Theological Reflection

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“The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.” -Pope Benedict XVI
Implicit in the mission of the Catholic Church is the care for the “least of these.” After exposing the implications of poor quality housing and its role in poverty, there can be no doubt that those who live in these conditions are in need. The Catholic Church holds many social doctrines that apply to this situation, and therefore it is important to view the situation in light of these. The situation of poverty housing has implications in the respect for human dignity, freedom, human rights, the common good, the universal destination of goods, the right to private property, subsidiarity and participation, solidarity, the importance and dignity of the family, the dignity and rights of children, and peace.

The concept of human dignity is the foundational principle of Catholic social teaching. Human dignity is rooted in the fact that “God created man in his own image” (17). It is for this reason that humanity is called to “consider every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity” (18). Emphasis is placed on the fact that all people have “the same dignity as creatures made in [God’s] image and likeness” (23). This has a direct impact on the question of poverty housing. Quality housing is necessary for living with dignity, and therefore since all people possess the same dignity, humanity is called to be sure that there is no one who lacks this necessity, such as those in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Stemming from the concept of human dignity are many other principles of Catholic social teaching. The enumeration of human rights is part of the quest to protect the human dignity of persons (19). The first major implication of human rights is the responsibility for “the fulfillment of the essential needs of the person in the material and spiritual spheres” (21). An essential need for a person is quality shelter. It is clear that when people lack shelter in the form of quality housing, they face other problems in their physical and mental well-being because of this. This human right is violated for those in Erie who live in substandard conditions or who lack other necessities because of their housing situation. Human rights also call for “the right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth” (20). The exercise of this freedom requires specific economic conditions (22). Poor economic conditions where people struggle for their basic necessities such as shelter and where they struggle to remain healthy due to their housing situation are conditions that restrict the freedom to seek the truth. Education plays an important role in the attainment of truth and personal development, and the relationship between poor quality housing and education has been readily established. Therefore, in order for this human right to be respected, people who suffer from their housing must have this barrier to freedom and truth removed.

Human rights imply responsibilities. As stated by Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, those who claim their own human rights must also realize the corresponding responsibility to ensure these rights for others (24). This responsibility comes from the social nature of human beings and is part of the important principles of solidarity and the common good. The common good is a concept that is derived from the dignity and equality of humanity (25), and is defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people… to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (26). Part of the demand of the common good is the commitment to essential services for all such as housing and education (26), and the fact that the common good is the responsibility of all in society (27). Since people who live in substandard housing struggle to obtain the quality of education that will allow for their fulfillment, and since they lack the basic necessities, then social conditions in places with substandard housing are a threat to the common good. As the common good is the responsibility of all, humanity must work to ensure that people are not living in substandard housing like they do in Erie.

Helpful in attaining the common good is following the concept of the universal destination of goods. This is based upon the concept that “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind” (28). This was practiced in the early Church in which "no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had" (34). Things must be shared because “the human person cannot do without the material goods that correspond to his primary needs” and that are necessary for him to “attain the highest purposes to which he is called” (29). Shelter is a material need that is essential for a person to obtain a full education and reach their highest potential. The universal destination of goods calls for those who have these goods to use them in aid of those who do not. Those who have the means to ensure quality housing for those who do not have it are called to use those means to realize that goal (30). This attention to the common good and the universal destination of goods results in the preferential treatment of the poor, which is a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching, and is based upon the tradition of Jesus. Those in Erie who live in substandard housing are poor, and in the tradition of Jesus it is these people that deserve attention and aid most of all.

The housing situation in Erie calls upon all people for its resolution. This is the principle of solidarity. This principle is manifest in the New Testament in the description of the early church. In the church "all the believers were one in heart and mind" (34). When individuals realize the responsibility of all that is inherent in this situation, and when they put this responsibility before their own individual needs, then the principle of solidarity is fulfilled. In terms of the situation in Erie, when that community puts the needs of those in substandard housing before their own individual needs, then solidarity will be a reality in Erie.

he implications on human rights that this situation entails also apply to the rights of children and families (33). The Catholic Church places extreme importance on the family as “a divine institution that stands at the foundation of life of the human person” (31), and asserts that “the family possesses inviolable rights,” just as the individual does (32). The importance of the family relates to the housing situation in that the family cannot fulfill its role in raising and educating children when its focus is on obtaining the necessities that it lacks. By ensuring that a family has one of these necessities, adequate housing, the role of the family in educating children is no longer undermined.

Finally, fixing the housing situation in Erie has implications on the Catholic notion of peace. Peace goes beyond the absence of war because true peace is the fruit of righteousness (35). Therefore, peace is in danger when “man is not given all that is due him as a human person,” such as quality shelter and the ability to reach his full potential (36). Society and humanity must be aimed at attaining the common good for peace to be realized (36). As long as the housing problem exists in Erie, peace does not.

All of those theological principles are important in understanding the problem of housing in Erie. There are also theological principles that are important in finding a solution. Solidarity is essential in finding a solution, as is the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity stresses that problems and situations in society be handled at the correct level whether it be on the individual level, the community level, or an even larger scale (37). This protects the dignity of the person, allows persons to use their God-given gifts, and helps to ensure that the most appropriate solution is found for the particular situation. This principle is especially important in finding a solution for the housing problem in Erie. The housing problem in Erie falls upon the community of Erie because they have firsthand experience of the situation. As a solution is crafted on this level all of these solutions are kept in min

The theological implications of this situation display the severity of the issue at hand. Human dignity must be respected, but the violation of human rights that this problem causes represents the absence of human dignity for the poor in this situation. Solidarity and the responsibility for the common good call upon the community to act to remedy this situation so that “the least of these” in Erie, Pennsylvania have the ability to reach their full development.


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