Image taken from Wiki Commons.
This morning I was driving around town running errands when I saw a man panhandling at a rather popular intersection for such activity in this area. I was a lane over, so I couldn’t have safely given him anything and I only had a few quarters on me at the time. Instead, I did what I could do and prayed for him and looked right at him in the process. It got me thinking about some discussions I have seen or been a part of in social media and a discussion I didn’t want to overhear as I tried to pray before Mass a few weeks ago.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I am neither a Republican or a Democrat. If Bishop Robert Barron is a post-liberal, then I am a post-conservative since I’ve never been a liberal. I see the good and the evil in both liberalism and conservatism. I was raised in a staunchly Republican home, with pro-life morality front and center. I tried my hand at a political career when I interned at the prestigious Heritage Foundation on Capitol Hill in 2009. I quickly realized that politics is not for me. I don’t have the stomach for it and there are many good Catholics who are much better at it than I am.
A while back I took my graduate course on Catholic Social Teaching and what I had been struggling with for a long time in regards to the Republican establishment came to light. I wasn’t able to articulate it before, but then after reading every social encyclical from Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si, as well as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, I started to understand why I was struggling to continue on as a conservative as it is understood in America today. Where the Left dehumanizes the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, and the “useless”, the Right dehumanizes the poor, the immigrant, and the civilian in combat zones, while pushing consumerism and materialism. The latter two are an issue on both sides of the political spectrum.
Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t a single political party in existence that could fulfill all of the needs of Catholic Social Teaching because it is a secular enterprise and the Church teaches that it should be that way. In this country, neither political party embraces the entirety of our Church’s teaching and there is always compromise in political life as we work towards the common good. My issue is that neither party today seems to be fully ordered to the common good, or most importantly, a sound understanding of the dignity of the human person. The beginning of our Church’s social teaching is with the dignity of the every human being.
My conscience led me to the American Solidarity Party and this post is not meant to persuade anyone of their political choices. I will only say, that an actual study of the Church’s teaching is needed to fully form one’s conscience and most of us don’t ever put in the effort to really understand it with an open heart, free of our pre-conceived political beliefs. That’s why the USCCB was discussing the abysmal statistics of those who have read their document on Faithful Citizenship.
I recently posted a summary of Catholic Social Teaching on immigration and all of my conservative friends tried to argue that it wasn’t Church teaching, even though I linked to the Vatican’s website with the document on Catholic Social Doctrine. I decided the debate was one I should walk away from since it wasn’t going to go anywhere, just as when I try to engage with folks on abortion. This isn’t meant to be dismissive. We all have our blind spots. I have quite a few myself.
The poverty issue is complex and immigration/migration is an aspect of poverty. Many migrants flee from violence, abject poverty, and instability seeking a better life. A right, the Church teaches all human beings have in order to reach the fulfillment found in God. The Church at the same time teaches that states have a right to protect their borders. Both migration and border protection must be done with justice and charity in mind. There are three components to immigration. All need to be met. This is where the balance is lacking on both sides of the political spectrum.
One of the biggest issues I have with conservatism as it stands in America today is its lack of understanding and oversimplification of poverty. So often people on that side of the political spectrum say: “Get a job!” This is their solution for all poverty, as if this will fix everything. “McDonald’s is hiring. You should be able to support your family on that wage!” Meanwhile the folks espousing this wouldn’t dream of having to support a family of 4, 6, 8, 10 on an $8 per hour wage. The gentleman standing at the intersection this morning would have been met with such conservative derision.
A few years back, I brought this question to my Confessor in Confession. He has since passed from this life, but he was a Redemptorist who had spent nearly three decades in Africa serving the poor. He lived in a violent area. One of the priests in his house was murdered. He had seen poverty in ways most of us here in the U.S. can’t fully fathom. He was also staunchly pro-life. He understood Catholic Social Teaching and refused to be limited politically or morally. I am in the same place, which is why both my conservative and my liberal friends get upset with me. St. John Paul II said ‘he knew he was doing something right when both sides had issues with him.’ I agree.
I asked this priest what we should do about panhandlers. They may buy drugs or alcohol with the money we give to them. Father’s response was: “That’s not up to you. You cannot presume or pre-judge someone. You are called to be charitable. You have no idea what they will do with it.” Presumption is a sin. We are not supposed to assume we know what someone else is going to do. This makes us become protectionist, arrogant, and lacking in charity. We become that person’s judge. It is a violation of justice.
Poverty is complex and people find themselves living in poverty for many reasons. Many conservatives do not seem to understand that a great many people in this country and around the world work, but they are still poor. Poverty does not equate to generational welfare dependence, which is an issue, but a separate one. Mental illness, abuse, neglect, poor wages, gang violence and other violence, corruption, physical illness, crime, suffering, and yes, addiction or other factors can lead to poverty and homelessness. Not every person who is living in poverty is homeless. These are the most extreme cases.
It is because the Church understands that poverty occurs with people who are working that she calls for a living wage. All people have a right to shelter, food, water, medical attention, and property. All of the goods in this life are universally held since they belong to God. The poor have a right to the goods in this life. It’s known as the universal destination of goods. This is why if a starving child steals an apple they are not held accountable for stealing. They had a right to that food and it wasn’t given to them or available to them through a living wage and their very survival depended upon it.
While a living wage will lift many people out of poverty, there are those who cannot seem to help themselves and the “get a job” approach shows more about us than it does about them. When we de-institutionalized mental institutions, we largely left them to the streets. I’m not claiming that we should be locking these people up, but I am pointing out that these are the very people who often cannot hold a job because of their illness. The same is for addicts, who also need love and care. We must always keep in mind the free will of the individual and if they refuse our help, then we do what we can and continue to pray for them. Sometimes the addiction and the mental illness go hand-in-hand since self-medication is common in dealing with the horrors of certain types of mental illness.
We need to stop labeling groups of other people as “other.” Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of dehumanizing others. We need to see the person begging for money as a person made imago Dei, rather than deriding them. It’s the same with the unborn, who are cast aside by those on the Left. The solutions to our culture’s problems are multi-faceted and the Catholic understanding of political life is not limited to one problem.
While the moral law is hierarchical in nature and abortion is the supreme human rights issue of our day, it is not the only issue. We have an obligation to help the poor and the migrant as well. We are supposed to help those lost in crime or addiction. Social justice–a liberal favorite–is not the core of our Catholic faith either, Christ risen from the dead is the center, which is most fully realized in the Holy Eucharist on this side of eternity. Christ calls each one of us to the mission field. Some are meant to fight against abortion, euthanasia, etc. and others in the various issues related to poverty or violence.
In order to discern how we can best live out Catholic Social Teaching we need to be people of considerable prayer and closeness to the Sacraments. We need to educate ourselves with open hearts and open minds as to what Holy Mother Church actually has to say in all matters of social teaching and the moral law. We are not Republicans or Democrats first, we are Catholics first. If our political leanings are influencing our understanding the Church teaching, then we have it backwards. We can still belong to a political party–we should be involved in political life according to the Church–but we need to do so with humility and a sound understanding that our party in no way is the Catholic party.
The next time you see someone begging for money, focus on seeing them as a person made in the image and likeness of God. A person made for the glory of Heaven and who is infinitely loved by our Triune God. Christ will judge us based on the measure we give out. If we are too busy judging everyone who is poor, a migrant, an unborn child, the elderly, and those who we consider to be useless, then we will be judged in that manner too. We are meant to bring all peoples to Christ. We can’t do that if we can’t even see the human being in front of us.