Being on the Side of the Workers • A Weekly Reflection with Ozanam

by | Oct 23, 2017 | Formation, Reflections

Of course, the districts of Saint-Jacques and of Jardin-des-Plantes do not always give the spectacle of the same desolation. We know there shopping streets, poor but livable houses, narrow but well-kept rooms that retain remains of an old slack, waxed furniture, white linen, and that cleanliness that is the wealth of the poor. But the comparison becomes more painful between the memory of that welfare, the result of long work and a strict economy, and the misery of these hardworking workers, of these active housewives, who are indignant at their idleness and who, after long days spent at the doors of the works and the shops where they are not hired, complain of perishing of both boredom and need. And here at least there is no room for that ready excuse of the hardhearted, that the poor are wretched by their own fault, as if the want of light and of morality were not the most deplorable and crying of miseries for every society that wishes to live! […] Amongst these inhabitants of the Faubourgs, whom it is the custom to represent as a people devoid of all faith, there are very few who have not a cross at the head of their bed, a picture, or a bit of blessed palm — very few who died at the hospital of their wounds of June without having opened their arms to the priest and their hearts to forgiveness.

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Frederic Ozanam, article «Aux gens de bien» [To good people], in L’Ère Nouvelle, nº 151, September 15, 1848.

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Reflection:

  1. The social question is an expression that appeared during the nineteenth century to group all the issues and conflicts that the Industrial Revolution had brought with it, including poverty and the poor situation of the working class.
  2. The Industrial Revolution originally had its origin in the United Kingdom, during the second half of the eighteenth century, extending throughout Europe and the world during the nineteenth century. It brought a profound transformation of the social, economic and labor realities, from a rural economy based on agriculture and commerce, to an urban one based on industry and the mechanical processes in production. As a consequence, production increased exponentially, requiring less manpower and production time to carry it out.
  3. However, liberalism was unable to improve the conditions of the immense working class that emigrated to the big cities in search of work in the factories. The same law of supply and demand caused the working conditions to be anything but dignified. Frederic cries several times against this situation of those new poor who, even having a job, could not get out of the poverty belt that surrounded their existence, no matter how hard they tried and strived. In fact, being a worker, an honest and humble laborer, did not guarantee that he could lead a decent life, much less if he belonged to the immense mass of unemployed who barely subsisted in the suburbs of Paris.
  4. Frederic works actively for the dignity of the workers, for their promotion and their rights. In other texts he speaks, in this sense, of decent payments, rest days, hours of daily work, child labor, etc. But he not only writes but also acts: in 1846 he began, with other fellow professors of the Sorbonne, to endeavor for the dignity of the workers by giving them free classes in the premises of a church in Paris: “After the exhaustion of his morning’s lecture at the Sorbonne, he was constantly to be heard in the evening lecturing to an assembly of working-men in the crypt of St. Sulpice, and he would put forth his powers as earnestly here as when addressing the most fastidious and cultivated audience. […] It is not surprising that Ozanam should have been a popular speaker with the working-men. He counted himself one of them, and his eloquence had in it a note of real personal pride when it dwelt upon the dignity and power of labor, of human toil in every field. His works abound in fine passages on labor as one of the regenerating forces of the world, and of arguments and examples tending to show how the laborer, oppressed and despised by Paganism, was rehabilitated by Christianity.” (Cf. Kathleen O’Meara, Frederic Ozanam, professor at the Sorbonne: his life and works, Edimburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1876, chapter XVIII).
  5. Work is, for Ozanam, the great regenerating force of the world: “Labor, the chastisement of the Fall, has become the law of regeneration. It is labor that produces glorious epochs, when it finds inspiration there, and, when it does not find it, it still produces useful men and estimable nations.” (Cf. «Des Devoirs littéraires des chrétiens» [The Literary Duties of Christians], in Œuvres complétes de Frédéric Ozanam, volume 7).
  6. This text by Frederic, which we now reflect on, speaks to us of families who suffered the crisis of the moment and who, living in streets of “good reputation”, practically became as “shameful poor” of the time of Saint Vincent de Paul. But above all, it tells us the life of the workers and their families, who can not get out of the misery still working, and of those “active housewives” who do not find work in factories to supplement family income with. Not even wanting to work they can do it, because nobody hired them.
  7. The parallelism of those times with the present is, without a doubt, astonishing. The global crisis that the world is suffering since 2008, that we still suffer, — and that many equate to the one suffered in the thirties of the twentieth century — has brought about similar scenes to those that Frederic witnessed: massive layoffs, wages of misery, unworthy working conditions, families that were living reasonably well and now become part of the pockets of poverty in the cities… the gap, in short, between rich and poor enlarging more and more.
  8. At the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical “Rerum Novarum”, thus initiating what we know as the main body of the Social Doctrine of the Church. “The historical panorama that precedes the encyclical is that an attitude of indifference, not only to God, but also to the miseries of others, was lived on a larger scale. Philosophical liberalism nourished with its ideas the economic system known as liberal capitalism. The utopia of socialist idealisms, mainly of Marxist origin, encouraged nonconformities and demands of the workers and pushed them into the class struggle. It would need to be blind not to see the scandalous poverty of human settlements in the proletarian neighborhoods, the lack of what is necessary to live worthily. These families did not live, but subsist. Individual morality, the resignation of some people and the exhortation to the generosity of the rich with the dispossessed is the voice of some authors for awakening a social conscience. While we must remember that several ecclesiastics and laity had preceded, denounced and acting with social meaning” (Fr. Manuel Loza Macías, S.J., at http://es.catholic.net)
  9. From the first paragraph, Pope Leo XII makes clear the approach of the question: “The changed relations between masters and workmen; in the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses;” “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class;” “It has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition;” “To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”. No doubt, they are clear sentences and that take an unfortunate actuality, also today, before the realities that injustice and abuse that suffers the working class, in general.
  10. We Vincentians can not keep away from this reality. The Social Doctrine of the Church forms a core part of our social and charitable action, and for this reason, like Ozanam, the struggle for the dignity of the workers is also part of our work.

Questions for dialogue:

  1. How are we, Vincentians, working for the dignity and rights of the working class?
  2. Do we denounce the situations of injustice we see in our dealings with the poor?
  3. Do we know the Social Doctrine of the Church? Do we study it? Do we practice it?
  4. Can we reach some kind of commitment as a group, to improve in this sense? For example: could we ask our parish priests, our religious councils, to provide us with a course on Social Doctrine?

Javier F. Chento
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