The Personalist Project

A while back I wrote a post trying to show what's wrong with defining love as an act of will. A fresh example of how the problem manifests in practice was recently in the news.

The story broke that the Archdiocese of San Francisco had installed a watering system to prevent the homeless from sleeping in its cathedral's doorways.

“They actually have signs in there that say, ‘No Trespassing,’” said a homeless man named Robert.

But there are no signs warning the homeless about what happens in these doorways, at various times, all through the night. Water pours from a hole in the ceiling, about 30 feet above, drenching the alcove and anyone in it.

The shower ran for about 75 seconds, every 30 to 60 minutes while we were there, starting before sunset, simultaneously in all four doorways. KCBS witnessed it soak homeless people, and their belongings.

According to the rector of the cathedral, Auxiliary Bishop William Justice, the system was modeled on similar systems used in the city's financial district.

The story predictably caused widespread outrage. The Archdiocese explained itself further in the National Catholic Register.

San Francisco’s cathedral installed a special sprinkler system to wash out “needles, feces and other dangerous items” from its doorways and never intended to remove homeless people sleeping there, the archdiocese explained in the face of media attacks.

“The problem was particularly dangerous because students and elderly people regularly pass these locations on their way to school and Mass every day,” San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop William Justice said March 18.

“The purpose was to make the cathedral grounds as well as the homeless people who happen to be on those grounds safer.”

What grates, first, is the disingenuousness of this explanation. A sprinkler system doesn't  sanitize. If sanitation were the aim, it would have been much more economical and effective to hire someone to clean the steps properly each morning. What the sprinkler system does—what it's plainly designed to do—is prevent the homeless from taking refuge in doorways. 

In other words, a Catholic cathedral treated concrete human beings as a pestilence. It is the very antithesis of love.

The bishop's apology was too weak and self-serving to undo the impression.

Bishop Justice apologized that the cathedral’s intentions had been misunderstood and described the sprinkler system method as “ill-conceived.”
“It actually has had the opposite effect from what it was intended to do, and for this, we are very sorry.”

He noted that the San Francisco Archdiocese/St. Vincent de Paul Society is “the largest supporter of services for the homeless in San Francisco.”

He doesn't apologize for the abusive treatment of the "poorest of the poor," or for having taken cues from the financial district rather than the gospel, giving scandal and bringing the Church into disrepute. Rather, he says, the cathedral's intentions had been misunderstood. Then he touted the programs for the homeless offered by the Archdiocese.

But when it comes to caring for the poor, beneficial programs are not enough. They're not even the main thing necessary. The main thing necessary is love, which is to say, openness toward and concern for concrete individuals. Love is always directed toward individuals, whom it sees as precious. So the apology rings somewhat hollow.

Suppose the rich man in the Gospel who daily spurned the beggar Lazarus at his doorstep had defended himself by pointing out that he gave generously to the poor through programs at his Synagogue. Suppose he had claimed that he had only refused to help Lazarus, because he was concerned that the place in front of his door was unsafe. 

It wouldn't have been terribly convincing, would it? We all know in our hearts that if he had really been concerned about Lazarus' welfare, he would have given him some personal attention.

Some are defending the Archdiocese on the grounds that the news broke as part of a vicious campaign to discredit Archbishop Cordileone, because of his recent insistence that teachers in Catholic schools promise to uphold Catholic moral teaching. But that seems to me beside the point. 

Or, rather, it's relevant, but not in the way the Archbishop's defenders seem to think.

We know that the entire moral law is summed up in one commandment: Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. 

If our public strictness regarding moral teaching is coupled with a public witness of gross unlove, it is not surprising that we are despised as hypocrites.

Pope Francis keeps directing our attention to the poor. He keeps demonstrating by unprecedented papal acts and gestures—such as eating with the homeless, washing their feet, and supplying them with umbrellas and hot showers—that the gospel must be lived to be believed, and lived especially through concrete care for the poor. Otherwise our correct teaching and political activism will tend to backfire. 

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