Saint Vincent Confronts the Crisis of Values of his era

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Luigi Mezzadri, CM

[This article first appeared in Vincencianismo y Nuevos Valores, XXXVI Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salmanca, 2011, p. 17-29).

Value or Virtue?

Saint Vincent lived during the Baroque era. At that time the word “value” referred to the personal dimension of an individual and defined the virtues of the soul which made a person strong and courageous. The word was also used by the military to denote courage and when this word was applied to economics it indicated the some object was very costly.

Morality used other words: good/evil, virtue/vices. These were objective realities, established by divine law and were not subjective in the sense that they were not dependent on the value that individuals placed upon them. Today we call something “good” because that is the value that an individual places on said reality. At the same time we realize that others might view the same reality in a different manner. In the time of our Founder good and evil were recognized by everyone. During the XVII century much consideration was given to “rules” (religious rules, the rules that governed personal behavior, the rules that governed international relationships) and much consideration was also given to the methods that enabled people to come to a shared understanding and correct thinking (Galileo and Descartes) or that enabled a clear communication of one’s thinking (the little method). As a result of all of this a central position was given to obedience, that is, obedience to the will of God, to divine law, to the Church’s decisions and to the rules that governed a religious community.

During the era of Baroque religion [1] objective qualities were given a value and this provided people with an objective manner to judge those persons who lacked such qualities. In 1595 Prospero Farinacci (1554-1618), a noted Roman lawyer, who did not hesitate to impose the use of capital punishment, was accused of engaging in homosexual activity. At that time such behavior was punishable by death. Farinacci was able to evade this punishment because Pope Clemente VIII granted him a reprieve with the following words: the flour (the judicial system) is good but the sack (the individual person) is not good … and so the Pope was forgiving.

If today good or virtue has a value it is because some individual has placed a value on good or virtue. An individual says that by acting in a certain way or by believing in certain realities one reveals that which is good or virtuous. Again something has a value because someone has placed a value on said object … some individual perceives this object as valuable. Value is not something objective but subjective. We can say that values are the fruit of secularization and modern individualism. Value today is something residual (something that I create and others may not consider as “good” that which from my point of view is “good”). Today the judgment and the words of Clement VIII would provoke numerous protests from the gay community

At that time the virtue in crisis (the virtue that was most exposed to violation was referred to as the virtue in crisis) was obedience. In fact it was this virtue of obedience that could most often clash with the rules. That is why Vincent spoke about a crisis in values. No one (except perhaps the libertines) questioned the “natural” order and what constituted that order. Homosexuality and protests against legitimate authority were sinful. Vincent did not want to enter into politics … note therefore the letter dated February 13, 1644 that was written to Guillaume Gallais: It is not expedient for us, Monsieur, to become involved in secular affairs, no matter what relation they may have to spiritual matters: (1) because Saint Paul advises ecclesiastics not to get mixed up in temporal and secular affairs; (2) because no one can serve two masters, God and the world, the spiritual and the temporal, as Our Lord says (CCD:II:493-494).

For Vincent this crisis in virtue was focused on persons in crisis who lacked virtue. Certainly today Vincent would also speak about “a crisis in values”. Value is something that arises as the result of an agreement that leads to a certain understanding. In Vincent’s mind the great ideals were not up for discussion. But such a position was not held by everyone. The discussion between Erasmus and Luther was basically a debate on the freedom of the will. Among libertines liberty was viewed as pure will. As such everything that the human person was allowed to do, including self-destruction, was known by everyone.

However that might be Baroque religion and society were not lacking in a crisis of values.

Cross or Crusade?

The first value was the unity of the Church. There is no doubt that Christ wanted the Church to be one. In Vincent’s time “sects” existed alongside the Church. One of the Missionaries asked for advice concerning the manner to act in matters that involved a Catholic and a Huguenot (described by the saint as a follower of a “false religion”: If it is on behalf of a Catholic against a member of that religion, how do you know if the Catholic is in the right in the justice he is demanding? There is a great difference between being a Catholic and being an upright man. Even if you were sure that his claim was based on justice, why would you not think that the Governor and the magistrates would judge the affair according to their conscience, especially when it is not a purely religious matter? … O Monsieur [Gallaisl, my dear brother! What great Missionaries you and I would be if we only knew how to animate souls with the spirit of the Gospel, which should make them conformable to Jesus Christ! I assure you that this is the most effective means of sanctifying Catholics and of converting heretics we could employ, and nothing can make them more obstinate in error and vice than to do the contrary (CCD:II:494:495).

We should remember that during the Thirty Years War Bérulle wanted France to enter into an alliance with Austria and Spain in order to defend Catholicism. At the same time, and for purely political reasons, Richelieu took the side of the Protestants. As a result, the values of peace and gentleness and forgiveness were trampled upon in order to serve the interests of the Church and/or the state.

The problem is the relation between the cross and the crusade. There was no dispute about the fact that Christians should defend the faith; there was, however, a question with regard to the means that should be utilized in said defense. Jesus did not cry out for legions of angels to defend him and he died on the cross forgiving those who had caused his death. Therefore, which is more effective: the cross or the sword?

José María Ibáñez Burgos (1937-1998) wrote: The Vincentian Christ is the Son of God incarnated in history, coming down from heaven to earth in order to do the will of God and save humankind. The love of the Father and the misery of men and women led Jesus to the humbling action of the Incarnation, to the infamous torture and execution on the cross. For Vincent it is impossible to continue the mission of Christ unless Christianity enters into this movement of the Incarnation [2].

The role of the kenosis of the Son of God is central to the logic of the Incarnation. It is this kenosis that enabled Jesus to become one with humankind so that he might lead apostolic men and women to become instruments of God and at the same time create in them an attitude of availability/mobility. Here, however, we are not talking about some efficient perspective: theologically speaking humility, in Vincent’s understanding, refers to the transcendence and the perfection of God, to those events surrounding Jesus’ Incarnation and Redemption, to Jesus’ lowering of himself to take on the form of a creature, the form of a sinful man.

With those who are renowned or those who are the last and the least

Vincent did not “invent” charity as Anouilh wrote in his script for the film Monsieur Vincent that was directed by Maurice Cloche (1947), but it is true that the situation of the poor during the seventeenth century became worse as a result of the financial crisis that occurred at that time and also as a result of the way in which society viewed those persons who were poor. Instead of viewing the poor as the image of Christ, the poor were seen as dangerous, an annoyance, and as sinners. The poor were poor because they did not work and anyone who did not work was evil. The foundlings were doubly cursed because “they were conceived in sin”. Therefore did not people cooperate with evil when they assisted and provided for the foundlings? The bishop of Venice, Antoine Godeau (1605-1672) wrote that the rich man in the gospel was condemnded not because he did not invite Lazarus to eat with him at table but because he did not allow Lazarus to eat the crumbs under the table [3]. The crumbs! Once again religion became lost in the abstract and was unable to have an impact on life and thus unable to bring about a change. It was as though someone was attempting to eliminate the tension of the Incarnation and thus establish monophysite Christology as a value [4].

The Church was the first order of the Kingdom. As a result of the wars of religion the Church experienced various tensions.

The first tension was that of spiritual renewal. The “mystical invasion” was seen as a positive phenomenon. The Church returned to prayer and prayer was returned to the Church.

The second tension was the recovery of political prestige. With the conversion of Henry IV the Catholic Church recovered its role as the state religion. Churches were rebuilt and goods that had been stolen during the war were restored to the Church. Many nobles who had abandoned the Church and had become involved in the Protestant reform returned to Catholicism and the bishops were granted a prominent role in the political sphere. The paradox in all of this was that there was a wealthy church in a poor France. This reality of poverty led people to act on various initiatives, for example, the establishment of a general hospital which placed large numbers of poor people in huge buildings (in reality, concentration camps) in order to remove these individuals from the street (thus people were no longer begging). As Father Ibáñez Burgos observed, this initiative of the general hospital and others like it were the result of two phenomena: [1] the process in which the absolute power of the state was exalted and therefore the poor could not be allowed to cast dark shadows on the splendor of the state; [2] an abstract theology, almost monophysite, that defended dogma and preached against sin but closed its eyes to the suffering of those who were poor. This form of theology allowed people to rebuke the poor when they blasphemed but said nothing about the rich who, because of their selfishness, caused the poor to suffer and to blaspheme. Vincent, as a result of his experience of charitable action that was poorly organized, initiated a movement that engaged him and others in a struggle against poverty. He did not limit himself to creating structures (homes for the foundlings, hospice du Nom-de-Jésus, assisting the areas devastated by war, providing for the galley salves), but gave meaning and a sense of direction to these structures and institutions. He did this at a time when the church was tempted to exalt in her splendor and thus he created a crisis with regard to the value of poverty, the value of assisting the poor and the merit of the works of mercy (a medieval tradition).

If the poor during the Medieval Era were the image of Christ, then during the seventeenth century they were seen as lazy, spreaders of heresy, blasphemers, persons who spread various forms of evil and, as such, they were a danger to society. Therefore begging and the giving of alms were suppressed. The Edict of Moulins (1566) declared that the poor were to be assisted only in the place of their residence. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the prevalent idea was that the poor were to be the subject of providential policies (the institution of a general almsgiving in Lyon [1531-1534], a department for the poor [1530-1544], the general hospital [1656, 1662]).

It is clear that thanks to Saint Vincent the church aligned itself with the poor and could also have recourse to the members of the aristocracy. In the crisis of value Saint Vincent gave a valued response.

The century of honor

Another factor in the crisis was the custom of dueling.

The church considered the duel as an offense against the divine and therefore, high treason. The guilty parties were excommunicated. Henry IV condemned this practice and Richelieu, in the decree of February, 1626, imposed the death penalty on those who, for a second time, were guilty of this offense. The cardinal showed his power when in 1632 he had Montomrency-Bouteville [5] decapitated for having participated in twenty-two mortal duels. The Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, together with Vincent de Paul, worked for the enactment of laws against dueling. Many royal decrees were issued before this practice came to an end. The duel was seen as a “question of honor” that allowed one to deny an accusation: one who lied was not an honorable person. In reality the duel did not demonstrate honor but created honor. Thus the kings condemned this practice even though they often praised those who dueled.

Nobles frequently had recourse to the duel because they were more concerned about their reputation and self-protection then they were about the dictates of their conscience.

It is easy to see how a false sense of honor was stake: Humility consists in emptying ourselves completely before God, overcoming oursevles in order to place God in our heart, not seeking the esteem and good opinion of others, and struggling constantly against any impulse of vanity. Ambition cuases a person to establish himself, to seek to become well known so that people will say, “Look at him!” Humility causes us to empty ourselves of self so that God alone may be manifest, to whom glory may be given. Humility bespeaks the love of being despised and not putting ourselves forward, with each of us considering himself a poor wretch. It always says “Honor and glory to God alone, who is the Being of Beings!” It imprints in us these sentiments: “I renounce honor, I renounce glory, in a word, I renounce anything that can make me vain; for, alas, I’m nothing but dust and corruption! My God, only You alone should reign; and if there were in me something that might not be in You, my God, I would willingly divest myself of it to give it to you and to annihilate myself in my inmost being.” Those are the various affections of the humble man and ones Missioners should have; but the light makes us see clearly the contrary of not wishing to be esteemed and to be known. That’s the second teaching absolutely necessary for Missioners; for I ask you, how could a proud person adjust to poverty? Our purpose is to serve the poor, uncultured common people; now, if we don’t adapt ourselves to them, in no way will we do any good for them. The means of doing it, however, is humility because, through humility, we annihilate ourselves and establish God as the Sovereign Being (CCD:XII:247-248).

In 1635 Vincent wrote to M. Portail: Remember, Monsieur. we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ. Now, once these foundations have been laid, let us give ourselves up to contempt, to shame, to ignominy, and let us disclaim the honors people pay us. the good reputation and the applause they give us, and let us do nothing which has not that end in view (CCD:I:276).

If the life of Christ was one of continual humiliation so too then Missionaries (active and passive) should model their life on that of Christ: Must not a priest die of shame for claiming a reputation in the service he gives to God and for dying in his bed, when he sees Jesus Christ rewarded for his work by disgrace and the gibbet (CCD:I:276).

God blesses the humble things and not those that make a clatter and proclaim our committimus [6] (CCD:II:351) … this could be translated: I have friends in high places. The esteem and approval of those in positions of authority and the esteem and approval of the ordinary people … these were obstacles.


Closed up upon themselves men and women cannot see the mystery of the poor. Charity, however, leads people to the practice of affective and effective love, a concept that Vincent borrowed from Saint Bernard and Saint Francis de Sales. This concept revived the question connected with that of humility, namely, the generosity of spirit. Humility leads us to consider our own nothingness and places us before the reality of who we really are, that is, places us before the gifts that the Lord has bestowed upon us. Thus we are able to say: we can do everything in the name of the One who gives us strength. Such a perspective opens us to new possibilities in as much as we are now able to see the poor as a mystery of presence … a mystery of Christ’s presence. This leads us to an understanding of the words to leave God for God and also to an understanding of the correlation between poverty and humility. The poor are not attached to the goods of this world and are completely available to God and are near to God. Vincent found this to be very attractive and this gave a direction to his action … an action that should not be trivialized by presenting it as a worldly ideal.

Vincent, in his charitable/social action preserved the values that ran the risk of becoming lost and forgotten. He tried to involve the hierarchy and the rich in service on behalf of the poor and the marginalized. In this regard the hierarchy of the French church did very little. Vincent sought and found resources for his charitable action among the nobles and the upper classes of society. The politics between the church and the state (and not the Church’s charitable action) became the beneficiaries of the Church’s goods (the church owned between fifteen and twenty percent of the land that could be cultivated). Vincent did not propose some type of upheaval, but his experience placed him ahead of his time. Vincent wanted to give something back to those who were poor and so he dedicated his life to the service of the poor … that was inspired by a new anthropology that did not uphold the ideals of wealth and power but rather the ideals of poverty and humility. Self-emptying and embracing one’s nothingness became conditions for the perfection of charity and these same conditions led one to a wholehearted acceptance of others. This is not in any way a denial of progress. Vincent’s recommendation to love all the states in which God is pleased to place us (whether joy and consolation or sadness and distress (CCD:XI:331) does not consign Christianity to a state of passive indifference. The criteria of right judgment (in humility and for humility) became real as all of Vincent’s energy was directed toward the service of his brothers and sisters. In this way he achieved a unity between humility and poverty and activity that promoted the cause of those who were poor. Only in radical detachment do we find find perfect freedom and therefore all action on behalf of others presents us with an opportunity to become more free, an opportunity to make a disinterested offer of self to others and an opportunity to engage in a search for the good of our neighbor.

Vincent then focused on the meaning of evangelizing the poor … for him the poor were a sign, a presence and a call. Vincent’s encounter with the poor led him to discover the gospel of Jesus who was sent to those who were poor. Vincent wanted to bring about a radical conversion in the Church’s attitude because he realized that the Church was tempted to become a center of power. The poor led Vincent to engage in a process of self-emptying which in turn led him to become involved in a movement of compassion and action and faith, a movement that involved his whole life. Vincent came to love the poor as God loved them … he loved the poor precisely because they were poor and oppressed. This is what Ibáñez Burgos calls the Vincentian revolution of charity that was encouraged and promoted not with words, but with ideas and action and its goal was to unite men and women and thus lead them to God.


1] Mezzadri-P. Vismara, La Chiesa tra rinascimento e ilumiismo, Roma, 2006.

2]José María Ibáñez Burgos, Vicente de Paúl y los pobres de su tiempo (Vincent de Paul and the poor of his time), Salamanca, 1977, p. 236.

3] A. Godeau, Discours su l’establissement de l’Hôpital general, (Discourse on the establishment of the general hospital), Paris, 1657, p. 83.

4] Monophysitism (from the Greek: monos meaning "only, single" and physis meaning "nature"), is the theological position that sustains that in Jesus there is only a divine nature and not a human nature. The Council of Calcedon maintained that in Christ there were two natures: a human and a divine nature (without confusion and without separation). This was a position that was held by the Orthodox and the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, monophysitism maintained that in Christ there are two natures (without separation) but they were confused together in such a manner that the human nature was lost and absorbed by the divine nature.

5] Henry II, duke of Montmorency and Damville (1595-1632) was appointed admiral at the age of seventeen and in 1625 during the siege of Rochelle he took the islands of Ré and Oléron.

6] A privilege granted to certain persons or entities whereby they could only be subpoenaed before the Parliament.

Translated: charles T. Plock, CM