In Thomas Worcester’s recent column on the Huffington Post, he spins the seventeenth-century Catholic saint, Vincent de Paul, as an advocate of twenty-first century liberal social policy. Though he doesn’t quite say it, a month ahead of a presidential election the message can hardly be missed: St. Vincent de Paul, were he around today, would surely cast his vote for Barack Obama. Worcester is probably mistaken, but the more important thing is that, in his zeal to recruit St. Vincent for the Democratic Party, he besmirches the reputation of one of history’s great exemplars of Christian charity.
This is a common sort of historical malpractice, the attempt to wedge past figures into some contemporary agenda. The temptation is irresistible to some because a) historical figures are famous, and thus can lend prestige to any cause; and b) historical figures are dead, and thus cannot personally object to being coopted by campaigns with which they might rather not be associated.
Worcester gets some things right. Vincent de Paul did not conceive of assistance for the suffering as a purely private affair. He understood that government has a role to play in creating the conditions conducive to a just society. When he sought prison reform, he did indeed “[take] his cause to the highest levels of the state.” Catholic teaching on justice has always recognized the indispensable part played by public officials and political institutions in promoting justice; it’s no surprise that the devout and intelligent Vincent shared that recognition.
Worcester also articulates well Vincent’s concern for the poor and marginalized. Vincent would want a “radical change in the self-satisfied, arrogant mentality of many well-off persons who consider themselves entitled to live in luxury while others around them suffer in various ways.” He would “take up the cause of families struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables.” He would help refugees and immigrants, “welcoming them and finding for them the assistance they need.”
But when he tries to turn Vincent into a partisan political activist, Worcester’s account goes off the rails. Vincent, he is certain, would “support a major increase in the minimum wage, and he would defend President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act”; he would oppose any cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, or student loan and grant programs.
It is impossible to say which of these programs Vincent might support were he still with us (though the abortion-promoting and religious liberty-compromising health care law would be a good bet for “least likely”), but one thing can be said for certain. He would deem any government policy as secondary to the most critical obligation of charity: personal action.
This is the essential point that liberal interpretations of charity fail to capture, and it is why they cannot fully appreciate the heroism of saints such as Vincent de Paul. Vincent did not see his duty toward fellow human beings as fulfilled when he punched a ballot for the right candidate, or when he persuaded a wealthy person to give some money to the poor, or when he helped to sway the political authorities to adjust the levers of power to favor those who lacked wealth and influence. For Vincent, the obligations of charity were fulfilled when he served the poor with his own hands, when he treated the sick and visited the lonely. Only through such personal contact with the needy could he understand with adequate sensitivity the exact character and extent of their needs. Only through such personal involvement could he share in the ministry of Christ.
As this last sentence indicates, for Vincent charity was an essentially religious enterprise. His relationship with Jesus was not an incidental quirk in his character that happened to complement nicely his concern for the poor. It is the explanatory key without which his concern for the poor is incomprehensible. Reflecting on the beginnings of the Catholic religious order he founded (the Congregation of the Mission, known popularly as “Vincentians”), Vincent said that the missionaries went “to evangelize the poor as our Lord had done.” It is this spirituality that inspired the nineteenth-century Parisian, Frederic Ozanam, to found one of the world’s largest charitable organizations, the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Viewing Vincent’s work as little more than political activism not only distorts his biography; it reduces his extraordinary, grace-enabled sanctity to ordinary humanistic compassion. In this account, all we need to do to imitate St. Vincent perfectly is to support the correct political causes.
If we must ask “What would St. Vincent do?,” then a more accurate response would be the following. If Vincent thought government programs genuinely helped the poor, he probably would support them; if he thought they didn’t, he wouldn’t. Importantly, he would have firsthand knowledge of the facts, because he would be living and working among the very people who are supposed to benefit. Given the decidedly mixed record of success exhibited by government welfare programs since the War on Poverty began more than forty years ago, it is at least plausible that Vincent would have qualms about continuing down the same path.
Thomas Worcester wants God to send “more saints like him,” and to that I say amen. An army of St. Vincents in contemporary America would be a boon for the spiritually and materially poor alike. Whether it would be equally beneficial to the fortunes of the political left, as Worcester seems to think, is much more doubtful.