The Social Question

Frontlines column By Anthony Thornton

Two hundred years on from the birth of Frederic Ozanam the world has seen revolutionary changes in the technological sphere. The social justice sphere, however, would be something that Frederic would immediately recognise. It is as if nothing has changed!

I hope that by the time this edition of The Record goes to print every Conference across Australia will have received a beautiful edition of Blessed Frederic’s letters, Frederic Ozanam: A Life in Letters, translated and edited by Joseph Dirvin CM. The National Council of Australia has republished this collection, originally published in 1986 by the National Council of the United States, to mark the 200th anniversary of Blessed Frederic’s birth.

I urge you to read and to ponder the wisdom and warm humanity of our founder in the pages of this book. The letters are excellent material for spiritual reflection. They are also a prophetic guide to action and a timely reminder of where we have come from as an organisation that unites spirituality (love of God) and social justice (love of neighbour) in deep simplicity. It is a real joy to witness Frederic’s real humanity, including his love of family, his love of scholarship and his love of the poor.

I would like to reflect on these three aspects of Frederic’s life.

How often do we hear the use of the term “family values” being bandied about in the social and political arena while families suffer from poverty and inequality because they are headed by a single parent or because they are subject to unemployment, underemployment or insecure employment or because they are Indigenous or because they are seeking asylum on our shores?  

How sad that genuine scholarship and learning has fallen by the wayside in so much of our public discourse. It is disturbing, for example, to hear politicians talk about “illegals” when a simple fact-check would reveal that there is nothing illegal about requesting asylum in our country. Indeed, asylum seekers would be charged with a criminal offence if in fact they were acting illegally in requesting asylum. The level of ignorance to which the current “debate” on asylum seekers has descended was writ large when we recently witnessed one candidate during the election claiming that people didn’t want asylum seekers coming to Australia because they caused traffic jams on the M4!

As for Frederic’s love of the poor, let’s take a look at one of the letters he wrote. In the book I have just referred to it is listed as Letter 136, To Francois Lallier, November 5, 1836. Here we find the oft-quoted words:

“...the question which disturbs the world around us today is... a social question... the struggle between those who have nothing and those who have too much...”

How sad that so little has changed since he wrote these words! Not only between countries but even within countries, and even within countries as prosperous as ours where there is easily enough for everyone, we continue to witness this degrading and demoralising gap between an excessive accumulation of wealth accompanied by an accumulation of misery. Our modest, but important, efforts to assist people amount to a genuine step towards a very humble redistribution of wealth. We will never stop doing what we can to share a little comfort, a little kindness, a little hope. But neither should we ever lose sight of the massive task that Blessed Frederic refers to: that of throwing ourselves into the struggle to bring about a more substantial redistribution of wealth, of resources, of opportunities, of hope.  Governments cannot make laws to enforce kindness. That is up to us. But they can legislate a fairer go so that no one is left to fend for themselves against the scourges of poverty and inequality.  It is up to us, as a sacred duty to the poor, to call governments to account when they fail to take up this challenge.

Anthony Thornton, National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society

Click on the PDF link below to read more articles published in this issue of the Record.

  • The Record Spring 2013

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    The Spring 2013 issue of this quarterly magazine focuses on social inclusion and other social justice issues. When we talk about social inclusion we should ask a simple question: included into what?