possibility of providing for that which is unforeseen in society … mitigate these events by well-functioning institutions that pursue programs and not propaganda. Therefore he looked for the roots of that which gives rise to human happiness and saw that its primary enemies were the endurance of extreme poverty and living in misery. Many times he wrote: I am tired by the controversies that on a daily basis shake Paris; I feel shattered by the sight of the misery that devours the city.
The panorama of the misery in Paris was devastating: 267.000 workers in the French capital were unemployed and the majority of them lived in the thirteenth arrondissement thus creating in this district an incredible misery to which Ozanam referred. He described the horror and the suffering of the people in this area and then pointed out the causes of this situation.
Different causes of poverty
Among the different causes of poverty Ozanam pointed out the moral order. To preserve the moral order from evil and to resolve this evil he proposed education and the reform of everyday customs rather than legislation. But here he referred to Christian education, entrusted to religious institutes, in which the children of the workers would learn more than writing the day’s orders on walls: We should not believe that we have done everything that we ought to do simply because we have taught people to read and write and count. At least half our schools are inadequate. In the thirteenth arrondissement four thousand children are unable to go to school and when private charities see this situation and attempt to open schools, it take weeks to file all the paper work and overcome a series of obstacles.
He included in this plan of reform the creation of a school of Arts and Crafts for adults, a public library and mutual assistance. In the same article he stated: These timid spirits are far from being able to compete with us … even though after three years of Christian education the children of the workers leave school with honors, their education is not complete. I want to see this education continued with teachers who provide night classes and Sunday classes. I want to see centers of Arts and Crafts established in the neighborhoods of Paris, as well as popular Sorbonnes where necessary so that these children might have the same opportunities as the children of doctors and lawyers, the treasure of a higher education.
Ozanam did not hesitate to denounce the destitution that the people of France suffered … a situation created because of a lack of insight and morality that squanders material as well as spiritual goods.
Why hide from the people what they know? Human freedom creates poverty. Ozanam continues to state that human freedom consumes the two primitive sources of all wealth: intelligence and wealth … leaving intelligence to wallow in ignorance and the will to become weakened by vice.
Denunciation of society’s errors
Ozanam said that it would be unjust to blame the poor who might not make the best use of their goods. The blame for the social evils resides in the institutions, in the government that authorizes and allows these institutions to continue. Frederic did not focus on personal sin but rather viewed this evil state of affairs as a collective responsibility. He cites the famous French physician, M. Villerme: Today we denounce the personal errors of the poor and yet we have no control over this but we forget to denounce the ineffectiveness of institutions and these should be denounced in our newspapers because these errors of the country confirm the wealthy in their position of superiority, encourage corruption in general and the impoverishment of the working class. Nothing is done to instruct the poor and help them raise their standard of living.
Ozanam complained about the high taxes imposed on basic foods such as meat, bread and salt and yet there was no tax on alcohol which causes more illness than all the hardships of the seasons and all the injustices of humankind. Besides the consumption of wine he also pointed out the corruption caused by popular customs: games, sex and the dissoluteness of young people who gather together in “dens of iniquity”. In his writings he pointed out: During the past winter the police signed 4,000 permisions for dances at night. Annually the police authorize the opening of new theatres where the children of the working class receive nonsense of what is supposed to be literature whose cynicism would scandalize anyone. And when during six months young people pass the evenings in these places filled with smoke that harms their health, the same authorities are surprised to see people withered and feeble and thus filling our prisons and hospitals.
He also accused the industrialists and pointed out their indifference and selfishness when he stated that the majority of them were not concerned about the moral needs of their workers, denying them the Sabbath rest, the right to free themselves from their miserable conditions …. separating from their workshops anything that might foster temperance and the economy because they believe it is easier to manage vices which consequently allow them to disrespect the workers.
Frederic was aware of the fact that the industrial crisis often left factory workers unemployed and when this reality was united with the domestic crises that often arose because of the death of a husband or the illness of a child, the family was left in destitution, void of any resources. He complained that the politicians did not seek the causes of this misery but were only concerned about their personal interests.
Frederic’s attitude should not surprise us, especially when attempts were made to suppress Sunday as a day of rest. He accused politicians and industrialists of not allowing the workers to reanimate themselves during this precious time of rest. No recreational activities are provided for these people, no competitions or games, no libraries or clubs or societies … no means of mutual support. He states: You criticize the lack of ability in the workers, the defects and monotony of their methods, the systematic disorders of their behaviors, and yet you have never encouraged them when you have at your disposal the means that would allow them to draw closer to you as equals … means that would provide them with fraternal vigilance and that would surround them with good example and counsel thus encouraging them to seek more education which is necessary for every weak, fragile and tempted human person.
In outlining this program of social reform that placed demands on Christian democracy Frederic did not want to give the impression of preparing an inquisition against society. Rather, he wanted to be a stern friend whose efforts were directed toward defending and honoring and helping people to understand their obligations toward their neighbor. He wanted to maintain among Christians a charitable movement against the abuses that after fifty years of freedom were both a disgrace and an embarrassment to a supposed free people. He wanted to strengthen the zeal of so many honorable people so that they would not excuse themselves from paying a subsidy to the unemployed, a subsidy of thirteen cents a day that was demanded by law. He stated: God does not want us to calumniate those whom the gospel blesses. Let us not accuse the people who are suffering of being responsible for their ill-fortune and let us not encourage the insensitivity of evil hearts who believe they are exempt from helping the poor because they believe the poor are culpable for what has happened to them.
Frederic Ozanam proposed as a task of human faith the need for the social classes to draw closer together and not destroy one another as Marx later proposed. This coming together must be done from the perspective of a clear option for the poor.
Concept of work, wages and alms
Professor of Commercial Law
On December 16, 1839, an historical precedent was set in Lyon when the chair of Commercial Law was created. This position was established exclusively for Frederic Ozanam by order of the Minister, M. Martin du Nord. It was strange that in a city like Lyon, whose activity was primarily business, no institution offered courses in commercial law.
As a professor Frederic had to begin from naught because he was not able to ask anyone from the student body about their previous knowledge concerning civil law or political economics. This situation, however, was very acceptable to the young professor who, through temperament, was not satisfied with merely explaining the articles of the law code. He accommodated himself to the students that were in front of him (merchants, business men of every type) and with them he reflected on practical and Christian principles for daily living in the market place.
The course was composed of forty-seven lessons which were based on the general principles of law and also took into account current social problems which were examined from the perspective of the law. Although he explained all the material of commercial law, his teaching went beyond a mere explanation of the law and the failures and crises and the changes occurring in society … he analyzed the moral order which his fellow countrymen often neglected to examine.
Frederic spoke about these historical and philosophical digressions when he wrote his friend, Henri Pessonneaux: An immense crowd attended the opening lecture. Doors and windows were broken. Even then the hall continued to overflow, and it holds 250 people. I allowed myself any historical and philosophical digressions that the subject permitted and I did not fail at the same time to raise a laugh whenever possible12.
A month later and with almost the same words he wrote a letter to Lallier in whom he had often confided: I am endeavoring to put life into the teaching of the letter of the Codes, speaking about their spirit as well as historic and economic considerations. I encroach even upon social economy, your old domain. I endeavor to inspire my listeners with a love and respect for their profession and consequently the observance of the duties which it imposes. I tell them the plain truth and their goodness willingly gives me the right to do so. Many take notes; I have letters addressed to me; they are zealous and studious13.
At first glance it would seem that the material of this course was not at all suited for the Christian humanist who desired to re-Christianize his country and communicate eternal truths. Nevertheless, he saw this course as an opportunity to enter into dialogue about one of his primary concerns: the social problem.
Because of its geographical location and its historical importance from many years before, Lyon was a main business center. This city was situated at the place where the Saône and the Rhone Rivers flowed into one another and from ancient times it was the point of departure of the four roads that joined the Rhine and the Atlantic, the Alps and the Pyrenees. During the Middle Ages it was the Episcopal city located in the far western part of the French kingdom. This city received from Italy, Florence and Milan two resources that would form the foundation of its economy: banking and silk weaving.
The desire for profit, which was the fruit of individual liberalism, was a constant among the industrialists of Lyon. During the nineteenth century two thirds of the population was salaried but their situation was precarious. They worked long hours and received low wages and these conditions led to two bloody rebellions in 1831 and 1834.
In November 1831 the workers had obtained the benefits of a municipal law which fixed a minimum wage for the silk weaving industry but the Minister of the Interior, Casimir Perier, encouraged by the owners of the factories, removed the Prefect of Lyon, Bouvier Dumolard, and abolished the decree.
As a result of this action thirty thousand workers took over the city for a period of ten days. The government in Paris did not want to recognize the unhealthy and overcrowded situation in which the workers were forced to toil, did not want to recognize the long hours and low wages that were endured by the workers. Through the use of arms the workers were told that they should be resigned to their situation. Though the situation appeared to return to a state of calmness, the social unrest exploded again in April, 1834 which resulted in strengthening the laws against the proletariat and giving more power to the industrialists to use against the weaker workers.
Five years later it was dangerous to denounce the selfish industrialist spirit of the ministers of the monarchy in Orleans and yet Ozanam confronted this situation directly. Basing his arguments on the law, a branch of philosophy, he often abandoned his explanation of commercial law in order to highlight elements of freedom and morality which ought to be a part of every human relationship even when a relationship is pursued to increase one’s wealth. He applied laws and norms to the organization of economic interests which he stated should secure the well-being of the human person and eliminate abuses that result from seeking personal profit at the expense of the common good.
Sources of inspiration
Frederic Ozanam had few resources available to him to develop a Christian morality with regard to economic norms. Social Catholicism had not developed a social doctrine.
Frederic was inspired by Charles de Coux who in 1831 had given a course on Political Economics, a course which he had taken. The Catholic students had requested this course which consisted of a program for social reform. The course examined liberal economics and its concept of work which did not take into consideration the human person. The workers have a need for a certain standard of life which would enable them to be happy and yet at the present time global production appears to be more important than individual fulfillment. Economic policy ought to be both social and moral.
This doctrine impressed the young professor who repeated and developed these ideas in his dissertations. Solutions should not be simply technical but human and religious including the way in which revelation clarifies natural law. In a letter to his cousin, Falconnet, he communicated his impressions about the course of Charles de Coux: M. de Coux has begun his course in political economy, full of depth and interest … They mob his lectures, because there is much of truth and life in them, a great perception of the affliction which devours our society and of the remedy which can alone heal it14.
Another economist who influenced Ozanam was Villeneuve Bargemont, Prefect of the Departments of Montauban, Charente, Nancy and Lille who directly confronted the social problem. In his book, The Book of the Afflicted, which was published in 1828 he denounced the inadequate salaries, the lack of safety in the workplace and stated: why do workers receive an insufficient salary… wages that do not allow them to obtain the most basic necessities of life and why are the workers debilitated and debased in this way when they are persons made in the image of God?
In 1834 the same author published Christian Economic Policy, which also influenced Ozanam’s ideas. In this book Bargemont proposed a series of reforms: inspection of the workplaces that employed children under the age of fourteen and women, safety, savings accounts … He advocated a complete change in the social doctrine which would be echoed and put into practice at the end of the century. These two authors developed their thoughts with regard to a concept that Ozanam called “social justice”, an expression that he used in many of his classes and which he substituted for what Thomas Aquinas called “general or legal justice”. Interestingly this expression “social justice” was not taken up by Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, but was incorporated into the social doctrine of the Church by Pius IX in his encyclicals Divini Redemptoris and Quadrogesimo Anno: To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice (#58). Hence it is contrary to social justice when, for the sake of personal gain and without regard for the common good, wages and salaries are excessively lowered or raised (#74).
The first and only ordered expression of the social thinking of Frederic about the duties of justice, the concept of work and wages is found in lesson twenty-four of his course on Commercial Law, a lecture which was given around the middle of 1840 in Lyon. It was this lesson that encouraged his contemporaries and these ideas would be taken up later by Bishop Ketteler.
With great skill, prudence, and tact he confronted the thorny question about the relationship between management and the workers. In the beginning, with no condemnation, he analyzed the conditions of production, warning of its dangers and reproving its abuses. He proposed organizing work through legislation which would impose sanctions and when legally enforced would prevent slavery and the misery of the proletariat. These laws were not to be imposed by violence or demagogy … one form of oppression cannot be eliminated or overcome by another form of oppression. In the inaugural lecture of this course we read: in dealing with some of the economic questions of our time which are of great concern to us, we make every effort to reconcile the conservative’s respect for the present institutions with the progressive’s vision that moves toward a better future.
Concept and definition of work
Ozanam defined work as the sustained action of man’s will in which he applies his faculties to satisfy his needs. This is the primitive and universal law of the world. He went on to say that paganism did not want to accept this law and among the most notable people of old, work was seen as the exclusive activity of slaves. Christianity rehabilitated work by bestowing upon human activity civilized virtues and a sense of personal dignity. Christianity made slaves co-heirs of Christ, integrating them into the life of the community.
The power of work is not explained by reducing it to physical strength, muscles or the sweat of one’s brow. Work also encompasses the labor of thought and the efforts of the will. When considering the idea of labor one must consider not only the physical needs of the workers but also their intellectual and moral needs and those who exercise these faculties (intellectual and moral) are not unproductive … they participate in the process of production. Work is necessarily productive, its part in production is complimented by the confluence of two other elements: capital and raw materials.
Ozanam differed from the socialists (Karl Marx) who saw work as physical strength that was sold by its owner (the proletariat) in order to obtain the human needs of food, lodging, and clothing. The socialists considered work as the expenditure of the physical strength that everyone possesses for a determined process of production. Human needs were broadened to include the needs of workers’ children and in this way the necessary strength that was needed for production was perpetuated. No kind of moral or spiritual interest, however, is taken into consideration by the socialists. Ozanam not only considered physical strength but for him will and education were integral components of the workers.
Salary as the price of work
Ozaname confronted the question of salary as a co-relative duty. His central idea is that work requires a just price. Salary should be based on the value of the things that are produced, that is, on the costs of production.
These costs involve: rent of land, interest on capital, the price of work (whether work is the intellectual output of the businessman or the physical output of laborers or the moral output represented by taxes).
When the workers are viewed as more than mere instruments, as human collaborators, then, according to Ozanam, the salary ought to take into consideration the usual value of work and this value is dependent on absolute and relative conditions. With regard to absolute conditions, the normal salary ought to reflect three elements that workers place at the service of industry: their will, their education and their strength.
1. The ardent will of workers gives them a right to recompense so that they might be able to live and cover the minimum expenses to sustain their life.
2. Knowledge and education comprises true human capital and therefore the workers should receive a salary that enables them to provide for their own education and the education of their children.
3. Workers should be compensated for their physical strength which one day will become diminished. Capital should cover the cost of disability and old age because workers have the right to retire.
With regard to the relative conditions, Ozanam taught his students that salaries should be increased in proportion to the difficulties that laborers might encounter on the job:
1. If the work is more dangerous or unpleasant or tedious, then the salary should be increased.
2. If the work requires more skill or knowledge or is technical work, then again, the salary should take these factors into consideration.
3. If the type of work can result in sickness or accidents then not only the salary but benefits for illness and disability and retirement should reflect these conditions.
If work demands greater strength, greater skill or greater risk than the salary of workers should reflect these realities. The usual value of the salary is not always the same as the real value. In other words, after having paid the rent for lands and property, the interest on capital, and the benefits of the owner, there may be insufficient funds to pay the workers everything that they deserve.
Ozanam explained why this might occur. The sale of the product might not cover all the costs of producing said product. This will happen because the price depends on supply and demand, thus it can happen that one has employed more services than necessary.
Second, the profits might be unevenly distributed among the workers because of high rents on land, or high interest rates on capital or higher taxes than expected or the owner may have received more benefits than was due to him.
Because of the complexity of these causes the actual situation of the workers can become, and in fact has become, one of hostility between the workers and management … a dangerous situation which can give rise to violent conflicts. It can happen that the worker is viewed as a mere instrument from whom every possible advantage can be derived at the least cost. This leads to exploitation of the human person by another human person. On one side is the power of wealth and on the other side is the power of numbers. Knowing that this danger exists a solution must be sought without delay. In order to create a balance Ozanam proposed the following means:
- On the one hand, public charity as balm and justice to prevent exploitation
- On the other hand greater education and more profound knowledge about business and industry as they relate to production, consumption, and the distribution of products.
To implant this social justice that prevents exploitation, there are at the present time two solutions: 1. The dictatorial intervention of the state which establishes the prices of goods … this method is a return to mercantilism of the Ancient Regime whose results are known because of past experience to be opposed to the development of industry and prejudicial to business;
2. Absolute freedom of laissez-faire capitalism which places the worker at the mercy of management.
Ozanam proposed a solution that was an intermediate path, a conciliatory solution between the two principles of authority and freedom. The State should intervene as an arbiter only in extraordinary situations.
Ozanam proposed and promoted the establishment of associations for workers that would defend their interests, unite them, enable them to see that work was something proper to them and thus develop in them a spirit of ownership.
With these organizations the workers could acquire an understanding of work as something that is their own. This spirit will prompt the workers to save and at the same time lead to the development of personal morality and an inclination toward public calmness.
The first workers’ organizations in France had to be clandestine because of the Chapelier Laws which from the time of the Revolution prohibited the existence of these types of associations. Beginning in 1820 the general repression increased as a result of the assassination of the Duke of Berry, an event that led to the increase of secret societies. With the reign of Louis Philip of Orleans in 1830, industry developed but at the same time the problems that the workers encountered became more numerous and this led to the insurrections of 1832 and 1835 which were violently repressed. After the 1835 repression new laws were enacted which limited freedom of the press and the right to free association. Yet this did not deter the establishment of Societies and Leagues which in fact became more numerous: the Society of the Friends of the People, the Saisons Society, the Society of Families … all of these societies maintained relationships with those who were exiled in Germany and who formed the League of the Just.
The most important of the insurrections before the 1848 revolution was the up-rising of 1839 which was led by Louis Blanqui. The seat of the local government was occupied but ended in a violent repression. This up-rising was followed by a general strike that took place a year later and resulted in legislation that was enacted in 1841 that favored the workers.
The laws of 1841 prohibited the employment of children under eight years of age and children between eight and twelve could work no more than eight hours a day … the work of women was also regulated by these laws.
In light of the situation of the French people, to speak about organizations of workers in a public forum, and even more in a forum funded by the municipal government was risky. Nevertheless, Ozanam attempted to bring workers and management together so that both sides could move forward and build a better future. He was aware of the difficulties but in his lectures he continued to say: Without a doubt organization is difficult and demands certain risks, but it is necessary to rely on self-sacrifice and the words spoken in this forum. These words do not pretend to clarify all the difficulties, but it is hoped that they will become a spark that appears at a given moment and is later extinguished but is sufficient to call attention to a reality that has remained in the shadows and that now in the light of day this reality points out the path to those who are able to put their hands on this treasure of the sacred trust and provides solutions that humanity awaits.
This key lesson that continued for several sessions concluded with a lecture that was no less interesting and no less explosive than all that had proceeded: Frederic dealt with the relations and aberrations between workers and management. Frederic spoke harshly about the reality of exploitation that viewed the workers as a machine, reduced the workers to the level of objects which allowed management to use them as instruments, thus obtaining maximum benefits at minimum cost. There is no excuse for children and married women to be working in factories. The concept worker-machine is in actuality part of the capital investment just as among ancient people slaves were part of the capital investment but again we see that service becomes bondage.
Bondage results in reducing to a minimum individual needs, both moral as well as intellectual, the suppression of religious freedom which forces people to work on Sunday and family life becomes almost impossible … all of this gave rise to the Malthusians who defended reducing the birth rate.
Ozanam lashed out against Malthus and Betham in an article that was published in 1838 in the newspaper L’Univers: these ignominious ideas reduce the whole economy of human life to the calculations of interest while the families of the poor become overwhelmed because they do not have sufficient resources to feed their children.
When Ozanam spoke about the workers’ right to an adequate salary that would allow them to maintain their family, he was expressing orthodox ideas that were supported by many theologians. To prevent future problems he presented a series of proposals that would later become part of the social doctrine of the Church. Very few people had given attention to the problems of retirement, illness, disability, old-age, work stoppage, or strike. Even fewer people considered the idea of the participation of the workers in the development of industry through their work. Ozanam engaged in a profound analysis of the legal, Christian and human doctrine and even though he did not see any fruits because of his short life, nevertheless, the seed was planted and others would reap the harvest.
Fifty years later, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII took up these proposals that stirred the hearts of the French people during the first half of the nineteenth century. The encyclical clearly points out the Christian relations that should be adopted in the area of labor: Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner (Rerum Novarum, #45).
Moderation as a virtue stands out in Ozanam’s life. He knew how to avoid violence in his words and was moderate in his boldness … he did not condemn a priori, but only made necessary clarifications. He softened reality by saying that these extreme situations did not only exist in Lyon but also in England and northern France. He also pointed out that people practiced good customs and preserved the traditions of their ancestors. He was also optimistic and rejected the powerlessness of Christians to act with regard to the evil social situation in which they found themselves. He had a great faith and discovered that neither poverty nor injustice were fatal realities but became present realities as a result of self-interest, the abuse of power, and placing the interests of a few over the interests of the majority.
The doctrine that was taught by Frederic Ozanam in Lyon and in his articles that were published in L’Ere Nouvelle was not an invitation to hatred or resentment or violence or an invitation to engage in a class struggle. He never spoke of a dictatorship of the proletariat as did many socialists of his era, especially Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto (1848) and Louis Auguste Blanqui in his doctrine of violence. Frederic’s doctrine was based on the gospel, on the principles of fraternal love, justice and collaboration. He advocated on behalf of freedom, the intervention of the State through means of subsidies, the defense of the right to private property, and especially the protection of the dignity of human beings created in the image and likeness of God.
All of this was applied to the circumstances which his country was experiencing and the possibilities that existed in fulfilling all the premises of his doctrine. He understood that one could not be radical nor absolute in applying the means and that the use of peaceful means would always have better results than violent and revolutionary means.
As a prolongation of the concept of salary, Ozanam wrote about almsgiving. On December 24th, an article on this subject, De L’Aumone, appeared in the newspaper L’Ere Nouvelle.
Frederic interpreted faithfully and knowledgeably the Christian tradition as a praiseworthy practice that is found in Scripture and preached in the tradition of the Church. He confronted the socialists who viewed alms as an abuse of Christian society. According to them alms insulted the poor, humiliating those who receive these offerings and does nothing to lift them out of their situation of poverty. Ozanam refuted these ideas and said: After the revolution of 1848 some people reject alms because they view this action as debasing poor people. The greater error consists of teaching people to detest alms. Do not believe those who speak of alms as a deplorable abuse, as a means of maintaining a patriarchal system that gives and a class of slaves who receive. It is true that alms impose a debt of gratitude on the poor. But it is also true that there are people who uphold the idea of a society in which no one feels obligated, in which everyone can feel cut off from everyone else. All of this is called the dawning of justice which is seen as a substitute for charity … as if the whole economy of Divine Providence did not consists of a reciprocity of gratitude that can never be satisfied; as if children were not eternally indebted to their parents and parents indebted to their children and citizens to their country; as if there were someone here on earth so isolated that this individual could say: “Today I do not feel obligated to anyone!”
Alms as compensation for services which are not salaried
To detach oneself from everything that would make one grateful and thus lead one to exclaim: I owe nothing to anyone, implies a delusional hope. In this situation one has enclosed oneself in a subtle pride that is more or less dangerous than being subject to one’s benefactors which brings with it the obligation of gratitude which according to the socialists leaves those who are helped in an inferior state.
Ozanam understood almsgiving not only in a material way, that is, sharing bread or money, but also as a way of compensating individuals for services that have no wages attached to them and yet demand a certain reciprocity of benefits. He explained this concept by using the example of the soldier who serves his country and gives his blood or the priest who serves by proclaiming the word. The nation causes no injury to the soldier by giving alms to these individuals nor is the priest humiliated by receiving some compensation for offering the Eucharist because he does not receive this compensation as a salary but as a form of alms. Therefore we cannot say that the poor person is humiliated when treated like the priest or the soldier. Oznam said: The indigent persons whom we assist will never be useless because people who suffer serve God and consequently, also serve society … they pray and they fulfill a ministry of expiation, a sacrifice whose merits revert to us.
He exalts the dignity of the poor and of the indigent and views almsgiving as a way of doing justice to those who are treated unjustly: paying for a service for which no wage is attached.
Saint Vincent de Paul spoke about this idea two centuries before when on March 8, 1658 he wrote to the superior in Marsielles, Father Fermin Get: God will grant you the grace, Monsieur, of softening our hearts toward the wretched creatures and of realizing that in helping them we are doing an act of justice and not of mercy15.
Spiritual value of alms
Another idea that Ozanam highlighted in his article was the fact that the one who gives and the one who receives are equally obligated: One must realize that almsgiving also places an obligation on the one who gives …, and forbids any reproach for the benefit received.
The one who gives, who knows the way to the house of the poor, should never call at his door in a disrespectful manner. How does one repay the tears of joy in the eyes of a poor mother or the handshake of a poor man honored by such a visit as he returns from his work. Ozanam did not view alms as something indifferent and he expressed this idea in another article that was published in L’Ere Nouvelle on October 21, 1848: The rich person who gives his gold does so coldly if he does not unite his lips and his heart with his alms.
Lastly, through almsgiving Frederic saw the poor as the sacrament of Christ. He constantly returned to this theme: In pagan Rome, alms were not anyone’s duty but a right for everyone. Christianity has totally changed this. Now alms are not a right for anyone but a duty for everyone and a sacred duty. It is a command, not simply a counsel.
If Christianity imposes almsgiving as a duty it is because there exists an anonymous and universal poor person: Jesus Christ who is poor in the person of the poor. Only he is deserving of everything because only he has a tribunal where he awaits the evil rich person.
The poor intercede for the rich and therefore they give back more than they receive. If people know how to give in the name of God and if the poor know how to ask for help from others, then in this situation there is reciprocity of services. Ozanam said: This indigent family that we have helped will have paid their debt in excess when that elderly person or pious mother or those little ones pronounce our name before the throne of the most high God.
For Ozanam the poor person is a priest; his misery, his sweat and blood are in reality the expiatory sacrifice that contributes to the redemption of humankind and therefore the alms which we offer, and for which the poor are grateful, are nothing more than honorariums, the same as those presented to the priest and whose hands are kissed as a sign of gratitude.
Counsel to people of every social class
Three months after the conflicts of 1848, Frederic Ozanam used his newspaper to address good people. This article could be catalogued as the sermon of a cleric. He gave pointed advice to the priests of France, to the rich, to the representatives of the people and lastly, to citizens of whatever condition. In a letter that he wrote to Foisset, he stated: I have written an article for good people. I have revealed my heart in this letter. I am not insensitive to the suffering of our time and if I turn wearily from the controversies that are agitating Paris I am torn to pieces by the sight of the misery that is devouring it.
He wanted to be the voice of conscience to those who struggled to maintain order and save France (in February and June) with the establishment of the Second Republic … he did not want people to begin to believe that everything had been accomplished. In the same letter he went on to say: It is not enough to save France once or several times; a great country wants to be saved every day. You come and go from one end of the city to the other and you travel in peace and security, but while the danger has disappeared from the streets and it is now hidden away in the garrets of the houses on either side. You have crushed the insurrection but now you have to deal with an enemy with which you are not acquainted, which you do not want to hear about and about which we are determined to speak to you today: misery!16.
Description of the misery of the Thirteenth Arrondissement
Frederic began with a detailed and harrowing description of the 13th arrondissement in Paris. His style resembles that of Charles Dickens in his novels or Maxim Gorky in The Mother, or Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, or M. Joseph Sué in The Ministers of Paris.
The first problem that he described was that of unemployment. Even though the factories had begun to operate with some degree of normalcy, there were still 267,000 workers unemployed. In a district of 90,000 inhabitants, 8,000 families were enrolled at the Welfare Office and 70,000 people were dependent on some form of alms. These same conditions could be found in all the areas that surrounded Paris. Frederic wrote: On either side of a filthy sewer rise houses five stories high, many of which shelter fifty families. These low, damp, and noxious rooms are rented out at the rate of one franc and a half a week when they have a fireplace, and one franc and a quarter without a fireplace. No paper, often not a single piece of furniture, hides the nakedness of the wretched walls. In a house on the Rue Lyonnais we ourselves saw ten married couples without even a bed. One family lived in the depths of a cellar, with nothing but a handful of straw on the earthen floor and a rope fastened from wall to wall from which the people hung their bread that was wrapped in a rag to keep it out of the reach of the rats. In the next room a woman had lost three children from tuberculosis, and she pointed in despair to three other children who awaited the same fate. The upper stories presented no greater consolation. Right under the roof a garret without windows, pierced with two holes, each closed by a pane of glass, afforded shelter to a tailor, his wife and eight children. Every night they crawled on their hands and feet to the straw that was spread by way of a bed at one extremity of the garret, close under the slanting roof. We need not dwell on those among us who are better off; those who, for six persons, can supply two beds, into which are huddled together the sick and the healthy, boys of eighteen and girls of sixteen. With regard to this same house: the personal situation of these people had deteriorated to such a degree that more than twenty children could not go to school because they had no clothes to wear. The more fortunate individuals are able to find something to eat so that they do not become undernourished and therefore we say that people do not die of starvation in the most civilized city in the world … Many live on the leftovers that are distributed through the gates of the palace at Luxemburg and others live on pieces of bread that are gathered from the garbage17.
Ozanam did not write about these situations from memory, as though this was something he had heard about or something he presumed was happening. He experienced these situations. In his free time he climbed the stairs of those houses, going to the attic, and sharing with these people. There he had some profound experiences and became aware of the vices as well as the virtues and example that these people offered him. In these foul cellars and garrets, sometimes next door to sloth and vice, we have often come upon the finest domestic virtues, a refinement and intelligence that one does not always meet with under gilded ceilings. A poor coppersmith, more than seventy years old, tiring his infirm arms to get bread for the child of a son who had died at a young age; a deaf and dumb boy of twelve whose education had been carried on by the self-devotion of his poor relatives with such success that he begins to read, and knows God and prays. We will never forget one poor room, of irreproachable cleanliness, where a mother, clothed in the threadbare clothes of her native place, Auvergne, was working away with her four daughters, modest young girls, who only raised their eyes from their work to answer the stranger’s questions. The father worked as a mason … but the faith which these honest people had brought with them from their native mountains illuminated their lives, just as the sunbeam that stole in through their tiny window lighted up the pious pictures pasted on the walls18.
As Ozanam witnessed so much pain and suffering and descended the broken stairs of the homes of the poor, he was awed at what he experienced. He thought not only about the present moment but began to envision the winter when the construction work would stop and the workers would be unable to find jobs, thus creating greater unemployment. Despite his weakened physical condition, Frederic found the strength to denounce these situations to his fellow citizens.
Frederic highlighted the importance of the apostolate with the workers, referring to the attitude and the courage demonstrated by the ambulance workers during the June revolution. He also spoke about the reforms that were initiated in the areas of education, agriculture and prison centers. He spoke to the clergy: Do not trust yourselves or the habits and customs of a more peaceful period and put even less trust in the power of your ministry and its popularity. It is true and we recognize that you love the poor of your parishes, that you welcome with charity the beggar who knocks at your door, and that you never keep him waiting when he calls you to his bedside. But the time has come for you to occupy yourselves with those other poor who do not beg, who live by their labor, and to whom the right of work and the right of assistance will never be secured in a way that will guarantee him freedom from the needs that they now experience, that is, the need of help, of advice and, of consolation. The time has come when you must go and seek those who do not send for you, but who are hidden away in the most disreputable neighborhoods and who have perhaps never known the Church or the priest, or even the name of Jesus. Do not ask how they will receive you but speak to those who have visited them, who have dared to speak to them of God and who have found them open to our words and actions. If you are afraid of your lack of experience, your shyness, the insufficiency of your resources, then unite together in associations. Use the benefit of the new laws to form yourselves into charitable confraternities of priests. Use all the influence that you have with Christian families, and urge them to give … Do not be frightened when others treat you as communists. They treated Saint Bernard as a fanatic and a fool. Remember that your fathers, the French priests of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, saved Europe by the Crusades; save her once more by the crusade of charity, and since this involves no bloodshed, allow yourselves to become its first soldiers19.
Call to Solidarity
Frederic addressed words to the rich who were able to help jump-start the economy through investments, almsgiving, and creating jobs to decrease the rate of unemployment. He invited these people to be courageous and to put aside the thought that they would hurt themselves by being charitable.
He spoke in categorical terms to the representatives of the people: Do not think that you have done enough by voting for subsidies that will eventually run out or because you have regulated the hours of work when jobs are still a dream for so many people or because you have prohibited work on Sunday while so many people are unable to find work during the week.
He encouraged them to visit and experience the misery of the people with their own eyes so that they would be moved and then defend the poor from their position in the National Assembly: Why not spend your mornings away from the crowd of petitioners who besiege you and go and visit these districts and climb those dark staircases, and enter into those barren rooms, and see with your own eyes what your brothers and sisters are suffering. You would in this way become acquainted with the utter destitution that reigns among them; you would leave behind you the memory of a visit that had honored and at the same time consoled the misery of the people you visited and you would go away with an emotion that would allow for no delay in action to assist these individuals20.
Frederic, however, was not satisfied with this and proposed a better method for using public funds and if public funds were not available then an appeal for generosity should be made to the people which would allow them to contribute funds for those unemployed or those who suffer any form of poverty. Frederic was certain that no one would fail to collaborate in this effort, not even the most poor who would sell a handful of wheat to contribute to such a fund.
Lastly, Frederic called upon all citizens to enter into a position of solidarity with one another, especially those who lacked basic necessities. Because of their experience they could become collaborators with those who contribute their money to the public treasury. He opened their hearts and gave them hope that they could overcome the many obstacles that prevented them from fully enjoying their freedom: Guard yourselves from discouragement, he told them, and root out those seeds that prevent you from engaging in action. It is said that we are participating in the decadence of France and of civilization, but these same people who proclaim the proximate ruin of the nation, end by precipitating it.
An open campaign on behalf of charity through L’Ere Nouvelle
October 1848 was most fruitful for Frederic because during this time he was wholly involved in a charitable campaign, warning Christians about “certain abuses” which, after fifty years, caused disgrace to fall upon a free people, a disgrace which now became an embarrassment.
Frederic wrote fifteen articles for his newspaper on the theme of charity, five of them during the month of October and four of which appeared in the Sunday edition of the paper. On October 8, 1848 Frederic announced in L’Ere Nouvelle a new innovation: Beginning today, each Sunday edition of this paper will have various columns reserved to questions of charity, of charitable economics, and social problems.
Frederic also announced that beginning on October 15th, the Sunday edition would be sold on the streets of Paris for five cents. This was truly a new initiative. There were other magazines and newspapers that dealt with charitable economics, such as Anales de la Caridad, a magazine read by people of the higher classes. L’Ere Nouvelle wanted to be a publication that was concerned about the common people and that was therefore affordable for those who were most forgotten in society.
This program immediately attracted the attention of several people which led to the initiation of an outpouring of assistance on behalf of the vast majority of the populations who lived in agonizing conditions.
In Paris numerous and various acts of charity were initiated. In the Seminary of the Holy Spirit and the Carmelites courses of religious instruction were begun for the workers. The Abbot Chatóne began a course on Social Law which was given on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons. On various occasions Frederic invited his brother, Abbot Alphonse Ozanam, to work on behalf of those salaried people in order to alleviate their disastrous situation. He urged him to not only be concerned about alleviating their hunger and misery but also to look for ways to raise them up, capacitating them through education so that they themselves could learn how to rise above their present situation. He said: I hope that soon you will become concerned about and find time for the working class who must be very numerous in Lille and toward whom you have always had a just predilection. I have always supported your inclinations toward these laborious people, poor and strangers to the finer things that are so often displayed by wealthier people. If a greater number of Christians and, especially ecclesiastics, had been concerned about the workers ten years ago, we would be more sure about their future. I am wholly with you with regard to Sunday rest. I am going to redact an article on this question and I will distribute it and post it on the walls. On a different matter, I will soon have a meeting with professors in my house and we are going to deal with the subject of funding public courses, a type of night school for these good people21.
Ozanam struggled to obtain the right to Sunday rest and was able to achieve some improvements in the conditions that workers had to endure. He attempted to draw in his friends as collaborators and wanted them to join in this just cause. He sought moral and material support and received support from the Church and other individuals.
Frederic’s action was not limited to Paris. Through his brother, who was in Lille, he intervened so that the clergy of that area would meet together. In a letter that he wrote in this regard we read: Concern yourself as much with servants as with masters, with workmen as with employers. This is the only means of salvation for the Church of France. The priests must set aside their pious parishes, little flocks of good sheep in the midst of an enormous population to whom the parish priest is a stranger. The priests must concern themselves not only with the indigent, but with the immense class of poor who do not ask for alms … Now more than ever, we ought to meditate on the beautiful passage in the second chapter of the Epistle of James, which seems as if it had been written expressly for this present time.
Beside his brother, Frederic had recourse to other people whom he asked to help him. Near the end of December, 1848, he asked the Abbot Chantóne to look for committed laymen, volunteers who might be willing to work on behalf of the promotion of the workers.
During the same month he wrote to his friend, A. Cochin and invited him to a meeting which would take place in the house of Abbot Chantone, located on the Rue Saint Hyacinthe, Saint Michel, no. 8 at 7:00pm. On the same day and with the same words he wrote to another important person: Claude Louis Michel.
Response from public and private authorities.
The misery of the 13th arrondissement in Paris was taken under consideration by the National Assembly and there it was decided to remedy this situation through a governmental decree. The mayor, Dr. Trelat entrusted the distribution of official resources to the many needy families to the Conference of Saint Vincent de Paul. These resources were distributed by sectors to 2,500 families, 70 for each Commissary. This work was carried out during a period of four months. At the same time a school was established in this district so that the children there could receive an education.
Since the official resources were not sufficient, a private initiative was begun and donations were received from the National Guard to assist children in their education and adults in their professional formation.
All of these different ways of assisting those in need were carried out by Frederic and his collaborators, but were not viewed favorably by many sectors. His friends, one of them being Montalembert, began a wave of protest against Frederic’s doctrine and the charitable work that he had begun. They accused L’Ere Nouvelle of promoting socialist ideas because public assistance and the right to distribute resources should be reserved only to the State.
Both Frederic Ozanam and the Abbot Maret, director of the newspaper since August 1848, made it very clear that the right to distribute resources was reserved to the State. They organized and supported organized public assistance but stated that this did not eliminate the need for private charity and thus beneficent Institutions and other charitable endeavors should have the freedom to engage in these activities and no obstacles should be placed in their way. The State should only act in those situations where individual action cannot be carried out.
The Church, as a religious institution, assumed the role of the State for many centuries and at the time of the French Revolution, the State once again assumed this responsibility. Ozanam however affirmed, charity should not be totally assumed by the State since charity is greater than the State.
- See footnote on p. 7.
- Baunard, op.cit., p. 8.
- Joseph I. Dirvin, C.M., Frederic Ozanam: A life in Letters, Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, St. Louis, Missouri, 1986, p. 91.
- Baunard, op.cit., p. 275.
- CCD., X;267.
- Dirvin, op.cit., p. 24.
- Baunard, opcit., p. 273.
- Dirvin, op.cit., p. 72.
- Dirvin, op.cit., p. 63.
- Dirvin, op. cit., p.64-65.
- Baunard, op. cit., p. 167.
- Coates, op., cit., p. 265.
- Dirvin, op. cit., p. 22.
- CCD., VII:115.
- Kathleen O’Meara, Frederic Ozanam, New York Christian Press Association Publishing Company, 1911, 0. 245.
- Ibid., p. 245.
- Ibid., p 246.
- Ibid.,p. 237.
- Ibid., p. 238.
- Ibid., p. 278.