Love thy neighbor: The Catholic Church actually doesn’t teach that it’s okay to dump water over people who are homeless

In the wake of the San Francisco Cathedral scandal, the main sentiment I’ve heard expressed is “I thought the Catholic Church was supposed to take care of the poor.” “I thought the Catholic Church was better than this.”

If these are your thoughts … then you are absolutely right. Catholic social teaching has a rich tradition of responsibility to people who are poor and vulnerable.

Let’s start at the beginning. Littered throughout the Bible are calls to “love thy neighbor.” Patristic leaders like Clement and Ambrose taught that the poor represent Christ himself. They preached that the crisis of a single individual is a crisis for the whole church. This call to live in solidarity with those who are poor continues in the Catholic Church’s earliest social document, Rerum Novarum. The 1891 document proclaims that Christians, by the call of their faith, have a responsibility to give some of what they have to people who are poor (19).

This teaching of charity grows into teachings of social justice and solidary in time. In Populorum Progressio (1967), Pope Paul VI invites Christians to recognize the more global issue of poverty. He says we cannot be ignorant about poverty anymore. Access to needs should not just depend on charity. It should be institutionalized, Paul VI argues. He draws attention to the needs of poor nations, in addition to poor individuals (49). His more systematic thoughts continue in Octogesima Adveniens, where Paul VI introduces the term “preferential option for the poor” (23) for the first time in a papal encyclical. When Paul VI uses the phrase “preferential option for the poor,” he means that whenever we are given a choice, we should choose the option that best serves those people in greatest need. He looks beyond charity and urges society to address the larger systemic issues that perpetuate poverty, so that people who are poor will not be in their situations forever.

Further, Justitia in Mundo (1971) notes that it is the church’s responsibility to promote justice and fight against injustices. The Synod writes, “The Church is obliged to live and administer its own goods in such a way that the Gospel is proclaimed to the poor. If instead the Church appears to be among the rich and the powerful, its credibility is diminished” (47). Pope John Paul II continues to build on the more global Christian responsibility to the poor in Centesimus Annus (1991) by advocating that we must help entire marginalized peoples. He urges people to see those who are poor not as a burden, but as an opportunity to express kindness. Google our current pontificate, Pope Francis, and you’ll find dozens of statements about fostering a culture of respect, encounter and solidarity with the poor.

This is what the Catholic Church promotes — albeit a very brief overview.

What happened in San Francisco is a terribly unfortunate act of in-hospitality. Dumping water on people who are homeless should deeply disturb anyone with a good conscience. But let’s be clear — that action taken by a few is not indicative of the Catholic Church’s stance towards people who are poor. The Catholic Church does affirm its responsibility to take care of those in need. The Catholic Church is better than this.