Catholic Social Teaching principles show the way to a more just and truly human housing system. The Church’s teachings remind us that housing is not a valueless system but a core part of what it means to live a dignified human life. Having adequate shelter is a basic human right; a right that the Church affirms as a key part of respecting and recognising our personhood. Ensuring everyone is able to access a safe, stable and adequate home is one part of working for the common good. This means that social, economic and political structures must be ordered towards making home ownership or rental equitable for all, rather than being structured in restrictive unjust ways. While the Church has a positive view of private property, it has affirmed in numerous Papal and other official documents that private property is not an absolute right and that property is to be used for the common good with a consistent recognition that all goods come from God and are intended for the benefit of all and not just the few. This means it is an injustice for some to have more than enough while others lack bare necessities. A housing system that is structured in this way does not exemplify Catholic Social Teaching principles, and the gospel values that underlie them, because it denies people the dignity of home, it does not serve the common good, does not preference the poor in its priorities, and is not an act of solidarity.
What do Church leaders say and do about housing and homelessness
‘The home – a place of security, care for family and hospitality – is regarded now less as an essential need and therefore a right, and more as a financial asset’.
‘There is another less attractive side of the housing market: the desire to acquire more than is required. Since the mid-1980s, the average size of houses has increased from162 to 215 square metres, while the average number of occupants has fallen from 3.5 to 2.6 people’.
‘Homelessness has a terrible effect on anyone, but it is particularly devastating for families’ […] It is distressing that 22 per cent of people seeking the support of homeless services have done so as a result of domestic or family violence. Their homelessness adds to the terrible trauma already experienced when violence occurs in a family’.
‘Housing affordability is a problem that has always been felt by those in the lowest income groups, and is now affecting many middle-income families. Fewer people have the capacity to buy a house. Families have to borrow more to afford one, and many have over-extended themselves in this market so that a small increase in interest rates can make it impossible to service a mortgage. There is an increasing awareness of instances of irresponsible lending by banks and other institutions that have enticed people into debt they cannot manage’.
‘A large number of Australians neither own nor are paying off the home in which they live. More than one quarter of all Australian households are renting, and many are facing huge increases in rent, with the associated insecurity of tenure. […] Poverty and disadvantage can become entrenched and self perpetuating in communities, and the high cost of housing is a major contributor to this’.
‘Contrasted with the luxurious accommodation some can afford, the profits gained from rental property investment and the taxation advantages many property owners enjoy, the picture is not one of fairness or equity’. In the same statement the Bishops recommended: ‘the supply of housing be expanded, not reduced, and in a variety of forms to meet different needs; and that home ownership be encouraged by policies and strategies which make it a realistic choice for people on low to moderate incomes’.
‘Lack of housing is a grave problem in many parts of the world, both in rural areas and in large cities, since state budgets usually cover only a small portion of the demand. Not only the poor, but many other members of society as well, find it difficult to own a home. Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families’. (152).
Pope Francis has shown time and again how the Church can and should care for and love homeless people and those living on the margins and to see in them the same dignity and worth we see in those lucky enough not to be marginalised. In 2015 he opened a new homeless shelter nearby St Peter’s and opened a Holy Door there for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. In 2014 he also g
ave out 400 sleeping bags to the homeless which further encouraged people in this situation to move to the Vatican. One man, Joey, said, ‘we are all moving here. Everyone else spits on the homeless. But not here’. In what some considered controversial he also opened showers, created barber shop services and medical and laundry services in St Peter’s Square for homeless people.
In the hot 2016 Roman summer the Pope also treated homeless people to a trip to the beach, including new swimmers, and to a pizza dinner on the way back. The Pope’s almoner, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, said while it wasn’t solving the problem of homelessness the trip together was about ‘giving them back a little dignity’.
On the link between housing and just wages – Although not directly about housing there is a link between the lack of affordable housing for many Australians and the way average real wages have not kept pace with house prices (either to rent or buy). In this the Church’s teaching on a ‘just or living wage’ is also relevant. Since Pope Leo’s 1891 Encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the Church has taught that it is a matter of justice to uphold the dignity of humans by setting minimum wages according to the needs of the worker and his or her family, if responsible for one. More specifically, the Church has continually reaffirmed that a ‘living wage’ is one that allows a worker to enjoy the basic necessities for survival (clothing, food, shelter, health and modest comfort), but it also includes making it possible for someone to secure their future (i.e. not living hand-to-mouth, being able to saving for old age etc) and to acquire the personal property needed for the support of a family or the worker alone if not responsible for a family.*
So, in this regard, the inability of a growing number of Australians to access safe, secure and affordable housing speaks not just to the unfairness of policies shaping that market but also raises questions about present employment conditions. In this way the conversation about housing affordability is a broader one about what a ‘living wage’ should look like in light of the housing situation and further highlights the imperative on governments to act. Policies need either to create significant wage rises so as to meet housing costs or to more justly manage the housing market so that it has a more reasonable and realistic correlation to current wages.
*Australian Bishops confirmed this in, A Century of Catholic Social Teaching, Pastoral Letter by the Australian Catholic Bishops, appendix to Centesimus Annus, St Paul Publications, 1991.
A Few Helpful Church Readings
Pope Leo, 1891. Rerum Novarum – Encyclical. The first social encyclical. It is focused on the relationships between labour and capital and discusses major issues such as the rights of the weak and the poor, the right to property, and rights to form labour unions.
Pope John Paul II, 1981. Laborem Exercens – Encyclical. Discusses the principle of universal destination of goods – that private property is not an absolute right but has a social purpose for all. §19 discusses the idea of a just or living wage.
Pope Pius XI, 1931. Quadragesimo Anno – Encyclical. Written for the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. It discusses the need for a ‘living wage’ that can keep a family. Also discusses the principle of solidarity and rejects unlimited free enterprise.
Pope John Paul II, 1991. Centesimus Annus – Encyclical. Written on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Discusses the importance of the free market and democracy, but that it needs to stay within the framework of solidarity. Reaffirms message of Laborm Exercens about the universality of the Earth’s goods.
Pope Francis, 2015. Laudato Si’ – Encyclical. On the care for creation and the connected rights of all people, especially the poor, to have access to the Earth’s goods and not to be trampled on by powerful interests and a consumerist culture that encourages taking more than a fair share.