St. Charles de Foucauld’s monastic vision of social concern
November 3, 2018
Fr. Francis Belanger, O.P., is the Pastor of SS. Philip and James University Parish in Baltimore, MD and the Promoter of Catholic Social Teaching for the Province of St. Joseph. The essay below is the latest in his series of essays on Catholic Social Teaching.
A fissure can often be observed between those in the Church who are concerned with social action and those who are devoted more to matters of prayer and doctrine. Yet Christianity embraces both these tendencies in her teaching; they flow from the same rock, Jesus Christ. Sometimes the unity of social teaching and piety can be demonstrated in unlikely ways. The marvelous desert hermit, St. Charles de Foucauld was one such witness — thoroughly unworldly yet a passionate advocate against the social injustices of his day.
St. Charles, born and raisedin France, lived from 1858 to 1916. As St. Mark’s Gospel recounts of Jesus, so with him: “the Spirit drove him out into the desert.” (1:12) A religious skeptic and renowned geographer of the Sahara, he had a conversion experience in 1886 in Paris. His goal became to follow the Lord in humility to “the last place.” Unsettled in any conventional vocation, he returned to the Sahara in 1901 to live as a hermit. He would be a quiet witness to Christ among the Tuaregs and desert peoples, nearly all Moslems. Removed from society as he was, he left behind a searing testimony against slavery, a regional practice which was shamefully tolerated by French colonial officials.
St. Charles’ protest against slavery was grounded in personal charity and crowned with a call to political action. He personally redeemed five slaves, using funds from donors back in France. He truly left them free, even in matters of faith, never demanding a quid pro quo of conversion to Christianity for their freedom. “I shall apply no pressure at all-complete freedom!”[Jean-Jacques Antier, Charles de Foucauld, Ignatius Press: 1999, p. 190.] But Charles was disturbed that the French Government did not enforce its own anti-slavery laws. “It is a hypocrisy to put on stamps and everything else, ‘liberty, equality, fraternity, human rights’, you who fetter slaves…” [Ibid, p.191]
The desert hermit used what influence he had, through letters, to change the policies in French Africa. When counseled to remain silent, he responded, “We should not interfere in temporal affairs? But when the government commits a great injustice against those entrusted to us, it is necessary to tell it so, for we represent on earth justice and truth, and do not have the right to be sleeping sentinels, mute dogs, indifferent pastors.” [Ibid, p.191]. In other words, the Church has a duty to preach social justice, not just personal holiness. It seems the saintly Charles had already absorbed the doctrinal thrust of the first social encyclical, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891).
The clerical opposition to St. Charles was not merely from timidity. The French government of the time was fiercely anti-clerical and there was a real danger of missionary work in Africa being forbidden. De Foucauld understood this and persisted. He would not let the truth be stifled. And, although he cannot be given sole credit, the colonial authorities soon began to heed his warnings, gradually putting an end to slavery. His is a witness of “speaking truth to power” and bearing fruit despite fear. St. Charles united in himself the ascetic detachment of the desert fathers and the call for justice that speaks so eloquently to modern people.