Thursday, March 19, 2015

On the San Francisco Homeless Scandal and Rash Response to News Reports


Yesterday, a scandal was alleged in terms of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The issue is the existence of a sprinkler system that was installed two years ago. The allegation made is that the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption was attempting to drive away the homeless by installing a sprinkler system near doorways, that were scheduled to go off at night. The story has an extremely wide reach—I’ve seen reports in British news sites for example. Unfortunately, the general assumption is that the Church did deliberately set out to harass the homeless, and that assumption has been adopted uncritically by some Catholic news sites and even some Catholic bloggers who should know better.

Preliminary Considerations

Before we begin, I would like to lay out a few principles of consideration. First of all, the idea that harassing the homeless is a good idea is not compatible with the Catholic teaching on concern for the poor. So, if the intent was to harass, then the intent can be judged morally wrong. However, before the intent can be called morally wrong, it needs to be established that this was the motive.

Knowing and Not Knowing

The problem is the secular stories are based on a nameless "cathedral staff member” who is quoted as saying, that the sprinkler system had been installed “to keep the homeless from sleeping in the cathedral’s doorways.” Is it true? Does this member have an axe to grind? Is he/she highly placed enough to know? We don’t know, and not knowing makes it difficult to know how much weight to give the testimony.

But we do know that auxiliary Bishop William Justice has described the intent of the system as, “The idea was not to remove those persons, but to encourage them to relocate to other areas of the cathedral, which are protected and safer.” He tells us that the archdiocese informed the people dwelling there that the system was being installed and “The idea was not to remove those persons, but to encourage them to relocate to other areas of the cathedral, which are protected and safer.” The described purpose of the system was to deal with needles and feces being left in the cathedral’s hidden doorways (they are considered high risk sources of blood borne pathogens). We are told that his predecessor was told by the SFPD that installation was recommended.

We are also told that it turned out to be ineffective, and was installed without the proper permits. Bishop Justice said the system would be removed by the end of the day.

The Issues of Concern

The issue of concern here is the question of rash judgment. The Church is accused of intending this system to drive away the homeless. Bishop Justice explicitly denies that this was the intent of the archdiocese. So the question is over whether the allegation is true or not.

As is often the case, I think Aristotle’s definition of truth fits here: To say of what is that it is and to say of what is not that it is not. So the question is, whether what is alleged happens to be true or not. Is there any evidence for it? Is there any reason that the veracity of Bishop Justice is to be doubted? Are there other explanations that fit the facts other than “bad will” that fit the facts?

That is where the Catechism’s discussion of Rash Judgment is important:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

I also find St. Thomas Aquinas to have some very valuable distinctions on the topic:

I answer that, Judgment is lawful in so far as it is an act of justice. Now it follows from what has been stated above (A. 1, ad 1, 3) that three conditions are requisite for a judgment to be an act of justice: first, that it proceed from the inclination of justice; secondly, that it come from one who is in authority; thirdly, that it be pronounced according to the right ruling of prudence. If any one of these be lacking, the judgment will be faulty and unlawful. First, when it is contrary to the rectitude of justice, and then it is called perverted or unjust: secondly, when a man judges about matters wherein he has no authority, and this is called judgment by usurpation: thirdly, when the reason lacks certainty, as when a man, without any solid motive, forms a judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter, and then it is called judgment by suspicion or rash judgment.


Reply Obj. 1. In these words Our Lord forbids rash judgment which is about the inward intention, or other uncertain things, as Augustine states (De Serm. Dom. in Monte ii. 18). Or else He forbids judgment about Divine things, which we ought not to judge, but simply believe, since they are above us, as Hilary declares in his commentary on Matth. 5. Or again according to Chrysostom* He forbids the judgment which proceeds not from benevolence but from bitterness of heart. (Summa Theologica, II-II q.60 a.2 resp.–ad 1)

So, to have a just act of judgment it must proceed from an inclination of judgment, be made by on who is in authority (which in this case can mean, someone who knows what they are talking about) and is based on a prudent judgment of the facts. If it lacks these things, it is an unjust judgment. So, if the judgment does not have a solid motive, or is formed based on things we don’t or can’t know, then the judgment is rash, and thus condemnable.

Assessing the Charges

Looking at the news articles and blog allegations, it seems to me that the condemnation of the Archdiocese is based on something that is merely alleged and not proven, where a just judgment presumes knowledge of the inward intention. Could Bishop Justice be lying? It’s technically possible, but the onus of proof is on the accuser. The account of the bishop is that the system was installed with good faith but was done badly. To say his account is untrue is to claim knowledge of his inward intention—something that would require a reliable and trustworthy witness who knows his intention was otherwise. A person who tries to argue that the intention must have been bad because of the bad effect is assuming something as true that has to be proven true.

My question to the scandalized Catholic is this: Where is your readiness to give a favorable interpretation rather than a condemnation? If you could not find a favorable interpretation, did you ask how the archdiocese understood it before judging? These things are required before one can correct—with love.

I can only speak for myself, of course. But my conscience forbids me to take part in the bashing of the archdiocese. As I see it, to do so is to require information impossible for us to have.

Conclusion—The Need for Prudence

We need to distinguish between the concept of willing to do evil and having a good will, but having something unintentionally cause harm. The fact that some homeless were soaked was not good. But, if it was the latter (good will), then the accusation that it was intended to harass the homeless is unjust. One can certainly ask for a change in policy to better serve the homeless. But in doing so we need to be both respectful and prudent.

I say respectful because if we take the attitude that “Bishop So-and-so is a jerk because he didn’t do what I wanted,” we’re being judges of the Church, not “laborers in the Lord’s vineyard."

I say prudent because it’s easy to come up with a wonderful theory that helps every person in the world. But whatever we propose to do must be within the capacity of a group to achieve. If we don’t have the funds or the manpower to carry out a wonderful theory, it will come to nothing (see Luke 14:28-30). We need to trust God of course. But prudence is about asking how do we best do what God wants us to do. As the Catechism says:

1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.”66 Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.

Prudence keeps us from being either too reckless or too timid in our serving God. It’s easy to promise the moon and then fall short. It’s also easy to be overwhelmed by the seeming obstacles in our path.

So here’s my thought as I read this. It’s clear that the Archdiocese does a lot in helping the people in need in San Francisco. But there is always need for more workers and more donations. So people who look at these news stories about the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption and feel their sense of justice tell them that something needs to be done have the right sense of course. The question is, what are these people going to do about it? Tomorrow the sprinkler system will be gone. The homeless and the health hazards will still be there, and the archdiocese has a finite set of resources.

Many may feel compelled to speak out against the wrongs done. But fewer actually do more than that. It’s like the political humorist PJ O’Rourke once said, “Everybody wants to save the world but nobody wants to help mom with the dishes.”

Just something to consider.

Some Sources to Consider as a Counterpart to the Secular Reports:

1 comment:

  1. Very nice, very thorough treatment of this topic. I appreciate the rationality and over all done of your article. Thank You.