The Dignity of the Vulnerable
"The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges" (218). In a simple sentence, Pope Francis summarizes the bedrock of Catholic social doctrine: human dignity, the common good and the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. While he states that "Evangelium Gaudium" is not a social document, it offers an integrated spirituality that links the church's social teaching and evangelization, since “Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members” (185). In 85 pages, there is much on poverty as exclusion, inequality as social sin, poverty and violence, unjust economic structures and the idolatry of money, to name a few. All of these issues are highlighted because the primary mission of evangelization is the good news that is God’s love for all.
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality” (53). As he often does, Pope Francis challenges himself and us to look in the mirror. In New York, the “Breadlines Return” and homelessness is at a decade high and rising. In Los Angeles, the City Council is considering a ban on feeding homeless people in public. Who do we see when we look in the mirror? And who do we see when we walk down the street? “A lack of solidarity towards his or her needs will directly affect our relationship with God” (187). Indifference to homeless persons in New York harms my relationship with God. “If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 20). The context is current, thus new, but the message is not. From the Bible, Chrysostom and Aquinas, to his immediate predecessors, Pope Francis is reiterating a concern for the dignity of vulnerable that is first and foremost God’s concern and therefore it must be ours.
Poverty is exclusion and “those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’" (53) The ultimate violation of human dignity is to no longer be counted as a human person. The response must be inclusion and participation. In a speech to the UN working group on sustainable development, Archbishop Chullikatt urged “Inclusion, on the other hand, means inviting the poor to participate in the world’s economic, social, political and cultural systems as full partners, building up their capabilities so that they can take their deserved seat at the table for all, as equals, so that economic exchanges will be mutually beneficial and that politics will involve real partnerships.” Thus Pope Francis calls for a radical reevaluation of economic structures and a return to person-centered ethics as animating these structures.
Justice as participation animates the church’s social mission lived out from our parishes to our advocacy at the United Nations. And it is the responsibility of us all. “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out in the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security" (49). Thus "Evangelium Gaudium" places the work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services at the center of the church’s evangelization. In doing so, we are all invited to live out “An authentic faith—which is never comfortable or completely personal—[and] always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it” (183).
Meghan J. Clark is an assistant professor of moral theology at St. John’s University.