Written by: Fr. Patrick McDevitt, C.M., Ph. D., Provincial Superior, Congregation of the Mission, Western Province
I was delighted to be asked to submit this reflection on homelessness through the prism of Catholic Social Teaching. After some initial thinking on the topic, I was overwhelmed by both the immensity of the body of literature called, “Catholic Social Teaching”. Furthermore, I was personally challenged on the profound reality Catholic Social Teaching calls us to change, to care, to sacrifice, and love our brothers and sisters who live in poverty.
Catholic Social Teaching is rooted in the biblical tradition of “preferential option for the poor”. According to the commands of God, the care for the poor is the highest priority. It is a moral imperative for Christians to love and care for the poor because God is the poor and the poor are God (Matthew 25). This great summons of justice is found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and evident in centuries of Catholic Tradition and articulated in the Magisterium Teaching of the Catholic Church. The Christian mandate is to be both charitable and to pursue justice. It is not enough for Christians to espouse ideals, principles, and credo. An authentic and integrated Christian life must include charity, service, advocacy, and justice. “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren [sic]” (Cano. 1397).
The depth of love for our sisters and brothers in poverty need to be accompanied by a commitment to advocacy (a commitment to stand with and to work in the best interest of the poor) for systemic change in policies that deny or limit access to needed resources for the poor. Catholic Social Teaching shows that we must do more than just “help out” – “give some of our time” – “be nice” – and to do for the poor in order to “feel good about ourselves”. The Christian call is to advocate for real systemic change to directly alleviate and liberate our brothers and sisters from the suffering and shackles of poverty. The disease of poverty kills the body and spirit in both those directly affected by the rage of poverty and it deeply affects all of society.
Homelessness is just one of the many symptoms of the complex nature of poverty in our society. From a clinical perspective, one cannot just address the symptom of a problem; one must look at the etiology deeply underlying the symptoms. It is only when one “drills down” deep beneath the surface of a problem that real healing and systemic change are possible.
Homelessness perpetuates the victimization and traumatization of highly vulnerable people. The psychiatric community is only beginning to learn how devastating trauma disables and immobilizes individuals. Trauma can only be treated within a safe and secure place. The reality of homelessness continues to expose people to the harsh elements of violence, exploitation, prejudice, loneliness, and fear.
Catholic Social Teaching emphatically states that everyone has the inalienable rights of dignity, community, and care. Without these inalienable rights, people are devoid of what truly constitutes their basic humanity.
The concept of “Home” is more than just a structure or a shelter. A home is meant to be a place of safety, security, and grounding for our bodies and souls. It is only in this type of environment that our humanity can really thrive and grow. Furthermore, it is in this “sacred” place of home that humans discover and rediscover the goodness and divine nature of humanity. Home is to be a “holy” place for healing and the “safe place” where vulnerability and love can be shared. The sacred externals of home leads us to the holy and sacred places of our hearts and souls. “Home is where the Heart is” (Song by Elvis Presley).
Catholic Social Teaching illustrates the communal responsibilities we have to care and advocate for the poor in their material needs, humanitarian needs, and spiritual needs. The Catholic call is to “look beyond” the bread you eat; to “look beyond” the cup you drink” (hymn by Darryl Ducote, 1969), and to look deeper into life and the social challenges facing society. In looking beyond and looking deeper, we will find Christ in the poor. The late British author, Graham Greene reminds us that, “most things disappoint till you look deeper”.
The wealth of wisdom in Catholic Social Teaching serves as a guide to address the global epidemic of homelessness with authentic values and principles. This treasured wisdom provide us with the constant reminder of our duties and responsibilities to respond with the armor of charity and justice for God’s homeless people. Finally, Catholic Social Teaching inspires hope that we can and we will bring an end to this cruel reality of homelessness in our lifetime. We are reassure of this hope by the prophet words of Joshua, “Now behold, today I am going the way of all the earth, and you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one word of all the good words which the Lord your God spoke concerning you has failed; all have been fulfilled for you, not one of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14).