Aspects of Catholic Social Teaching on Housing

Cathy Molloy

What Have You Done to your Homeless Brother?
The United Nations proclaimed 1987 the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless and to coincide with that time Pope John Paul II asked that the Church undertake its own reflection on the problem of housing. The result was What Have You Done to your Homeless Brother? a document of the Pontifical \’Justice and Peace\’ Commission, presented on 27 December 1987 by its President, Roger Cardinal Etchegaray.1 This short article will focus mainly on some of the points from that document.

Many readers will have heard of Niall Mellon, the Dublin developer who has taken on the task of providing houses for families in the South African township of Imizamo Yethu. Some years ago, Niall had bought a house in Cape Town, and straying into the township out of curiosity was shocked by what he saw – 12,000 people living in ramshackle huts, all squashed into an area of 50 acres, with no proper sanitation. He set up what became the Township Challenge inviting Irish builders to volunteer their time and expertise to build by now more than 450 houses for 2,500 South Africans. According to a press release at a civic reception in Dublin to honour Niall Mellon and the 150 Irish builders, who included carpenters, plasterers, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, painters, roofers and tilers who had fundraised for, and worked on, the project, Niall Mellon put up 2 million euro of his own money and asked some of his associates to do likewise.

The houses cost the equivalent of 5,000 euro to build and people pay back a twenty-year interest free loan subsidised by Niall Mellon. As people repay their loans, the money is ploughed back into funding more houses. To qualify for inclusion in the scheme, people must put 300 hours of labour into building one of their neighbour\’s houses. According to Niall Mellon, “Anyone who comes here to help will not only feel inspired but will walk away feeling proud to be Irish. I want the lasting legacy of the Celtic Tiger to be that the Irish can look beyond their own lives and help those less fortunate.”

What Have You Done to your Homeless Brother?

The United Nations proclaimed 1987 the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless and to coincide with that time Pope John Paul II asked that the Church undertake its own reflection on the problem of housing. a document of the Pontifical \’Justice and Peace\’ Commission, presented on 27 December 1987 by its President, Roger Cardinal Etchegaray.1 This short article will focus mainly on some of the points from that document.

{mospagebreak} Scope and Aims
The Pontifical Commission had consulted widely in all continents and concluded that in global terms \’the housing problem is one of today\’s most serious social questions.\’ One of the aims of the document was to awaken the moral conscience of people to the facts so that there might be \’greater social justice and broader solidarity.\’

Globally, those lacking adequate housing number in the millions. The problem seems overwhelming. Large numbers are born, live and die in the open air. The homelessness of refugees who are uprooted by war or natural calamities, and of many others who are victims of injustice and greed, makes for a situation which is a serious obstacle to economic and social development, and indeed to assuring those conditions necessary for a dignified human existence.

Young People
Young people who want to get married are mentioned particularly. The circumstances of so many of them lead to long and painful delays before finding a place to live. The amount of money needed, coupled with housing shortage, can create serious obstacles to their right to found a family and are often a dissuasive force when it comes to assuming a commitment to marriage. The struggle with the burden of housing costs or high rents during their early years can have negative consequences for their life together and sometimes results in \’an almost forced delay in having children\’ which, in turn, may upset the harmony of married life which is \’detrimental to both society and the Church\’.

A Structural Problem
The document\’s description of the overall situation shows homelessness to be the result of a whole series of economic, social, cultural, physical,
emotional and moral factors. Homelessness is seen as a structural problem and not merely the result of a series of unrelated circumstances. A suitable place to live is an essential human need and yet the number of people who earn less than what might be called a family income, not to mention those whose salary is below the legal minimum, can be counted in the millions. Rapid population growth in certain regions, and changes such as progressive aging of the population in others, present new challenges. But it is urbanisation, accompanied by inflated prices in the housing market and the lack of infrastructure to meet basic needs that is seen as one of the most complex problems of present-day societal organisation. In 1959, 29 per cent of the total world population was urban; by 1980 the figure was 40 per cent and the document predicted that by 2005 more than half the world\’s population would be living in cities.

A Just Housing Policy
Calling for a consistent political will to be developed as well as increased awareness of the collective responsibility of all, and particularly of Christians, for the future of society, the document notes that \’a just housing policy must necessarily include the participation of the private sector as well as that of the State. Moreover, it should encourage self-help projects and collaborative efforts within the local community itself.\’ The assistance to individuals provided by social services and aid organisations must be complemented by a recognition by the public authorities that the lack of housing is a structural problem concerning the overall organisation of a given society or country.

This document does not treat in detail the situation of refugees but mentions the need for \’widespread acts of international solidarity\’ in their regard and reminds us that refugees are often forced to remain for years in conditions that would be tolerable only in emergencies or for a short time of transit.

Ethical and Christian Evaluation
The section headed \’An Ethical and Christian Evaluation\’ sees the housing problem in terms of deprivation of a human right to an adequate standard of living. It spells this out in some detail quoting the , published by the Holy See, which explicitly states that “the family has the right to decent housing, fitting for family life and commensurate with the number of its members, in a physical environment that provides the basic services for the life of the family and the community”. ( Article11) Such a juridical formulation sets homelessness firmly in the realm of structural injustice. To be homeless is to be deprived of something which is . The document goes further in commenting that in some situations not only are people unable to live a dignified life as individuals or as families, but do not live at all, they simply exist. This distinction between living and simply existing is accompanied by a reminder that society as well as the State has an obligation in this regard. No pretext that the lack of housing is proper to a certain type of culture, or that in some regions of the world many people pass their entire life in the street, dispenses the State or society from this obligation. The document strongly states that \’anything which does not meet the basic needs of a person – alone or in a family – cannot be
considered part of any authentic culture\’. The right to housing is thus understood as a universal right.

Property at the Service of the Human Person

The traditional teaching of the Catholic Church that the goods of the earth are intended for everyone is cited directly as follows: “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all people, so that all created goods would be shared fairly by all mankind, under the guidance of justice tempered by charity”2; In other words, property has a social function. Housing constitutes a basic social good and cannot simply be considered a market commodity. The questions of just distribution of housing, building speculation, the rights of tenants and owners, illegal housing, legal evictions, are discussed as issues to which solutions need to be found based on the right of all to a decent home.

There is emphasis on the obligation of each one of us to do what he or she can in regard to the situation, whether directly or indirectly, through existing organisations. This includes a call to men and women who themselves are homeless to take action in regard to their rights, and to defend them by involvement in grass roots associations for the purpose of procuring housing. The rights of people who prefer not to settle in one place to access basic services are mentioned specifically, as is their right to an understanding of their way of life on the part of the settled

Scripture Teaches
Specifically for each Christian, and for the Church, the reality of homeless persons and families constitutes an appeal to conscience and also a demand to do something to remedy the
situation. Many Scripture citations are included to illustrate why this is so. For example, the Christian is to recognise Christ himself in every person lacking a basic good (Mt 25). We are reminded that when Jesus was coming into the world, His family found that there was \’no place for them in the inn\’. It was the indifference of the rich man to the plight of Lazarus lying at his gate that brought about the judgement of him as one deserving of \’torment\’ in the next world, while Lazarus was “comforted in the bosom of Abraham” (Lk 16, 19-31).

Several Old Testament texts are referred to in order to illustrate that loss of a place to live was one of the greatest misfortunes that could strike a people in time of war. (Lam 2, 2; Jer 4, 20) To be in exile, and find no place to settle, is contrasted with living in one\’s own home, with one\’s family, which was a sign of happiness (Ps 127/128). The concept of \’house\’ or \’dwelling\’ also expresses our final destiny with God – “In my Father\’s house are many rooms” (Jn 14, 2).

What is Being Done?

A final section of the document reviews the witness and action of the Church in regard to housing. This reads as an account of what is going on, and, at the same time, as an exhortation to all Catholics to engage in authentic solidarity with homeless people by taking some part in the actions recommended. In addition to providing material help by means of, for example, housing programmes and the provision of emergency shelters, the promoting of educational and community development through involvement of the entire community, in a system of mutual help and collective labour, is acknowledged. Particular mention is made of dialogue with civil authorities to urge legislation and housing policies that are favourable to the poor.

What this section seems to reinforce is that charity and the struggle for justice go together. Charity and the seeking of justice are part of the same desire to relieve the suffering of those who have not the means to do it themselves. Whether this is because of their own personal circumstances, or because the systems and structures in which they and we are obliged to
participate need to be changed, the call to Christians and specifically to Catholics in regard to housing is clear.

It is interesting to note that the Jewish people in their celebration of the Festival of Passover eat \’the bread of affliction\’ and remember what it is to be a slave. When they celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (this involves constructing a dwelling in the open air and passing the night there) they know what it is to live in a temporary home. As Jonathan Sachs points out in , \’These enactments and reminders are a more powerful education than any other of the responsibilities of wealth and its creation. However successful they might be, Jews annually tasted the salt tang of poverty and homelessness and they could not be indifferent to those for whom it was a reality, not a ritual.3; Further questions could be raised about whether the right to a home necessarily involves a right to a homeland.

The Work of Justice
Perhaps Christians, whose faith and many traditions have their source in the Jewish Scriptures and traditions, have lost something in that ways of remembering have become tame for many. However, there is nothing tame about the words in the social teaching on housing in the document on homelessness from the Pontifical Commission. Even less tame is the language in the Irish Bishops\’ Pastoral, , issued in 1977.
Fully ten years ahead of the Vatican document on housing the Irish Bishops discussed the issue at some length. Bad housing as an important factor in the generation of poverty and its perpetuation is cited as a cause of some families being defeated in their effort to better their conditions. Rents that are excessive and not in proportion to the conditions and amenities provided represent another area “in which the consciences of some seem to be insensitive.”

(par. 105-6)

The language may seem somewhat dated but the teaching is strongly and confidently expressed. Almost thirty years later we are discussing these very issues, but now, for the most part, it is the social and environmental correspondents and commentators in our media who are setting the questions. The Church has lost much of its ground in our society. In regard to the social teaching on these issues, we may well ask ourselves, “What became of it?” or,
“Was a homily ever preached on this teaching?” Can it be that we were all, clergy and laity alike, willingly distracted by issues of sexual morality, and so avoided discussion within the church of the really difficult issues of poverty, charity, justice, and systems and structures that perpetuate serious inequality of opportunity in our society?

The place where a person creates and lives out his or her life, also serves to found, in some way, that person\’s deepest identity and his or her relations with others.”

I return to Niall Mellon and his initiative in South Africa. Whether or not he is, like many people, unaware of the social teaching of the Church in regard to housing, he and his many volunteers have shown most decisively that it can work. On any number of criteria, he and his group of volunteers have succeeded in making a vital difference to the lives of many people. As John Paul II said in his letter marking the occasion of the presentation of ” …a house is much more than a simple roof over one\’s head. The place where a person creates and lives out his or her life, also serves to found, in some way, that person\’s deepest identity and his or her relations with others.”

The social teaching of the Church, based on the dignity of each human person and the right of everyone to share in the goods of the earth, cannot become real until it is put into practice in instances such as the Township Challenge.

1. : The Church and the Housing Problem, Document of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, on the Occasion of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, 27 December 1987.
2. , 7 December 1965, in Austin Flannery O.P., general editor (1996) Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, Dublin: Dominican Publications.
3. Jonathan Sacks (1995) , London: Darton, Longman and Todd, p. 201.
4. : Irish Bishops\’ Pastoral (1977), Dublin: Veritas.