John Honner, Love and Politics: The Revolutionary Frederic Ozanam. David Lovell Publishing 2007, ISBN 9781863551212, RRP $18.95, website
After the Liberal Party has done its initial patching and bandaging, we may expect it to ruminate a good deal on the spirit of Sir Robert Menzies. That is what organisations properly do when they have to adjust to a new and unfamiliar world. They return to the insights that guided their founders in the different conditions of their times.
John Honner's short but stimulating book about Frederic Ozanam is an exercise of this kind. Ozanam founded the St Vincent de Paul Society — the Vinnies in their Australian incarnation. The Vinnies now work for those marginalised in Australian society. This new environment, because of the central place played by government legislation and funding, is immensely complex both in the organisational and ethical dilemmas it raises.
Frederic Ozanam was a man of many parts. As a student he gathered a group of fellow-students to alleviate the suffering of the Parisian poor at the start of the industrial revolution. He went on to teach law in the university, founded a magazine that engaged in the political and religious debates that followed the French Revolution, and stood unsuccessfully for Parliament.
Before the restored monarchy was replaced in 1848, he appalled many of his readers by the slogan, 'Defect to the Barbarians'. It seemed to them a call to overthrow the monarchy, encourage civil disorder, break the natural relationships between a hierarchical church and hierarchical state, and embrace a soft-headed brand of economic idiocy.
Ozanam, though, had thought deeply on the matter. Against the intellectual tide that saw the fall of the Roman Empire in the West as a catastrophe for civilisation, he saw in the Barbarian invasion the makings of a more just and compassionate society. He saw Christianity as central in this remaking.
John Honner sees significant parallels between the large issues Ozanam faced and those the Vinnies and other faith-based charities meet today. The relationships between the state, business, churches and poverty were as conflicted then as they are now. The role churches and church organisations should play in political life remains controversial.
Ozanam's gift was to maintain a single-minded focus without allowing the context within which he worked to be blurred. As the title of this book, Love and Politics, indicates he kept in sharp focus the faces of the poor. Faces make a claim on compassion and on practical love. He saw this practical love, and the Christian faith that motivated it, as central to the group he founded.
But he also saw that any society that was committed to the good of all its citizens could not bypass love. Business had to have an interest in its workers beyond the contribution they made to profits. Governments needed to go beyond safety nets, and organisations beyond efficiency, in meeting the needs of the marginalised. The organisation of society needed to respect and nurture the dignity of its members. Ozanam's Society focused on the faces of people, without distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving. But he expected its members to ask why these faces bore the marks of suffering.
John Honner, who has worked for Catholic charitable organisations for many years, brings out clearly the relevance of Ozanam to contemporary Australia. He sees especially the contrast between the communal vision of Ozanam and the individualism of Australian society. The emphasis on the individual to the neglect of community has shaped laws on industrial relations and attitudes to welfare. It erodes respect for human dignity.
This makes it important for voluntary organisations to maintain their focus on the faces of those whom they serve. But it also makes such a focus difficult to maintain. Organisations that receive government funding are always under pressure to make care a measurable commodity rather than a movement of the heart, and to accept as the price of funding silence about the ethical dimensions of the policies they help administer. They are expected to be the face of whatever ideology shapes welfare.
In the face of these expectations Honner suggests rightly that organisations need to be seduced by Ozanam's siren call to 'defect to the Barbarians'.
Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.