Vincent de Paul and Justice

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[This article appeared in Volume II of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 163-175. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].

Presentation of the theme

Justice is a virtue in which we give to others what is their due … it represents an ideal that is rarely achieved.

People naturally tend to exaggerate what they think is due to them and they will defend what is their due in the same way that a dog will defend its bone. They will often claim as their own, rights that properly belong to others.

In every society we see recourse to arbitration in order to settle matters regarding what is due an individual: the arbitration of elders in primitive societies, the arbitration of the courts in modern societies.

Scripture renders homage to King Solomon whose decisions were seen as a model in this regard and French history preserves the moving memory of the Vincennes’ oak in whose shade the holy king, Louis XIV, listened to disputing parties and then gave them justice as he handed down his judgments. Since power always tends to crush and trample on rights and since people cannot make power act justly, they have made justice become power. Instinctively people think that moving from a position of power to a position of rights implies a movement toward a more civilized society. Only in societies without law does power nullify all rights.

Vincent had personal experience with regard to injustice … he had been accused of theft and this accusation hung over him for several years. Later he became an innocent victim when he acquired the long wished for benefice to the Abbey of Saint Leonard de Chaumes, a Cistercian Abbey in the diocese of Saintes. In reality Vincent obtained a set of contested rights, a series of impending lawsuits and an Abbey that was a heap of ruins.

After centuries of violence and oppression and brute force, the rituals of justice seemed to take on a new form. The century in which Vincent lived appears to have been a time of many and frequent disputes … in fact that period of history was characterized by disputes. In Les Plaideurs, Racine placed the following words in the mouth of Chicanneau: sixty years old, that is the best age to enter into a dispute with another! … the same author attributes the following words to the Countess Pimbesche: I will sell my shirt … it is all or nothing! Jules Melot, a recognized authority in seventeenth century history, tells us that before the Revolution, an institution in a modest diocese (for example, the seminary in Montauban) would retain a lawyer for six months each year in order to untangle and defend its interests, rights and honor before civil and ecclesiastical tribunals.

Vincent, who had learned from experience, was in principle opposed to lawsuits. When offering advice to a bishop who was overly concerned about his rights, Vincent stated that this individual should moderate his tendency to enter into a dispute with others. Vincent placed before him the example of Jesus Christ: I admire Our Lord Jesus Christ who disapproved of lawsuits and who, nevertheless, was willing to undergo one and lose it (CCD:II:480).

Vincent clearly stated that we should not engage in lawsuits and yet at the same time he was able to say: the blessing of peace and reconciliation in lawsuits is something so great and pleasing to God that he says to each one of us, Inquire pacem et persequere eam [seek peace and follow after it] (CCD:I:264). On more than one occasion he gave that advice to his confreres. He pointed out that one of the most important objectives of the popular missions was to settle disputes and reconcile adversaries: in mission reports such results were to be mentioned (Common Rules I:2).

Despite this aversion to lawsuits and disputes and despite Vincent’s conviction that it was preferable to suffer injustice than to enter into dispute with another: We prefer to relinquish what belongs to us rather than scandalize our neighbor (CCD:III:69), he admitted that there were situations when there was an obligation to defend oneself, to defend the right of the Church and/or of the Community. This was the case of the Missionaries in Saint-Méen who were at risk of being imprisoned and expelled from their house. They considered conceding to their adversaries in order to avoid further complications but Vincent encouraged them to defend themselves: what pride there would be if, under the guise of deference and humility, we were to abandon the honor of God so as not to risk our own (CCD:III:44).

In the matter with regard to the loss of the farm in Orsigny, Vincent defended the right to pursue this matter legally: I could not in conscience, abandon a property so lawfully acquired --- a community property of which I was administrator --- without doing my utmost to preserve it. However, now that God has relieved me of this obligation by a sovereign decree that makes all my efforts useless, I think we should leave things as they are (CCC:VII:424.)

Collet. Vincent’s biographer, summarized Vincent’s wisdom in the matter of justice and stated: God allowed for some legal proceedings to occur … some cases were won and others were lost! Providence wanted to uphold Vincent as a model for others since litigants have a need for good examples.

To act justly is one of the ways to assist the weak and “the little ones”, one of the ways to restore their rights to them. Vincent, more than others, made a magnificent contribution to the recognition of the rights of the poor … a significant contribution in guaranteeing the application of those rights.

Vincent enabled his contemporaries to see the prevailing situation of misery, to understand its causes, and to heal its consequences. That which in Vincent’s time was an object of charity, has now become a recognized right.

The famous “Rights of Man” that the French Revolution claims to have invented (and indeed it was easier to invent those rights than to respect them) had in fact been implemented by Vincent de Paul on a social level and had been proposed as charitable goals for everyone. Indeed. Vincent acted as though these were recognized as evident rights: the right to life (abandoned children), the right to daily bread (soup kitchens and the distribution of food to the hungry), the right to health care (hospital and caring for the infirm in their homes), the right to housing (providing shelter for refugees), the right to respect (care for the mentally challenged, prisoners and the galley slaves), the right to a dignified old age (hospices and providing housing for the elderly), the right to work (providing seeds and other work tools to the people living in areas devastated by war), the right to education (the establishment of schools).

When we recall the achievements of the Revolution we should not forget that those accomplishments were rooted in the activity of the Father of the Poor and in the activity of those who supported him and followed him. Vincent knew how to educate the people of his era and through his activity he taught them how to act justly toward those who were poor.

Voltaire understood Vincent and even though he was opposed to the Church he nevertheless recognized the exceptional social position of Vincent de Paul and stated: for me the only saint is Saint Vincent de Paul. The same can be said with regard to the Revolutionaries who, on August 30, 1792 seized various sacred vessels and objects of silver and gold, as well as the reliquary of Saint Vincent, but respected the Saint’s body and handed it over to his confreres.

Those who struggle on behalf of the dignity of those who are poor and on behalf of justice in service of those who are oppressed … such people recognize Vincent as the master of tenderness and effectiveness. Those people can repeat the words of Bishop Hélder Câmara, an affiliate of the Congregation of the Mission and one who was proud to call himself a son of Saint Vincent: we need to say and to do that which our father, Saint Vincent, would say and do.

Vincent de Paul and justice

Would not the saint of charity also be the saint of justice? Apparently Vincent was more insistent on the practice of charity rather than justice. In reality, however, Vincent gave priority to justice. He wrote to Firmin Get and stated: 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). What is the meaning of those words? Vincent had experienced the pain of injustice and therefore was very aware of the need to act justly, that is, to act in a manner that would be called “Vincentian”.

Vincent de Paul and injustice

Almost everyone is familiar with the beginnings of Vincent’s “conversion”. Soon after his arrival in Paris (1608) Vincent experienced a twofold interior movement: an accusation of theft and temptations against the faith.

“…Are you going to justify yourself? …”

Vincent spoke the accusation of theft as if some other person were involved: There is someone in the Company who was accused of having robbed his companion and was denounced for this in the house, although that was not the case. Nevertheless, he was unwilling to justify himself and, seeing that he was falsely accused he thought to himself, “Are you going to justify yourself? You are being accused of something, but it is not true. Oh now,” he said, raising his heart to God, “I have to bear that patiently.” And that is what he did. What happened next? Here is what happened, Messieurs. Six months later, when the thief was a hundred leagues from here, he acknowledged his fault and wrote to ask forgiveness for it. You see, God sometimes wants to test people, and that is why he allows similar things to happen (CCD:XI:305).

“…God always justifies those who don't try to justify themselves…”

That experience had a profound effect on Vincent. He did not speak about that event until June 9, 1656 when he spoke to the confreres about Admonitions. Nevertheless, while measuring his words, Vincent seemed to refer to that event in 1648 when he spoke to the Sisters about the same theme: If I understand correctly, Sister, you think that, should we be unjustly rebuked for some fault, it would be better to accept the correction without saying anything rather than to justify ourselves. I certainly agree with you there, and I hold that, unless the silence were sinful or would harm the interests of our neighbor, it is far better to act in that way. That's imitating Our Lord. How many persons made accusations against him, found fault with his life, censured his teaching, and vomited execrable blasphemies against his person! Yet, no one saw him excuse himself. He was brought before Pilate and Herod; yet, he said nothing in his own defense and, in the end, allowed himself to be crucified. There's nothing better than to follow the example he has given us. In this respect I can tell you, dear Sisters, that I've never seen anything happen to a person who refused to defend himself --- never. It's not up to us to give explanations; if people blame us for something we haven't done, it's not for us to defend ourselves. God wants us to leave the discernment between truth and falsehood to him, Sisters. He'll know the opportune time for making known the truth. If you knew how good it is to leave all these concerns to him, Sisters, you'd never try to justify yourselves. God sees how we're maligned and doubtless permits this to test our fidelity. He knows how you take it, the good results you draw from it, or the bad use you make of it and if, for the moment, he allows you to be charged with it, he'll certainly know how to manifest the truth later on. It's a true and infallible maxim, Sisters, that God always justifies those who don't try to justify themselves (CDD:IX:290).

Vincent de Paul and justice

“…Imitate divine justice…”

Vincent knew his theology and therefore he grounded human justice in God: You, Messieurs, have studied theology and I’m an ignorant man, a fourth form student; you know that there are two sorts of justice: commutative and distributive, and both are found in God: justus Dominus et justitias dilexit (the Lord is just and he loves just deeds, Psalm 11:7). It’s also found in human beings, but with this imperfection: it’s dependent, whereas God’s justice is sovereign. Still, our kinds of justice have their own properties, by which they’re related to and resemble divine justice, on which they depend. So, God’s justice is both commutative and distributive at the same time (CCD:XII:114).

The administration of justice

Vincent had the opportunity to become involved in various processes with regard to the administration of justice. Certainly his natural temperament made it possible for him to experience a certain peace in all of this.

“…Justice for the poor slaves…”

In the name of justice Vincent spoke about the right to denounce those who were keeping for themselves money that was intended to rescue those who were being held captive: We will try to pay the bill of exchange for five hundred livres. Please accept one for six hundred, which the Duchesse d'Aiguillon is sending to Algiers to help build a hospital, and select a good patron. Blessed be God, Monsieur, that you have acted in such a way that, through your efforts, it is likely that you will recover what that master had not given to the slaves from Havre-de-Grâce in Algiers, or whatever, to the Consul! Rest assured that it is not improper for priests of the Mission to demand justice for poor slaves so that they may be given what is being held back from them; rather, it is very meritorious and is edifying to good souls who know what true charity causes charitable persons to do. Alas! Monsieur, what kind of work did the Son of God not do in order to save us! I am going to give this news to the Duchesse d'Aiguillon (CCD:V:398).

“…It is very difficult for me to consent to going to law…”

He spoke in the same manner with regard to the debtors of his newly established Congregation … and as if lamenting this reality he stated: You must not allow any of the rights from your benefice of Saint-Preuil to be lost. So, if your council thinks that tithes may be due to you on M. d' Albret's farm, claim them; if, after you have spoken with him and used every gentle means to get them, he refuses to pay, then have him served with a subpoena. Do not fear that he will mistreat you; since you have the law on your side, he would never dare to attempt such a thing. I am of the same opinion concerning the lesser tithes, if it is true that you have the right to collect them. To ascertain this, consult some knowledgeable persons. Above all, find out the custom of the neighboring parishes and of the Pastors who preceded you. It is very difficult for me to consent to going to law, but tithes are a privileged case that obliges us in conscience to preserve them. Undoubtedly, in uniting this benefice to your house, all that depends on it has been united to it; now, small tithes, as well as the large ones, have always belonged to the Pastors; consequently, they should belong to your community. I mean the ones that were being collected then, but not the new ones, if by any chance some have turned up since the union, which might belong to the permanent Vicar (CCD:VI:398-399).

“…to have recourse to the ecclesiastical or secular court…”

The Missionaries had great difficulties with Bishop de Sales, the brother and the successor Francis de Sales. Vincent feared the worst and wrote: Please seek advice on the matter, Monsieur. I am very worried that this affair may become public knowledge and people may see Priests of the Mission at grips with a Bishop. That is why we are sending M. Dehorgny to Annecy and why I am writing today to the Bishop of Geneva, and to our party as well --- who is the cause of all this trouble --- to try to sort things out in a friendly manner by the use of arbitrators or otherwise. If, however, after we have done everything reasonable --- and more --- on our part to settle the dispute, they remain adamant in trying to get what they are after, namely, the ruin of our poor family in Annecy, I think we will be forced to have recourse to the ecclesiastical or secular court to protect ourselves from such damages, since fourteen or fifteen thousand livres in property are at stake, and it is a question of our exercising our privilege. Please send us the advice you will get there (CCD:VII:97).

“…by amicable arrangements…”

Vincent did not seek immediate recourse in extreme measures but counseled prudence and dialogue before seeking relief from the law: It is a great nuisance to have a neighbor who looks out on you. This must not be tolerated, since you can prevent it because that good gentleman has no right to have a window on your side. So then, do whatever you can to oblige him to close it up. I do not mean through a lawsuit but by amicable arrangements through the intermediary of friends, going so far --- in the event that he does it --- as to offer to pay more than your share of the expense for the drains in order to divert them from his garden. If, when all is said and done, you cannot constrain him to do what he should except by going to court, you will have to do so and subpoena him. In that case, you could also argue for the drains if, as you have said, you have a good case (CCD:V:415-416).

To act justly

Vincent was very aware of the obligation to give to each person their due … this is clear in the following examples:

“…the child abandoned in Villepreux…”

I received the letter you did me the honor of writing, concerning the child abandoned in Villepreux. The pastor and the husband of the treasurer of the Charity did me the honor of coming to see me about this affair; the former to advise me on the situation and to ask my advice on it, and the latter to complain that they were trying to make his wife pay for that child's food. I told the Pastor that, if the child was left in this town and they sent him to La Couche, as the district commissioners usually do when they are required to gather up abandoned children, then we would take care of it, but that the persons responsible for those children are forbidden by the decrees of the court to take them in without orders from the commissioners, and we scruple doing otherwise. I told him also that if he would see that he was brought to this city, in agreement with the provost, and left him for adoption, then he would have no further worry. He did not do this; meanwhile, the child has been placed with a wet nurse at nine francs a month, which the treasurer of the Charity is being obliged to pay. That is what her husband came here to complain about. Now, I have asked the pastor to make a short trip here to settle this affair (CCD:VI:316-317).

“…give to each one what belongs to him…”

I thank his divine goodness that, [by his grace], you have maintained [all your influen]ce with the slaves, for whom you h[ave so much charity]. It is of the utmost importance for [you to be careful] always to do the same. [Avoid] diverting sums of money for anything other than the int[ention for which] they have been sent to you. [Do not take] from one to give to the other, [but keep for] each one what belongs to him so that you [will be in a position to] give it to him whenever he wishes. The ob[ligations of] justice have priority over those of c[harity. As for] your saying that there are some slaves whose freedom is being de[manded] by the merchants, to whom you cannot refuse the thirty piastres they need to return home, I will tell [you] that, if you have any money left over --- I mean, of your own --- you may make these advances; but you must never borrow any or take it from what belongs to someone else, or stand surety or take on a commitment for anyone whomsoever; otherwise, we would have to begin all over again. What is worse, it would be impossible for us to extricate you a second time. Having a collection taken up in Paris for your needs must never be mentioned again (CCD:VII:633).

A Vincentian manner of acting

Rather than looking at isolated events it is interesting to take note of the manner in which Vincent lived and gave life to the virtue of justice. We believe there are four characteristics involved in what we would call a spirit of Vincentian justice.

Providing for those most in need

“…You must visit them and have them assisted…”

I ask Our Lord to restore to health those poor people who fell from the top of your building or to give them his glory, if he sees fit to take them to himself. It is painful for me to see such accidents happen to those who work for us, and it causes me to fear that my sins may be the cause. You must visit them and have them assisted in their illness as far as you reasonably can. If they die, express your profound sorrow to their widows or relatives, give them reason to expect your service and protection, and truly be of service to them, should the occasion present itself (CCD:VI:344).

“…Assisting the salves…”

I praise God for the charity the city of Marseilles is showing to the poor in their present need and for the timely help you have procured for the convicts suffering from the cold weather and poverty. 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! They are our brothers [and sisters], whom God commands us to help, but let us do so through Him and in the way He intends in today's gospel. Let us no longer say:”I am the one who did this good work,” for anything good must be done in the name of O[ur] L[ord] Jesus Christ, in whom I am, Monsieur, your most humble servant (CCD:VII:115-116).

Respect for the person

“…have those sums delivered to those poor men…”

You tell me that you brought M. Huguier back from Toulon, but you do not tell me what arrangements he made for someone to pick up the letters I wrote him and to distribute the money we received for the poor convicts. I informed him, as I informed you, that there are six ecus for Denis Dubois, who is in the last chain gang, seven ecus for Vincent Traverse, and two for Marc Mansart, which comes to a total of forty-five livres. A day before we received your letter, we also received seven livres for M. Esbran, a priest and convict on the Bailliebault. Please give orders, Monsieur, to have those sums delivered to those poor men (CCD:VI:617).

“…M. Le Vacher knows all these slaves…”

In the last regular mail I sent you four bills of exchange: the first for 1200 livres to ransom Jacques Varies; the second for 250 livres for Guillaume Legrand from Le Havre; the third for 500 livres to be used by M. Le Vacher when he is in Algiers, in line with the special instructions he received from the pastor in Le Havre; and the fourth for 350 livres for Jacques Jobe --- or Jove --- from Honfleur. Because M. Le Vacher knows all these slaves, and people have gone to him to have these sums of money delivered, it will be a good idea for you to keep them until he gets to Marseilles and not send them to Algiers with M. Roman or M. Huguier ahead of time, as I had asked you to do (CCD:VII:208).

Avoid “partisan politics”

Vincent wanted to be a friend to everyone. He reached out to many different groups of people who were living in misery: he helped women religious, he cared for the mentally handicapped in Saint-Lazare and he paid a debt to the brother of a bishop (the bishop had died and Vincent paid this debt to the rightful heir).

“…use none of it for any other purpose…”

Mathieu is bringing you your little allowance and you will adjust your expenditures accordingly. As for the two thousand livres you received for the religious from M. de Saint-Nicolas, in the name of God, Monsieur, use none of it for any other purpose under any pretext of charity whatsoever. There is no act of charity that is not accompanied by justice or that permits us to do more than we reasonably can (CCD:II:68).

“…I want to fulfill this obligation…”

The troubles everyone is experiencing in these times have prevented me from going to see you to express my sympathy on the loss you have suffered of the late Bishop of Périgueux, and the whole Church with you. I most humbly entreat you, Monsieur, to accept my apology for this … I beg you, Monsieur, to allow me to tell you that we owed him four thousand livres, and consequently, we owe them to you, his heir. We will make some arrangement with you for the annuity, whenever you wish (CCD:IV:429-430).

“…you are doing an injustice to those poor people…”

With regard to the boarders, Brothers, I have heard that sometimes they are given very unappetizing and poorly-prepared portions, even meat or wine left over from the evening before. Now that is wrong, Brothers; they are persons whose relatives are paying good money for room and board; is it not only just that they be given something good and properly prepared? In the name of God, Brothers, do not do that any longer, but give them what you give us, what you give the priests. For you see, Brothers, you are doing an injustice to those poor people. Some of them are pitiful, simple-minded persons, who are enclosed and can’t see you to complain of the injustice you do them. Yes, I call that an injustice (CCD:XI:299-300).

With a view toward the kingdom

“…the glory of God…”

All of Vincent’s initiatives had one objective, namely, the building up of the Kingdom of God. Vincent was zealous for the kingdom: We have to realize that, by these words, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice,” Our Lord is asking us not only to seek first of all the kingdom of God and his justice in the way we’ve just explained; I mean it doesn’t suffice to act in such a way that God may reign in us, seeking his kingdom and his justice in this way, but, in addition, we should desire and see that the kingdom of God is brought and extended everywhere, that God reigns in all souls, that there’s only one true religion on earth, and that the world may live other than it’s doing, by the strength and power of God and the means established in his Church, and, lastly, that his justice may be sought and imitated so well by everyone through their holy lives, that he may be perfectly glorified by them in time and in eternity. So that’s what we have to do: desire and work for the spreading of God’s glory. I say “his glory” and “his kingdom,” and I use the terms interchangeably because they’re one and the same: God’s glory is in paradise and his kingdom is in souls. So then, let’s have this constant desire that the kingdom of God may be extended, and the zeal to work with all our might at it so that, having obtained the kingdom of God on earth, we may go to enjoy it in heaven, Let’s keep this lamp always lit in our hearts (CCD:XII:116).

Questions for reflection and dialogue

[A] Everyone who acts in righteousness is begotten by God (I John 2:29). May the holy name of God be ever blessed for having found you worthy of suffering for the sake of justice (CCD:VI:345).

In our service and activity on behalf of the poor how do we promote justice?

[B] Let justice surge like water and goodness like an unfailing stream (Amos 5:24). In helping the poor we are doing an act of justice and not of mercy! (CCD:VII:115)

The poor and the marginalized are frequently the victims of every form of injustice. In what ways do these individuals occupy a privileged place in our ministry?

[C] Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). There is no act of charity that is not accompanied by justice (CCD:II:68).

Howe does out lifestyle and our decisions reflect our solidarity with those who are poor?

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM