Last Wednesday, a story broke about a plumbing system installed to deter the homeless from sleeping in the doorways of St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of San Francisco. The story gained local, national, and even some international attention. From the San Francisco Chronicle to the London Times, nearly every report I have read on the story reported it the same way: by focusing on the hypocrisy of such a system being installed by an institution which claims to be an agent for the inherent dignity of the human person and an advocate for the poor and vulnerable. This prioritizes the wrong aspect of the story though. The real immorality here does not lie in the fact that a Catholic Church is the perpetrator. The immorality of this story comes from the fact that anyone, religious or not, would treat anyone, homeless or not, with such a lack of basic human dignity.
This is especially important, because the Catholic Church is not the only perpetrator here. The public statement issued by the Cathedral in response to the story states that “This sprinkler system in alcoves near our back doorways was installed approximately two years ago, after learning from city resources that this kind of system was being commonly used in the Financial District, as a safety, security and cleanliness measure.” So where is the public outrage at the other institutions using this practice to deter the homeless? Where is the citywide campaign to ban security sprinkler systems?
I am not condoning the actions of St. Mary’s Cathedral. Nor do I deny that the practice of dousing homeless persons with water was severely misaligned with any and all of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. However, it does not take a religious doctrine to recognize that this practice is immoral.
Or does it? Is this where we are today? Have we lost any sense of a common morality? Have we, as a society, become so morally adrift that the only means we have left to judge the actions of others is their own personal standards? Sure it’s easy to judge Catholicism when it fails to live up to its own high standards regarding human dignity and care for the vulnerable, but do we let the businesses in financial district off the hook for the same actions simply because we expect their standards to be much lower (or not existent at all)? I sure hope not.
[Matthew Gaudet is an adjunct professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco and recently completed his doctorate in Ethics and Social Theory at the Graduate Theological Union. For more of Matt’s posts on this blog, please click here]