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Commentary :: Social Welfare
Rights instead of Alms
19 Feb 2019
It is time to champion a basic right to housing and ensure its reality. "An authentic faith that is never comfortable and individualistic always includes the deep desire to change the world," wrote Pope Francis. Every Christian and every community is called to be God's instrument for liberation and advancement of the poor.

Protests for the Rights of the Homeless in Berlin

By Peter Nowak

[This article published on 1/30/2019 is translated from the German on the Internet, Many pedestrians reacted with malice, snide remarks and indifference to the protest action, a vigil for the rights of the homeless before the Red City Hall.]

“This placard is only for the homeless,” it says on colorful posters informing people without housing about aid programs. Is there a growing private readiness to help in the cold season, as the Taz (Berlin newspaper) editor Waltraud Schwab thinks? She hopes for a harsh winter. “The frost isn’t horror but wakens sympathy for all those freezing in the city.”

Persons who live on the street have n o appreciation for such social romanticism. “I could sleep here if I had a polar-fit sleeping bag and socks,” said a woman who spent two nights in front of Red City Hall in temperatures below freezing… From January 23-25, they joined in a vigil against homelessness. The “Homeless Parliament” endorsed the vigil. The protestors demand rights for persons without housing instead of beautiful words and alms. Nicole Lindner of the Renter Party has little regard for social romanticism. She cannot confirm that cold temperatures produce social warmth. During the vigil before the Red City Hall, she was met with much malice, snide remarks and indifference, she told Jungle World. Another female participant broke out in rage that young persons in good winter clothing made fun of the people who froze before the Red City Hall. The 30 members of a flash mob against homelessness on January 26 also lamented the indifference of the public.

One user of the emergency shelter for the homeless said from personal experience that not enough was done for health protection…

Occasionally, there was indignation when the rights of the homeless were violated. The mayor of Berlin, Stephan von Dassel (The Greens) experienced this at the end of January…. The Berlin social senator Elke Breitenbach (Die Linke, The Left party) abhorred the expulsion and stigmatization of the homeless. She criticized the clearing of the homeless camp near the main train station and referred to model interaction s with the homeless in Lichtenberg. “We send social workers to the camp of homeless persons. They see what their problems are, speak with them and try to develop individual solutions.” Political groups criticized that the utensils used in the emergency shelter were thrown in the trash.

Whether the sympathy with the homeless expressed above all in the social networks will also be manifest on the street will be shown on April 6. On that day, a big demonstration of the Berlin Renters movement is planned that will protest a real estate fair. The “Homeless Parliament” that demands rights for the homeless is part of the alliance. People become homeless because rents are often too high and wages too low. The Berlin “Alliance to Prevent Evictions” recalled at the vigil before the Red City Hall that shelters were removed daily. Many of the sufferers land on the street. It is time to champion a basic right to housing and ensure its implementation.


By Johan Verstraeten

[This article published in Concilium 2016 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

I. The Power of Judgment and Changing the World

Pope Francis writes: “An authentic faith that is never comfortable and individualistic always includes the deep desire to change the world” (Evangelii Gaudium – EG – 183). He explicitly uses the word liberation for the obligation to change. “Every Christian and every community is called to be God’s instrument for liberation and advancement of the poor” (EG 187). With this call to liberation, he also rejects the technocratic paradigm. The poor suffer most in environmental change (Laudatio Si – LS – 111). Catholic social teaching and science can no longer be “mere general references that do not concern anyone immediately” (EG 187).

To find proper answers to the challenges of our times, social judgments and social theory must be based on the principle “reality is more than ideas” (EG 231-233). Concepts and theories are important when they promote contact with reality and do not remove us from reality” (EG 194). People often suffer under wrong decisions and mistakes because “many academics, opinion-makers, media- and power centers are far re moved and do not come into contact with their problems. […] This lack of physical contact and encounter […] “cauterize the conscience. Part of reality is ignored in biased tendentious analyses” (LS 49).

This is also true for church leaders and theologians who collaborate in catholic social teaching. Without direct contact, “hearing the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth” are hardly possible (LS 49). Francis emphasizes judging a society is not reserved to the pope or elites that speak for people. For Pope Francis, the realism of catholic social teaching starts with the presupposition that believers are subjects and not objects of judgment. Social thinking is the task of the whole people of God” (EG 111-114) and requires conversation on different planes: as an ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and also as an open dialogue with the sciences (EG 4). The goal is reflecting how the world can be changed, not drafting dogmas.

In Pope Francis’ eyes, the world has the form of a complex interaction where God’s future arises. In his view, neither the church (“the people of God”) nor the sciences are neutral outside observers or distanced observers. Their reflection and action play an important role in the process of incorporation for which they are jointly responsible.

II. The radical option for the poor

The responsibility for creating a new world is radicalized by the option for a “church that is poor and for the poor.” With this option, Pope Francis joins catholic social thinking and its praxis with the radical-prophetic agenda that arose during Vatican II and in the Catacomb pact (November 16, 1965). With this pact, an important group of critical bishops promised a “life in poverty” and committed themselves to creating a “serving, poor church.” The option for the poor is not an abstract principle but a “fundamental ethical necessity” for the “effective realization” of the public welfare (LS158). The active participation of the poor in decisions affecting their lives is part of that option. They are neither the objects of decisions made by experts nor “passive objects of donors seeking more power.” They are the subjects of their own fate and actors from whom much can be learned. In his statements to the popular movements in Santa Cruz (Bolivia, July 9, 2015), Francis makes his standpoint unmistakably clear. “The future of humanity is in their hands […], in their ability to join forces and promote creative alternatives […], they, the most insignificant, the exploited, the poor and excluded. They are the sowers of change. Don’t be intimidated!”

In his structural analysis of poverty (EG 188), Francis’ most important diagnosis is that “the unequal distribution of incomes […] is the root of social evil (EG 203). This is confirmed by the research conclusions of critical economists like Thomas Piketty who has shown that inequality has increased despite economic growth or Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett who explain societies become increasingly unequal, break apart and socially disintegrate. Extreme inequality actually undermines the skills of people, their efficiency, output and their happiness and leads to greater health and social problems and to the collapse of social life. Francis’ diagnosis approaches Dorlings’ thesis that destructive inequality is the consequences of subjective convictions and assumptions occurring as false explanations like elite thinking, prejudices or the idea that greed is good and hopelessness unavoidable and is not only a “physical” reality.
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