This week, Pope Francis has been in Washington, D.C. - at the White House, Capitol Hill, the Basilica, and a homeless shelter. This pope, a massively popular cultural star and hero to many, has touched a nerve in his approach to poverty. At a time when Los Angeles, CA and Portland, OR are declaring that their homelessness constitutes a "state of emergency," his message is especially timely.
Pope Francis both speaks and lives in a way that honors the poor, that lifts up their humanity and their dignity through respect. This approach, of respecting and restoring the humanity and dignity of the world's least fortunate, is refreshing and in many ways antithetical to the louder cultural forces that tell us to blame, punish, and dehumanize those who are suffering.
In his speech at the White House and his speech before a joint session of Congress, the Pope pointed again and again to the needs of the poor and our national obligation to do something about them. He called out to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, four Americans whose impact on this country came from their service and dedication, their humility and respect for those with the least. He has said in the past "the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies."
And his deeds have matched these words. Thursday, the pope left Capitol Hill to spend his lunchtime with DC residents experiencing homelessness. Just before lunch he said, "we can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing," as he reminded everyone that Jesus entered the world as a homeless person.
We do not end homelessness by blaming or punishing those who are experiencing it. But we also do not end homelessness by bestowing meager benefits while looking down judgmentally on those who seek help. We end homelessness when we recognize the inherent dignity and humanity of each person and we change our policies to reflect that. This approach is a human rights approach and stems from universal human rights in international law that call for a right to housing.
In fact, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has come out strongly in support of the human right to housing.
The Catholic bishops believe decent, safe, and affordable housing is a human right. Catholic teaching supports the right to private property, but recognizes that communities and the government have an obligation to ensure the housing needs of all are met, especially poor and vulnerable people and their families. At a time of rising homelessness and when many workers' wages are stagnant and living expenses are rising, it is important to ensure housing security.
If we can learn one thing about the Pope's ability to inspire and capture attention, it should be this: he lives and acts the fundamental idea that every human being has inherent dignity and humanity and that every community has responsibilities to respect and uphold that humanity. We need to change our approach to poverty and homelessness.
We need to start with respect for the dignity and humanity of all, add policies that embody that respect, and move toward a human right to housing.