Ozanam - Building the good Society

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Antoine Frederic Ozanam: Building the Good Society

By David L. Gregory*


Antoine Frédéric Ozanam embodies the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition. He earned doctorates in law and literature by the age of twenty-six. He translated intellectual insights into practice as he endeavored to help build the good society. As a twenty-year-old law student in Paris in 1833, he founded the St. Vincent de Paul [1] Society; it soon became the largest Catholic charity in the world, with a million members serving the poor in scores of countries. [2] He founded it not by drafting sophisticated corporate charters and negotiating favorable tax arrangements but, rather, by direct personal witness. He and a few fellow law students began carrying free wood and coal for fuel to the poor in the Paris tenement slums in 1833. His life was a dramatic fusion of intellectual accomplishment and direct, personal action to alleviate the poverty of the least amongst us. Thus, his life and his legacy have special resonance for law students today. He did not defer social action until he was professionally established. Rather, he saw the cold misery of the poor in Paris as a twenty-year-old law student, and he carried fuel to them in their tenements. His personal example reminds us to seize the moments available to us.

What follows is a study of Ozanam’ s important academic and professional writing found in his legal lectures, essays, and personal letters. His writing formed much of the groundwork for Catholic social-justice teaching about workers’ rights, including the right to a natural wage (which is essential to human dignity) and the right to join labor unions.

Drawing on Catholic natural law and jurisprudence, he pioneered the concept of the natural wage. He also called for voluntary labor unions. Ozanam’ s work on the natural wage became the conceptual platform for the minimum wage law and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which were enacted by the Roosevelt administration during the New Deal. [3] More contemporaneously, the legacy of Ozanam’ s natural wage principle is visible in the living wage initiatives that have been successfully implemented into law in many municipalities throughout the United States. [4]

Condemning slavery well before the Civil War, Ozanam’ s concepts of free, dignified labor, of the natural wage, and of voluntary unions helped set the stage for the great Catholic social encyclicals [5] on the rights of workers, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (On Labor) in 1891 [6]

Ozanam’ s personal practice of bringing direct relief to the poor, in addition to the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, has legacies as different, and as related, as the philosophy and practice of personalism at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement, [7] and in the interesting worker- priest phenomenon in France fifty years ago. [8]

Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997, this married Catholic lawyer and commercial law and literature professor, who died at age forty in 1853, is on the path to canonization as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. His contributions to social justice, and to applied workers’ rights to decent compensation and working conditions, are worth timely and continuing study and reflection.

Antoine Frederic Ozanam: A Life

To read about the life of Frederic Ozanam, click the link above.

The Social Justice Vision of Ozanam

To read Frederic Ozanam's Vision of Social Justice, click the link above.


  1. St. Vincent de Paul (1580—1660) was the French founder, in 1625, of the Congregation of the Mission, Catholic priests making special outreach ministry to the poor.
  2. See St. Vincent de Paul Society Archdiocesan Council of San Francisco, St. Vincent de Paul Society At Home and Abroad, http:/Jwww.vincent.orglindex.htm?svdp.htm (accessed Nov. 18, 2005); CMGlobal, Congregation of the Mission: General Curia, http://www.famvin.netlcm/ curia/vincentiana (accessed Nov. 18, 2005); The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, http://www.svp.ie (accessed Nov. 18, 2005).
  3. 29 U.S.C. § 201—219 (2000).
  4. See generally William Quigley, Ending Poverty as We Know It (Temple U. Press 2003) (cataloging a comprehensive, insightful assessment of the living wage movement).
  5. For a definition of encyclical, see Garry Wills, Politics and Catholic Freedom 96-97 (Henry Regneiy Co. 1964) (defining encyclicals as authoritative but not dogmatic letters of unity from the popes and designed to elucidate and clarify, which began to be written during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XIV in 1740).
  6. 6. Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891) (available at http://www.vatican.va/holyfather/ leq..xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiiLencj 505 189 1_rerum-novarum_.en.html). For other great social encyclicals on workers’ rights, see Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931) (available at http://www.vatican.va/holy..father/pius....xi/encyclicals/documents/hf....p-xi_enc_ 193 10515_quadra gesimo-anno_en.html); Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (1981) (available at http://www. vatican.valholyjather/john...paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hfjp-iLenc_14091981...laborem-ex- ercens_en.html); Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei Socialis (1987) (available at http://www.vatican.valholy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf.jp-ii_enc_30121987_sollicitudo-rei- socialis_en.html); and Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991) (available at http://www.vatican.va/holyjather/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf..jp-ii_enc_0 105199 1_centesimus-an- nus_en.html). For comprehensive literature on the Catholic social encyclicals, see Kevin J. Doyle, The Shifting Legal Landscape of Contingent Employment: A Proposal to Reform Work, 33 Seton Hall L. Rev. 641 (2003); David L. Gregory, Reflections on Current Applications of Catholic Social Thought, 1 Vill. J. Catholic Soc. Thought 647 (2004); David L. Gregory, Catholic Social Teaching on Work, 49 Lab. L.J. 912 (1998); David L. Gregory, Catholic Labor Theory and the Transformation of Work, 45 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 119 (1988); Lucia A. Silecchia, Environmental Ethics from the Perspective of NEPA and Catholic Social Teaching: Ecological Guidance for the 21st Century, 28 Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Policy Rev. 659 (2004); Lucia A. Silecchia, Reflections on the Future of Social Justice, 23 Seattle U. L. Rev. 1121(2000).
  7. For discussion of the practice and philosophy of personalism in the Catholic Worker movement, see generally David L. Gregory, Dorothy Day’s Lessons for the Transformation of Work, 14 Hofstra Lab. L.J. 57 (1996—1997).
  8. Infra pt. III D.

Gregory, David L., Antoine Frederic Ozanam: Building the Good Society. Symposium Issue of the St. Thomas Law Journal, Vol. 3, 2006; St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-0029