The General Hospital was not a medical but a ‘police’ institution. It is a semi-judicial structure with “quasi-absolute sovereignty, jurisdiction without appeal, a writ of execution against which nothing can prevail — the Hôpital Général is a strange power that the King establishes between the police and the courts, at the limits of the law: a third order of repression.” The directors for life possess administrative, police, corrective and penal powers over all of the poor in Paris — both inside and outside the General Hospital. They have access to “stakes, irons, prisons, and dungeons” inside the hospital in order to execute their mission. It was noted that within a few years after the edict was issued, the General Hospital already housed 6000 persons, a good 1% of the total population.
What is St. Vincent’s involvement in this project? Years before the royal edict, in 1653, the Ladies of Charity, all aristocratic influential women, already presented to Vincent de Paul the idea of organizing all the beggars of the city. They wanted Vincent to undertake the work since he was well known for institutions of this type. They assured him of sufficient money allotted for the project.
Divine Providence?But Vincent tempered their haste. He wanted them to discern more. “The works of God,” he counsels, “come into being little by little, by degrees, and progressively.” He is always heard as saying: “Do not go ahead of divine providence.”
The Ladies of Charity were quite annoyed by his slowness. But this may be his way of circumventing something he did not like in the whole idea: the use of coercion and force. The Ladies wanted it on a big scale; thus, the need to forcefully compel the beggars. Vincent wanted to accept only those who came voluntarily. Force should not be used to bring them in.
"If we use force,” he says, “we could be going against God’s will."
Within the Vincentian spiritual tradition, Vincent’s slowness has always been interpreted as a sign of his sensitivity to the voice of Providence. In this specific context, it also proves to be an ingenious and cunning tactic of oblique resistance to overarching dominant power.Direct Confrontation and Oblique ResistanceVincent de Paul, despite his friendship with the King and his Ministers, can confront them and tell them straight on their face that they are the real causes of the poor’s suffering, that they resign to save the country. In front of Mazarin, for instance, the Queen’s Prime Minister, he said:
“Your Eminence, sacrifice yourself. Withdraw from the country to save France. Throw yourself into the sea to appease the storm.”
Beyond direct confrontation, Vincent also tried other ways. Despite institutional warnings not to feed the beggars so that they may finally agree to be locked up, Vincent de Paul continued his soup kitchen, feeding them, helping the poor in various ways, protecting them from the violent impact of the government’s wars and politico-economic policies on their lives.
St. Vincent and the Beggar
While official propaganda praised the Great Confinement as the “greatest charitable enterprise of the century,” Vincent consciously distanced from it through what I call ‘oblique resistance’ - a tactic available to the weak in the face of so great a power. As the King and his minions wanted to eliminate the social eyesores through superficial window-dressing in confining the poor, St. Vincent did all he could to respond to the deeper causes of people’s misery as he also tried to mitigate its impact in their lives.
Foucault faulted Vincent’s care of the poor at St. Lazare as part of the royal project of the Great Confinement. His structural analysis of history might be helpful to see the greater dynamics at work in hegemonic politics, but as we see above, it is unable to perceive the oblique resistances present in the everyday life and decisions of actual persons on the ground like that of a simple country priest called Vincent de Paul.
Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M.
St. Vincent School of Theology - Adamson University