This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
Like all Europeans, Catholics in the 1840s were divided on how to meet the challenges of their time. The Church in Western Europe was in many ways still in a state of shock because of the French Revolution and its aftermath. It was hard for Catholics, bishops and popes included, to understand fully all that had happened. Thus, when they considered what needed to be done to bring Europe back to the Faith, Catholics came up with very different answers.
The poverty and suffering of workers because of laissez-faire capitalist economic practices awakened a small but growing number of Catholics to what was becoming known as the social question. Liberalism had asked a “political question” having to do with how governments run, and had given republicanism as the solution. It had asked an “economic question” and said businessmen should have nearly absolute freedom from government and the Church to pursue wealth. Now, socialists and anarchists were asking the “social question” — how can we bring justice to the poor workers and assure them dignity and freedom from exploitation? We have just seen how men such as Blanc and Proudhon answered that question. But how did Catholics respond to it?
It was not as if Catholics had not been trying to answer the social question. Catholic Romantics like Schlegel thought that, in order to escape the evils of industrialism and laissez-faire capitalism, Europe should return to the medieval ideal of guilds and Church regulations against unjust prices and unjust wages. Catholic Romantic scholars at the universities of Tübingen and Munich in Germany forcefully condemned Adam Smith’s laissez-faire theories. Yet, the social question was not the chief concern for such scholars.
Following the French Revolution of 1830, a few Catholic thinkers began looking at the social question in a new way. One of these was Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam. Born to French parents in Milan in 1813, Ozanam spent most of his young years in Lyons. Though raised in a pious Catholic family, Ozanam experienced serious doubts about the Catholic Faith when he was a law student in Paris. He might even have abandoned his faith altogether if it had not been for the priest and philosopher Abbé Noirot. Ozanam’s friendship with the famous scientist André-Marie Ampére (one of the discoverers of electromagnetism) also helped him keep his faith. When describing his scientific discoveries to the younger Antoine-Frédéric, Ampére used to exclaim, “Ozanam, how great God is!” Under the influence of such men as Noirot and Ampére, Ozanam not only renewed his faith, but resolved to dedicate his life, as he said, “to the service of the truth that had given me peace.”
As a student in Paris, Ozanam tried to convince the Saint-Simonians that the Catholic Faith is true. They, however, only retorted that Christianity was no longer relevant in the “modern” world, for Christians did nothing to ease the sufferings of the poor. Ozanam could easily have pointed out the Church’s charitable work in the France of his time, but he did not. Instead, he took the criticism as a challenge and began himself to practice acts of charity toward the poor of Paris. But Ozanam saw that such isolated acts were not enough; so, on April 23, 1833, he and seven friends established the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to help the poor in their material needs and, as Ozanam said, to “insure my faith by works of charity.”
Frédéric Ozanam did not object to democracy; indeed, he thought it was the form of government all Europe would one day have. But politics was not his chief concern; economic justice was. As far as economic systems go, Ozanam was not a socialist or a defender of laissez-faire capitalism. As far as Ozanam was concerned, both socialism and capitalism were unjust systems. Socialism, he saw, enslaved men to the state, for it gave the state complete power over citizens. Capitalism, however, treated men as tools of production for the sake of the rich and powerful and was thus, in Ozanam’s mind, just another form of slavery. If society was to be saved from both capitalist and socialist oppression, the “spirit of sacrifice,” he said, had to triumph over the “spirit of selfishness.” The choice was, he said, between “whether society is to be simply a great opportunity of exploitation for the benefit of the strongest or a dedication of everyone for the benefit of all and especially for the protection of the weak.”
Ozanam thought employers should look at workers not as tools, but as “associates” and fellow workers in the business enterprise. He protested against the low wages paid to workers by many employers and called for what he called a “natural wage.” Such a wage, according to Ozanam, must be large enough to support a worker and his family in reasonable comfort, as long as they lived frugally. Ozanam objected to the employment of mothers and children in factories — which was common at the time because the father did not make enough to support his family.
Ozanam did not live to complete his thoughts on social justice, for he died in 1853, at the age of 40. Still, his thought on wages, capitalism, and socialism would become important in the development of the Catholic Church’s social teaching. Other Catholic thinkers, including popes, soon took over where Frédéric Ozanam had left off.
A Hit Act from the ’30s
That is, the 1830s. The Jewish-French composer, Charles Valentin-Alkan, is, perhaps, not well known today, but in the 1830s and ’40s, he was as famous a virtuoso pianist as Chopin and Liszt. Here is a performance of one of Alkan’s compositions, Etude Op. 39, No. 2 “En rythme molossique.”