The woman stood under the overpass, where there was some shade and protection against the sun. It was 95 degrees in the shade, and she was wilting in the heat. A man in a shiny new Jeep just ahead of me, inching along in the traffic entering the construction zone, rolled up alongside her. The driver put down his window and spoke to her. I could not hear what was he said, but her reaction spoke volumes: she stared at the ground, winced, and closed her eyes, tightly clutching the small cardboard sign scrawled with her request for money.
Why do they stand along the road, begging? Aren’t they looking for money for drugs or alcohol? Aren’t there shelters, agencies, places where they can go for the basics of life? So we stare resolutely ahead as we pass or, if we feel the need, we might even take the time to stop and curse them: filthy, lazy, shiftless, worthless, get a job, get a life, get out of here.
Personally, I cannot find it in me to insult or revile a person who is begging for money, regardless of what that person’s true motives may be. That said, not knowing what they would actually do with cash they collect makes me very hesitant to hand them any money. As I passed by the woman, I made eye contact with her and gave her a meek smile. She stared back at me blankly and I had to wonder, what should be my response? What are we supposed to do in this situation?
As a person of faith, I accept that that my response should be based on two guiding principles: subsidiarity and solidarity. Luckily for me, the church provides significant detail on what these words mean. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the principle of subsidiarity is broadly concerned with the limits of the right and duty of the public authority to intervene in social and economic affairs” (Mulcahy, 567). The Church also tells us that subsidiarity is, “economic, institutional or juridical assistance” (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 187).
Solidarity, as defined by Pope John Paul II, represents ‘‘a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say for the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all’’ (John Paul II, 38).
In practical terms, solidarity means that we are working towards a society that is concerned with the common good of all, not just a few, and trying to make life better for everyone. We are not focused on our own status or consumed solely with our own well-being or welfare, because when we take care of one another, everyone benefits. The old saying is true; a society is measured by how it cares for its weakest members. We recognize that our relationships do not end with our friends and families, but that what affects any one person affects us all. Subsidiarity, practically speaking, means that we recognize that larger social institutions, like the state and local governments, have a duty and an obligation to help and support smaller institutions that help those in need. We have an obligation to give our consent, at the very least, to the support that the larger social institutions provide. Moreover, we need to actively support the help that smaller social institutions provide. It is important to recognize that subsidiarity and solidarity must go hand-in-hand. Faith and reason tells us that “solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “welfare state,” while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism” (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 152).
Making these principles part of our lives is not all that difficult. Voting for candidates who promise to work for the common good and personal development of all, and who will also work to support the social aid we provide for the poor, is an obvious example. We can donate to charities that work with the poor and the marginalized.
However, meeting the material needs of the poor is not the whole story. Governments and social institutions, while having an important role to play, are not the entire answer. While they address some of the needs of people in distress, there is also a kind of poverty that all the riches of the world will not help. I’m thinking of poverty of the spiritual sort. This sort of poverty is harder to see and to identify. A person’s material needs may be met, but may they be suffering from spiritual needs. In the face of this sort of suffering, we should not be afraid to meet people, to see their faces and hear their voices and to let them see us. Doing so means that we recognize the poor as people with dignity, as people who deserve contact with other persons and who deserve to know that someone, a person and not just an institution, cares about their well-being. So we can also volunteer our time to a food bank or a soup kitchen, or to a homeless shelter, or to a retirement home. And, perhaps most importantly, we can make time to pray for justice and for peace.
The people we see on the street and under the bridges are easy targets for our anger. Sometimes they are easy to ignore. Sometimes we wish they would just go away. But they remind us of a crucial reality. They remind us that this world is not finished; there is work that needs to be done to make sure that everyone everywhere has their basic needs met. The reasons for their circumstances are not simple, and the efforts we need to take to help them are not simple either. The work is daunting, but for the good of every one of us, we need to persevere.
Halfmann, Janet. New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. 15 vols. Washington, D.C.: Gale, 2003.
Mulcahy, R.E. "Subsidiarity." In New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2003. 567-569.
John Paul II. " Sollicitudo rei socialis." Vatican: the Holy See. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_30121987_sollicitudo-rei-socialis_en.html (accessed July 22, 2012).
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, D.C.: USCCB Communications, 2005.