4] Saint Vincent and justice
Another characteristic trait of the spirit that Vincent has passed on to us is that besides seeing the poor as persons who have their own proper dignity and rights, we also owe these people justice and not pity.
In the document produced as a result of the 1971 Synod of Bishops we read: In the Old Testament God reveals himself to us as the liberator of the oppressed and the defender of the poor, demanding from people faith in him and justice towards one’s neighbor. It is only in the observance of the duties of justice that God is truly recognized as the liberator of the oppressed (Justice in the World, #30).
For Vincent de Paul the poor are always and above all else individuals who live in a situation of misery and exploitation and marginalization and injustice. When he established the Confraternities, the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity he did this to make the priests and the laity aware of the fact that they love God or betray God in persons who are poor.
Let us return to the Synodal document: Christian love of neighbor and justice cannot be separated. For love implies an absolute demand for justice, namely a recognition of the dignity and rights of one’s neighbor (Justice in the World, #33).
At the same time let us recall here how Vincent described the relationship between charity and justice: justice may be accompanied by mercy (CCD:I:449); there is no act of charity that is not accompanied by justice (CCD:II:68); the obligations of justice have priority over those of charity (CCD:VII:633); 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 mercy! (CCD:VII:115).
For Vincent de Paul, openness toward the poor and their integral promotion depended primarily on justice. It is a response to a right that the poor possess.
As often happens, Vincent’s position was revolutionary for his time; he was not a revolutionary but his thinking and way of acting conflicted with that which was believed and lived by “respectable” men and women.
What was unheard of during the time of Saint Vincent, has today become part of the magisterium of the Church, a demand that has been placed on our Christian way of acting. Let us look at an example of this, an example that is found in the Compendium: Those who think they can live the supernatural virtue of love without taking into account its corresponding natural foundations, which include duties of justice, deceive themselves. Charity is the greatest social commandment. It respects others and their rights. It requires the practice of justice and it alone makes us capable of it. Charity inspires a life of self-giving (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, p.331, #583) … and profound links exist between evangelization and human promotion: these include links of an anthropological order, because the man who is to be evangelized is not an abstract being but is subject to social and economic questions. They also include links in the theological order, since one cannot disassociate the plan of creation from the plan of Redemption. That latter plan touches the very concrete situations of injustice to be combated and of justice to be restored. They include links of the eminently evangelical order, which is that of charity: how in fact can one proclaim the new commandment without promoting in justice and in peace the true, authentic advancement of man? (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, p.36-37, #66).
Justice and charity are in harmony with one another and mutually complimentary. Charity in no way wishes to cover over and hide the obligations of justice but rather wants to make it very clear that we have an obligation to assist those in need. Charity does not annul the demands of justice but rather makes them obligatory. Justice is based on love and moves out in the direction of love.
Saint Vincent intervened directly and indirectly in politics but his personal vocation was that of evangelizing the poor but in an attempt to be faithful to his vocation he intervened in political matters. He intervened in order to obtain the well-being of poor men and women who were condemned and dying of hunger.
Sisters and brothers, political neutrality does not exist. In an inter-related world such as ours every action (whether active or passive) has a political meaning. Silence, when confronted with an unjust situation, supposes that one tolerates and allows said injustice to continue and thus is a passive way of participating in an injustice.
In Saint Vincent’s writing we have many examples that reveal how he inculcated in his followers this sense of justice and defense of those who were poor. We will look at just one example, that which is found in a letter of July 21, 1657 that was written to Monsieur Charles Ozenne: Our Consul in Tunis has been expelled by the King for refusing to grant him something that was against his conscience. The Consul [in Algiers] is in prison because a merchant from Marseilles who went bankrupt, left town, as did a renegade and three or four other slaves (CCD:VI:346).
Fortunately we also have the letter that the Saint addressed to Monsieur Jean Barreu, the consul who had been accused: May the Holy Name of God be ever blessed for having found you worthy of suffering — and suffering for the sake of justice — for by the grace of God, you have given no cause for this ill treatment! (CCD:VI:345).
My dear brothers and sisters, the defense of truth and justice and the willingness to suffer in their defense … such actions are constitutive elements of Christian action on behalf of building up the Kingdom of God. We, the children of Vincent de Paul, if we want to be found worthy of such a father, ought to give meaning to the words that are found in the Synodal Document: Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation (Justice in the World, #6).
I do not want to conclude without mentioning Vincent’s sense of justice which led him to protect the welfare of those employed by the Congregation, something that was unheard of at that time. Three centuries before social security came into existence Vincent wrote to one of the superiors of the Congregation: If you can pay your servant’s wages for the four months during which he was ill, as well as the expenses of his doctor and medicines, I think that will be a good idea, since he is a poor man and a good servant (CCD:VI:97). Vincent said the same thing regarding some workers who suffered an accident in another house of the Congregation (Cf., CCD:VI:344).
We could continue with an endless list of examples that reveal how our Founder was a defender of justice and the rights of the poor but let us now conclude this section by saying that the life of Vincent de Paul was completely consumed by the fire of charity, which led him to affirm the manner in which we must serve the poor in their time of need. Remember the text? We are to run to meet the spiritual needs of our neighbor as if we were running to a fire (CCD:XI:25).