In order to deepen our understanding of the theme of justice, let us first conceptualize this concept in order to analyze it within the context of the social thinking of Frederic Ozanam. Justice is a word that has many meanings. It is used by many different sectors of society and therefore, not only in the courts or the various legislative bodies throughout the world (places where laws are developed). There is no doubt that justice is very important in the present social context where the values of men and women as well as their dignity and their basic rights are threatened and often trampled upon.

Justice is intimately related to the ethical activity of people. The original idea of justice has been passed down through the ages but has also acquired distinct characteristics in each era. According to its original concept, justice consists of giving to each person his/her due. Thus, that concept embraces the respectful recognition of the other as a person. That appears to be a rather simple definition, but in reality, it is not … especially when we reflect on those words in light of the consumerist and selfish society in which we live. When discussing the doctrine of justice, Aristotle defines justice as the primary ethical virtue [1]. In that same work, Aristotle defines justice as the most complete and most important of all the virtues. A Latin writer and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero highlighted the fact that this superiority of the mind to such externals inspires great admiration, so justice, above all, on the basis of which men are called “good men” seems to people generally a quite marvelous virtue [2].

Saint Augustine stated that if there is no justice, there is no society [3]. For Augustine, justice is that virtue that, on the human level, is fulfilled by loving God and the neighbor. The multiplicity of the forms of injustice simply point out the many different ways in which we are called to act with justice.

Pope John Paul II frequently denounced the incongruency between the words and the actions of people. In today’s world, people will often publicly profess their love for justice, but not engage in the practice of that virtue. That is clear from the great number of injustices that are committed in so many different sectors of our society (education, health care, police forces, politics, the workplace, etc.).

The concept of justice is also related to the question of satisfying people’s basic needs … a process that that occurs by assuring the minimum conditions for the survival of people (providing not only for their material needs but also for the emotional, work and spiritual needs).

The biblical concept of justice is somewhat different. In the Scriptures, justice is, above all else, of divine origin and refers to God’s fidelity. In the Old Testament, justice is defined as an activity of God who is, par excellence, just. Justice preserves its same meaning in the New Testament, but in the letters of Saint Paul we find a new element that focuses on God’s goodness and mercy.

The Christian concept of justice guarantees that love of neighbor is not reduced to some form of competition or self-centeredness because true love consists of loving others. Therefore, to live in a just manner means that we love our brothers and sisters in a way that empowers them to live in a dignified manner, empowers them to love themselves, to love their neighbor, and to love God.

The origin of the phrase social justice is rooted in the nineteenth century, a response to the excesses of liberal capitalism that reduced the human person to an industrial spare part. Frederic was one of the precursors of the Church’s Social Doctrine as he denounced the lack of respect that was shown to workers and also denounced the fact that negotiated work contracts were not fulfilled. Furthermore, he also spoke out against the precarious conditions of modern urban living.

A famous phrase of Ozanam reveals the lines of thought of this holy and visionary man. Frederic Ozanam said that justice supposes much love [4]. In Vincentian spirituality, the practice of love, charity and justice is revealed in the defense of the causes of the poor, in the struggle for social justice and in the tireless pursuit of the dignity of the human person. In other words: it is impossible for the members of the Vincentian Family to speak about justice without taking into consideration love … love which grounds all human action.

The above cited words of Ozanam call attention to the priority that he gave to the construction of a just society: the fight against hunger, the unjust wages of workers, the lack of basic social rights (such as retirement or vacations), the precarious living conditions found on the peripheries of Paris. Those were some of the challenges that Frederic and his companions had to confront. The reality that Frederic lived is the same as that experienced today by countless members of the Vincentian Family. The outrage of Ozanam as he confronted those difficulties must also be our indignation.

Frederic Ozanam understood that the fight for justice was also composed of an act of charity and love toward those people who suffered various forms of oppression, that is, those concerned about building a society of justice are practicing love. Our Lord Jesus Christ told us: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).

Let us work to make social justice a reality in our midst and let us also remember to proclaim the Word of God to our brothers and sisters who suffer the most and are excluded, vulnerable and aggrieved.

Notes:
[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/aristotle/Ethics.pdf
(the author does not give a page reference and I was unable to find the specific reference to this book).

[2] Cf. Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis, Book II, chapter xi https://ryanfb.github.io/loebolus-data/L030.pdf

[3] Robert Maynard Hutchins (editor in chief), Great Books of the Western World: Augustine, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 1952, Volume 18; The City of God, book XIX, chapter xxiii: And therefore, where there is not this righteousness whereby the one supreme God rules the obedient city according to His grace, so that it sacrifices to none but him, and whereby in all the citizens of this obedience city, the soul consequently rules the body and reason the vices in the rightful order, so that, as the individual just man so also the community and people of the just, live by faith which works by love, that love whereby man loves God as He ought to be loved, and his neighbor as himself — there, I say, there is not an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgement of right, by a community of interests. But if there is not this, there is not a people … and where there is no people, there can be no republic.

[4] A.A. de Tarrazi, “Frederic Ozanam, a lay saint for our times”, in Vincentiana, Vol. XLI, #3 (May-June 1997), p. 132-146 (Translator’s Note: I was unable to find that phrase in these pages).

Written by: Renato Lima de Oliveira
16th General President of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM
Eastern Province, USA

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