We Are Our Brothers’ Keepers

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: Catholic care for those in need is not philanthropy. It is our obligation.

(photo: aga2rk/Pixabay/CC0)

Q. I have hired a homeless man to paint around my house, and he is doing a beautiful job. The man is bipolar. He obviously had a miserable childhood, abusive and dysfunctional. He lives in his car at a local Walmart parking lot. He works about six to seven hours per day for which I pay him a decent wage. I did his laundry once and he asked me again. I said sure.

Okay, here is my question: Because of his condition, no contractor will hire him. I am trying to do something to help him. I pay him a decent wage, treat him with respect and do his laundry. Am I doing all that I can do? Or should I even be doing what I am doing? I don’t want to be an enabler. Is there a guide to helping the homeless? Thank you. — Penelope


We know that both sacred Scripture — especially the Gospels — and ecclesiastical teaching (on almost every page of all the documents of Catholic social teaching) reserve a privileged place for the poor, weak and despised. This man appears to be all three. 

We also know it is easier to treat people like this as the rich man treated Lazarus at his gate: see him, but walk by; after all, it’s too risky; he’s mentally ill!

You are obviously a generous and Christian-hearted woman doing what we are all called to do in relation to God’s little ones. You are looking after this man as an alter Christus (another Christ), realizing that in caring for him you are caring for Jesus, who also had nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20). 

Pope St. John Paul II repeated the moral principle of solidarity more often than any other: We are our brother’s keeper; our brother’s burdens are our own; and all men are our brothers. 

The Pope never told us how this principle applies to citizens in their care for local homeless people.  Indeed, he couldn’t.  There are too many contingencies. You really are the only one — through prayer and consultation with trusted advisers —  who can make this judgment in this particular situation. 

A few thoughts, however, might assist you in arriving at a prudential judgment.


Practical Advice

First, ask yourself how long you are in a position to provide work for the man. And communicate this to him clearly in order to obviate unreasonable expectations on his part.

Second, since he is homeless, his life and character are disordered, probably badly so. So you ought to have a healthy caution in all you do. He may unreasonably attach himself to you; make unrealistic demands upon you; his mood may be inconsistent; he may grow violent. He also may do none of these things.  But it is wise to take proper precautions, for example, by relating to him in the presence of another adult — preferably another man, such as your husband or adult sons.

Third, you are incapable of providing for his most critical needs: housing, subsistence, psychological care, social support. Be careful not to act as if you can be an effective surrogate for these needs. This, of course, does not mean you can provide him nothing.

Fourth, you may consider calling the local social services, employing the assistance of a social worker, or calling your parish priest and asking for help. Be tenacious with these people, some of whom are dedicated, others who are not. Insist they provide the man with dignified care. Assist him to make contacts with people or organizations that can help. Try to pass him off to care structures that are more suited to meeting his wider needs.

Fifth, I strongly advise against letting him stay overnight again in your home. My wife and I did this once with a homeless mentally ill woman in our parish and it turned out disastrous. Most towns have shelters. Make contact with one of these so you can direct him to a safe domicile if he is in particular need.

Sixth, be careful not to romanticize the homeless. Most have a bad habit of self-deception and deception of others. Becoming homeless is a long process of social decline; and although other people’s choices often play significant roles in their decline, they have not gotten where they are without many choices of their own. So be realistic as you relate to him. Don’t fear to speak frankly to him, even critically if necessary. You are not being mean.

Seventh, although individual citizens rightly take concern to draw attention to the plight of the homeless, individuals are incapable of responding to the larger problem. It is bigger than you or me. So don’t take the full burden of this man’s homelessness onto your own shoulders — not unless you are convinced that it is something that Jesus is calling you to do.


Catholic Social Teaching on Care for the Poor

I’d like to end with some general comments on our duties toward those in need. 

From the earliest days of Christianity down to the present, the Church has taught and teaches that when God created the earth, he created it to provide for the needs of the whole human race without excluding or favoring anyone. This is what Catholic social teaching refers to as the “universal destination of the world resources” (see John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 31).

It follows that none of us should regard our legitimate possessions as ours in an absolute sense, but always also “as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only [ourselves] but also others” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 69). In cases of extreme necessity, a needy man has “the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others.” In the bracing words of St. Ambrose, “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his” (quoted in Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 23).

What’s the practical payoff of this teaching? Quoting Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, it is this:

“When what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over” (22). 

Gaudium et Spes says it this way:

“Men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods” (69).

In other words, those of us whose basic needs are met have an obligation to put our surplus goods — those material resources over and above what we need to live a dignified life — at the disposal of those who are less fortunate; and put our working resources — those we need for day-to-day subsistence — at the disposal of those in “extreme necessity.” The Church calls these duties — “men are obliged…” — not supererogatory deeds of charity.

Catholic care for those in need is not philanthropy; we are not superior benefactors. They are our brothers and sisters to whom we are rendering what is, in a sense, owed to them. 

More can and probably should be said about how these final comments apply to your situation. But you, as I said, are the best one to assess this. Your concerns about potentially enabling the man’s dysfunction are valid. You may judge it best not to give him any handouts, but always to have him work for his support.

However you decide, it should be joined to the intention to assist the man to recognize more fully his godlike dignity and to contribute — to whatever degree, large or small — to his ability and will to re-integrate himself into his community and live in conspectus Dei a life of self-determination and free choice.

A man begs for alms at Our Lady of Health church in Hyderabad, India, on Sept. 8, 2016 — the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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Miniature from a 13th-century Passio Sancti Georgii (Verona).

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