Justice is a fixed star which human societies try to follow from their uncertain orbits.
It can be seen from different points of view, but justice itself remains unchanged.
Frederic Ozanam had a vision of society which was far removed from what he saw around him. In early nineteenth century France, there was constant upheaval and social disruption; the people were victims of extreme poverty, augmented by revolutions, unemployment and cholera. Growing up in Lyons, Ozanam had been in touch with poverty, particularly through the work of his parents; but as a student at the Sorbonne, he was shocked by the squalor and deprivation he witnessed in the Mouffetard district and some other areas of Paris.
While practising Law in Lyons, he was upset by the injustice he witnessed against poor people at the court. He expressed this strongly in a letter to Francois Lallier, October 1837: ‘Justice is the last moral haven for contemporary society; to see it surrounded with corruption is for me reason for indignation each instant renewed. I almost always return from court deeply disturbed. I can no longer resign myself to behold the evil which is allowed to go on.’
While thinking of his work for justice, it is important to remember the great abilities of intelligence and dedication he brought to this struggle. On the one hand was his ability to analyse situations, and on the other, his extraordinary energy in practical action. He combined a rare degree of intellectual genius and an extraordinary drive to work on behalf of those most in need. In February 1848 he wrote to Théophile Foisset: ‘I ask that … we take care of the people who have too many needs and not enough rights and who justly demand a more complete role in public affairs, guarantees for work and against misery….’
Ozanam saw the opportunity to work as a fundamental right for people. In April of 1848 [the year in which he was nominated for National Assembly] he wrote in a letter to the citizens of Lyons: ‘I will support the rights to work; the independent work of the labourer, of the artisan, of the merchant who remains master of his work and salary; the association of workers among themselves or of workers and contractors who voluntarily join together their work and their capital.’ In the same year, he promised [in a letter to the Constituents of the Department of the Rhone] to ‘promote with all my efforts the measures of justice and planning which will alleviate the sufferings of the people.’ He saw ‘the formidable question of work [as] the most pressing question of [his] time and also the most deserving to occupy great-hearted people.’
When he visited workers in an industrial setting he was saddened by what he witnessed. In 1836, he wrote to Emmanuel Bailly: ‘… I carried away a sad impression [of industry], considering to what horrible toil millions of people apply themselves to put bread between their teeth, producing affluence for a small number of the fortunate; and how the intelligence must be brutalised and the heart hardened [in these places of work].’ Thinking out loud, as it were, in a letter to Louis Janmot, November 1836, he asked ‘… whether society will be only a great exploitation to the profit of the strongest or a consecration of each individual for the good of all and especially for the protection of the weak.’ He was outraged at how poor people were being exploited for the benefit of the rich – ‘when the master considers his workers not as a partner nor even as an assistant, but as an instrument out of which he must extract as much service as possible at the smallest possible price.’
Although an academic of renown, he realised that one cannot know the issues that affect poor people without meeting them in a concrete way. Writing on the Origins of Socialism in 1848, he said: ‘The knowledge of social well-being and reform is to be learned, not from books, nor from the public platform, but in climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret, sitting by his bed-side, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secret of his lonely heart and troubled mind.’ He had learned this from personal experience because he had seen the sufferings of poor people first hand.
According to Ozanam, social justice demands that all Christians be a leaven in society. Writing to Lallier in November 1836, he says: “… if the question which today troubles the world around us is … [the] struggle of those who have nothing and those who have too much … our Christian duty is to intervene between these irreconcilable enemies ….’ Christians should be aware of inequalities and engage in addressing them. Ozanam believed that it was important to take a practical approach but also to base social action on historically solid analysis. Tiding the poor over the poverty crisis was not sufficient – the conditions which brought about the poverty must be analysed, with the aim of a long term improvement.
He also believed in the reciprocal benefit of helping the neighbour. In the tradition of Vincent de Paul, he was convinced that when we go to the help of those in need we receive from them more than we give them.
His vision was always gospel based. He saw no dichotomy between the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity of the 1789 Revolution and the principles of the gospel: ‘I recognize the temporal advent of the Gospel expressed by these three words: liberty, equality, fraternity.’ He declared himself ‘to be passionately in favour of liberty, in favour of the legitimate triumphs of the people, in favour of reforms which uplift’. He had written to Ernest Falconnet in 1834: ‘I think the power which exploits rather than uplifts should be condemned with courageous and unyielding voice.’ Authority should be used responsibly and with respect for the freedom of those governed. Addressing the question of power again in 1848 [to the Constituents of the Department of the Rhone] he wrote: ‘Power must not, entrusted to the instability of parties, ever be able to suspend individual freedom, to intrigue in questions of conscience or to silence the press.’
He did not support any political system in particular, but believed [as shown in a letter to Ernest Falconnet, 1834] that political systems in general should work for the good of the people: ‘I declare neither for nor against any government combination, but accept them as instruments for making man happier and better. If you want a formula, here it is: I believe in authority as a means; in liberty as a means; in love as the end.’
Ozanam took an active part in political debate. Meetings in the homes of the learned men of Paris [eg. Charles Comte de Montalambert, Felicité de Lamannais, Vincent Francois de Chateaubriand, Andre-Marie Ampere etc.] were a feature of the time, and Ozanam was a welcome guest at these. He used these and every other means at his disposal to promote justice for the poor. He regularly published articles and editorials in major newspapers promoting his views on justice and truth. With some friends, he founded a Newspaper, ‘l’Ere Nouvelle, to provide opportunity to discuss justice issues in a Christian context. Some of articles he published in L’Ere Nouvelle include: “The Causes of Misery” “From Help Which Humiliates to Help which Honours” “Dangers of Charity” “On Legal Charity”. He studied, he wrote, he spoke, he led his friends in action – all to promote the cause of justice. Ozanam wanted to see society reformed through debate and social action, not through revolution. He believed that ‘truth which will rise up to judge political systems.’
He wanted to engage everyone in the justice question and warned of the dangers of losing the support of any strata of society in the struggle for justice. He wrote to Alexandre Dufieux, April 1851: ‘… Let us principally learn to defend our convictions without hating our adversaries, to love those who think differently than we do, to recognize that there are Christians in all camps and that God can be served today as always.’ He was aware of the need for wisdom and prudence in order to keep everyone on board. He knew it would be unwise to disengage from the class struggle, or to stand with one side and cut off dialogue with the other. Writing to Léonce Curnier, March 1837, he said: ‘Christians [must] interpose themselves between the camp of the rich and the camp of the poor’ in order to bring about reconciliation between them.’
Ozanam stated: ‘The order of society is based on two virtues: justice and charity.… Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is justice’s role to prevent the attacks.’ This struggle is still going on around the world. Daily, the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul face the challenge of being the Samaritan to the person who has been wounded. Daily, the followers of Ozanam are called to fulfil the role of justice and work to bring about a more just society.