Chapter VI: Ozanam and Christian Democracy
Ozanam lived in an age of revolution. Charles X. had been driven off the throne by the followers of Voltaire and Rousseau, whose sophisms and fallacies had shaken the faith of the greater number of Frenchmen in Divine Providence. Louis Philippe, who succeeded him, called himself “King of the French,” not King of France. He was a trimmer, who believed in compromise so as to please both parties in the State. He smiled sweetly at the Clerical and Monarchical parties, and winked confidentially at their opponents. He promised to hold the balance equally between them, and hoped to profit by the mistakes of both sides.
Scepticism was the predominant note of the educated classes, Reason was accepted as the judge of all truths, and Religion was laughed at as the folly of mankind, a superstition only fit to be believed in by women and children. The professors in the Colleges and Universities were all free-thinkers, and scoffed at the idea of Divine Revelation as childishness.
The position of Catholics like Ozanam was a difficult one when he was appointed as a professor in the Sorbonne. The Catholic party had always been allied to those of the Legitimists and the nobility, the landowners of France. These had never studied the interests of the agricultural classes, who paid the taxes which supported the State. The first French Revolution would not have succeeded as it did had it not been for the general dissatisfaction caused by the exactions of the Farmers General of the Taxes appointed by Louis XV. The people generally welcomed the new Government as deliverers from an intolerable yoke of oppression. The new Government called itself “Liberal” and preached a new doctrine of Liberty and Equality, promising all kinds of reforms of abuses, which were much needed. Many of the young generation in the Colleges and most of the middle classes adopted Liberalism as their party, hoping through it for a new heaven and a new earth. Lamennais, Lacordaire, and Montalembert were Liberals, and even a few of the clergy here and there. Ozanam himself, although detesting the irreligious teachings of the leaders, admitted that there was some logical truth in some of their theories —such as the natural equality of men. But this could only exist in an ideal Republic where all were animated by the same spirit of justice and friendship. He had long dreamed of an ideal Republic organized by a Christian Democracy, Government by the people for the people. But he soon realized by experience that such an ideal was not possible in a world in which men were only moved by selfishness and jealousy. The example of the Apostles in Jerusalem, when the first Christians had all things in common, was no longer practised in the nineteenth century, except in Monasteries and Convents. There all the inmates were equal and all goods were in common, and the Abbot was only primus inter pares. The theory was therefore practical under certain circumstances. But he found that the fallacies of Rousseau had taken possession of the popular mind, and until their foolishness and futility had been demonstrated, the ideal could never be realized; and yet something must be done if society and even Christianity was to be saved. Some effort must be made to save the common people from the dangerous doctrines of Socialism which were preached. He wrote to the members of the Conference: “Put yourselves, as Pius IX. is trying to do, at the head of all reasonable movements, and convert the people, as the pagans were converted at the fall of the Roman Empire, by showing the people your faith, your sympathy, and your example. I have always believed, when matters were at their worst, in the possibility of Christian Democracy—indeed, as far as politics go, I believe in nothing else. The true principle,” he said, “was the self-sacrifice of each for the benefit of all, and this is the basis of all Christian charity. Let the working classes understand that the Church is the mother of all classes, and perfectly unbiassed in her affection for all men.”
The results of the Revolution of 1848 were an appalling state of destitution in Paris, for over a quarter of a million of the workmen were unemployed, and the distress of their families was extreme. Here was a great opportunity for the Brothers, and he urged them to embrace it. They did so nobly, and many rich men collected money for them to help them in their work. “Go and make friends among the poor,” he said to them : “give to each family what personal help you can. A better training enables you to assist them; in one place it will be by legal advice, in another medical. To some you may give practical advice, for others you may procure work. In all cases help them to help themselves, and consider it your primary duty, whether you take them tickets for relief or not, to render them some personal service.”
And this has been the practice of the Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul ever since in all parts of the world. It is the only practical form of Christian Democracy which is possible.
Whether Ozanam’s forebodings of a great struggle between Labour and Capital is to be fought out in England or America the future alone will show.
The efforts of the Socialists of late years point to their hope of a great international strike—a war of the classes. The Socialistic forces, true to their origin, are diametrically opposed to the Catholic Church. The new paganism hates both Catholic principles and practices; instead of brotherly love, it teaches self-love. It denies Revelation, the supernatural, and the authority of the Church. It exalts the Seven Deadly Sins into Civic Virtues. Here the work of the brothers can be of great aid to the Church. In their visits to their cases they can see that the children are baptized and attend Mass and Catechism on Sundays, and that when they leave school they get Catholic situations ; that they associate with Catholics in clubs, etc., and that they regard the brothers always as friends and advisers.
The annual reports sent by the Conferences to the Councils prove how generally these works are carried out.
The personal friendship of the brothers with the poor, their courtesy and helpfulness, will have more weight than the flimsy sophistries of the Socialists. The common sense of the working man will show him that all the advantages offered to him by them have been already provided by the care of the Church. He will look upon the Socialists as upon blind men groping helplessly in the dark after an ideal which exists before them. As a plain fact, the community in which are found the ideals of true Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity is the Catholic Church itself. I believe, as did Ozanam, that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is destined to become a great international power in the future, the greater as it is perfectly disinterested, and as free from national or party prejudices as was the “Good Samaritan” in the Scriptures, the prototype of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.