This article is part of a series diving into Catholic social teaching and how it applies to our everyday lives. For ease of reading, the authors will use first person pronouns describing both their experiences.
Our next theme of Catholic social teaching, rights and responsibilities, is a twofold call for the protection of our inherent dignity. First, we are guaranteed the right to live with decency, having our basic needs met and being given the opportunity not to just survive, but to thrive. But with this right comes the responsibility to make sure that fundamental rights are protected, not just for us, but for our neighbor and those around the world.
Our fundamental rights are most plainly outlined in Pacem in Terris, an encyclical by Pope St. John XXIII published in 1963. In it, he outlines what our rights are, where they come from, and gives caution about those realities that might disturb human rights.
The most fundamental right, the right to life, begs the question: What does it mean to live, and what do we need in order to do so? Surely food, water, shelter and access to health care are obvious necessities. But in addition, the opportunity to freely participate in society, the freedom to seek what is good and true without interference, the right to work, and the right to be educated also aid in a person’s full human flourishing and are necessary rights to be protected in any just society.
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There are so many ways these rights can best be acted out and protected, and that, too, is part of our freedom — to gather in society and to make decisions on how to live out these principles. And that is where responsibility comes into play.
All about relationship
Seeing our needs, and the needs of others, calls us necessarily to act. We might give food to the hungry or clothe the naked, but we might also volunteer for a cause we believe in, vote in our local and national elections, and stand up to injustices in the way we deem appropriate (as long as our actions align with the natural and moral law).
A lot of people think that, as long as we elect the right leaders and establish the right federal programs, we can end hunger and disease and need and make strides toward a utopian existence. The Catholic worldview, however, would strongly caution against this way of thinking. Jesus made it clear that, “the poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26:11). While we can meet people’s physical needs in a myriad of ways, it is actually only through relationship — being known by another — that a person can live a full existence. And no federally funded program can replace real relationship.
My previous approach to this kind of “call to action” was to step in and be someone’s savior. For instance, if I encountered someone who was experiencing housing insecurity, I might go up to him or her and ask, “Do you need anything?” And then, I would do my best to fix his or her “problem.”
I think most of us, if we stopped to think about it, would recognize just how dehumanizing this approach can be. Instead of getting to know people and entering into a relationship with them, I’m asking them to vulnerably tell me one of the most intimate things about their lives, even though they have no guarantee that I will stick around long enough to actually help.
Seeking friendship, not pity
Not long ago, I saw an example of this well intentioned, but utterly unhelpful, philanthropy. There’s a group of people currently experiencing homelessness who hang out and camp in the area around my local library. I see many of them, often multiple times a day, on my regular runs, bike rides and walks on the greenway system that runs through my town.
Recently, someone, ostensibly doing a good deed, left a pile of canned tomatoes, uncooked pasta and an old pair of shoes near the entrance to the greenway. Those items remained, untouched, for over a week because many people experiencing homelessness don’t have a way to open cans and boil pasta, let alone the kitchen utensils required for such a meal. Also, would you feel more or less dignified if you scavenged your uncooked meal off a bench? This well intentioned gesture, because it was devoid of any actual human contact, accomplished nothing. In fact, worse than that, it gave the illusion of help, all the while just littering the closest thing many of these people have to a home.
But it’s way more comfortable (I say this for myself as well) to just assume I know someone’s problem and to fix it for them. It’s easier to drop off my almost expired extra cans of tomatoes on a bench than it is to enter into a relationship with someone. This is especially true when I’m confronted with the reality that it is not actually within my capability to “save” anyone — rather, it is my privilege to see the face of Christ in others and to do my best to show them the loving face of God the Father in return.
In light of this recent decision to intentionally walk with people, my husband and I have slowly been developing a friendship with one young man who spends a lot of time outside our local library. We met by chance a while back and since then have stopped to say hello anytime we see him. After a month of calling his name and seeking communion, he started to do the same with us. This most recent time, he waved me down while I was on a run to excitedly tell me that he saw my husband earlier in the week on his bike. After a few minutes of talking about biking (the surest way to my heart), he lamented that he doesn’t get to ride with anyone. He asked, since my husband rides, if he would be interested in riding together. It should not surprise me that after some time of slowly building a relationship with this man, the desire of his heart was not for any financial assistance, but for our friendship.
So we have to ask ourselves more than simply, “What is the right program to give my money to?” or, “Who is the right politician or policy to vote for?” We also have to wonder who our neighbor is, who has been entrusted to our care, where we can be generous with what we’ve been given, and how we can impact the lives of the few around us. And the more of us who are thinking with this mindset, the more actual change can occur in a society where more people are being intentionally loved and cared for.