An African-American colleague of mine will occasionally recount a story of another black person doing or saying something particularly stupid and then shake his head and sigh, “Oh my people!” This seems to be a common expression among at least some segments of the African-American community: a good example can be found here. I find it an interesting expression, since it combines both disappointment and solidarity in equal measure: one can be critical without disowning your fellows.
Right now I am having a Catholic version of an “Oh my people!” moment. It’s not my first and I am sure it won’t be my last, but it is still pretty painful. News reports appeared this week that the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of San Francisco was having a problem with homeless people sleeping in their doorway alcoves. Their solution, implemented about two years ago, was to install a sprinkler system in each alcove that sends down a jet of water every thirty to sixty minutes through the night. Homeless people who are unaware of the system find themselves and their belongings drenched. A spokesman for the archdiocese initially defended the system, say, “We do the best we can, and supporting the dignity of each person. But there is only so much you can do.”
However, after a fair bit of hue and outcry the Archdiocese backtracked and announced that it was turning off the sprinklers. In a defensive statement to the media they explained that the system was installed as a safety and sanitation feature to keep the alcoves clean, and was not intended to drive the homeless away. They conceded that in hindsight it was “ill-conceived.” They gave no indication as to what they were going to do now to deal with homeless men and women who attempt to sleep in their doorways.
I have a certain amount of sympathy for the frustration that the staff at the Cathedral felt: cleaning up cigarette butts, needles, condoms and human excrement on a regular basis must be a miserable experience. And, as the original article notes, they did not think of this idea themselves: apparently many buildings in the San Francisco financial district use the same system. So it is fair to ask why no one is criticizing these people as well. Further, my experience in the Bay Area twenty years ago made me cynical about expressions of concern for the poor and homeless: the degree of sympathy evinced was inversely proportional to how closely involved the person was with the problem. (Also, note in the press report that some people seemed as concerned by the fact that the sprinkler system was wasting water during a drought as they were by its affect on the homeless.)
Nevertheless, in the end all I can do is shake my head and ask, “what were you thinking?” Or rather, not thinking: it is pretty clear that no one thought this one through in terms of Catholic teaching on human dignity and care for the poor. Indeed, one thing that makes the archdiocesan statement so painful to me is that it starts out by carefully explaining how much good the Archdiocese does for the homeless in San Francisco. This is true, but really beside the point: was matters at this point is not how you cared for the homeless in aggregate, but how you treated these particular individuals. Also, as I was wont to say when my own archbishop used to boast that the Catholic Church in Connecticut “was the second largest provider of social services in the state”:
So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)
The situation is made worse by the fact that it is in marked contrast to the example set by Pope Francis, who has dealt with the homeless around the Vatican by sending out his almoner nightly, installing showers in Bernini’s Colonnade outside of St. Peter’s Basilica, and recruiting Roman barbers to provide free haircuts every Monday (their traditional day off). And as he said in Evangelii Gaudium,
If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse, she has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and wealthy neighbours, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, “those who cannot repay you” (Lk 14:14). There can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message. Today and always, “the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel”, and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them. (EG 48, emphasis added.)
The media coverage is made worse because Archbishop Cordileone is currently battling with the teachers in his parochial schools about revisions to their contract that spell out, in detail, the morality clauses which are grounds for termination. Since most of these clauses involve Church teaching on sexuality, and San Francisco is one of the more sex obsessed cities in the US, there has been a great deal public opposition and outrage. Indeed, some sources are arguing that the sprinkler story is part of a concerted attack against the archbishop: see here and here. But the fact remains that this happened in his Archdiocese, in his own Cathedral. As blogger Elizabeth Scalia very trenchantly put it: “Here’s the thing, though. The story would not exist to be used against the diocese, if the sprinkler system didn’t exist, either.” In fairness, the Archbishop was probably not responsible for the sprinkler system, and indeed he may not have known about it—responsibility probably lies with the Cathedral rector, auxiliary Bishop Justice. But as my father used to say: this makes no difference. Cordileone has to take ownership of the bad and the good that happens under him.
For what it is worth: I am of mixed minds about what Cordileone is doing with regards to these morality clauses. On the one hand, Catholic teaching on these matters is important, and one would hope that teachers in Catholic schools either support it or are muted in their dissent. (“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” or good old-fashioned discretion by all involved seems to be one solution to many of these problems.) On the other hand, I am not sure that this is the best way to uphold Church teaching or to proclaim it effectively. In the past I have blogged critically here and here about terminating Catholic school employees who violated morality clauses. And there does seem to be an element of legal maneuvering here: I suspect that Archdiocesan lawyers have told him that the “best” approach to this matter is to lay out detailed guidelines in the contracts and policy guidelines for parochial school teachers. (As Scalia notes in the post linked to above, the Church should always be cautious in taking “worldly” advice—look at the mess this got us into in the sex abuse scandal.)
Let me close on a more positive note with a suggestion for what the Cathedral should do now. Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. faced a similar problem. Their solution was both similar and different to what was done in San Francisco.
It took us hours to arrive at a decision, but we did… no one would be allowed to stay on the porches [of the church] or use the grounds for storage. We would hire security to help us enforce this decision. And here is what made our decision different: We would meet weekly with anyone who had lived on the porches to help them make the transition.
The good news was that the church has resources to support the changes we were imagining. If anyone wanted to go home, we had the money to buy a bus ticket. If folks needed something, we would do what we could to provide them with it.
So every Tuesday at 7 a.m., a small group of us met with our homeless neighbors for breakfast and discussion. We talked about what it would take to find permanent housing and kept track of commitments.
Let us pray that our brothers and sisters in San Francisco will find a way to keep their Cathedral, all all their churches, clean and safe, while still being welcoming and reaching out to the poor among them.