Homelessness theologically understood

May 9, 2023 in Featured News, News

The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice Annual Lecture 2023 focused on the theological underpinnings of the Centre’s homelessness advocacy. The lecture was held on Tuesday, 25th April in the beautiful surroundings of the Ignatian Chapel of St Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street, Dublin. Dr Suzanne Mulligan », a moral theologian from the Pontifical University in Maynooth drew on Catholic Social Teaching (CST) in addition to the work of theologians from the other Christian traditions, to make a persuasive argument for why homelessness in our society affects not only the dignity of the people enduring it, but of us all.

Three discrete but interrelated themes comprised the body of Dr Mulligan’s lecture. These are outlined below. The full lecture is also now available on YouTube ».

Human dignity

In Catholic Social Teaching, the notion of human dignity is rooted in the belief that all human beings are made in God’s image, therefore possessing an innate dignity that is not dependent on race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or economic status. From the time of Vatican II to the teachings of Pope Francis in the present day, CST has emphasised the inherent dignity of the person, which is not contingent on their ability to contribute economically. At Vatican II, the common good was defined as “the sum total of social conditions, which allow people either as groups or as individuals to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.” Housing is, of course, a fundamental requirement for a person to achieve this, and enabling a person to live a life of dignity is dependent on it.

One of the most interesting elements of Dr Mulligan’s lecture was her framing of the idea of ‘vulnerability’. Vulnerability, she argued, is inseparable from human dignity and is necessary as the basis for ethical action. Without vulnerability, we cannot fully engage with the other, in this case, people who are homeless. Solidarity arising from a deeper awareness of our shared vulnerability and our shared precarity could act as a catalyst for change in relation to homelessness. The brutal death of Jordan Neely on the New York subway », a vulnerable man experiencing both homelessness and mental health issues, was a stark example of the kind of ethical reality Dr Mulligan was describing. The refusal to be vulnerable to the vulnerable other ultimately produces a callous society.

Integral human development

The second theme of the lecture was that of integral human development “a framework that allows us to critique the conditions, the attitudes, and the values that either support human dignity or detract from it.” The CST tradition recognises the social and personal good that comes from enabling people to have agency and to participate in community life. Homelessness makes this impossible, by hindering not only social engagement with others but access to a safe environment, access to education and to healthcare.
Dr Mulligan expanded on this theme by reference to inequality and to what Pope Francis has identified as “new forms of poverty”, which structurally exclude groups of people from the opportunities that others in their society have access to. We must fight to overturn this systemic oppression, so that everyone has the chance to flourish. In relation to housing, we must shift from a market-based provision of housing, which only benefits the few, to providing housing to all as their fundamental human right.

Spiritual accompaniment

Beyond the necessary work of striving for social justice and an environment in which people can thrive, the third theme of the lecture explained the need for spiritual accompaniment of people who are homeless. Homelessness erodes a person’s dignity in many ways, and can have a “profoundly negative spiritual and psychological effect on people”, often leaving them with feelings of shame and eroding their sense of self-worth. Because of this, it is vital that the spiritual needs of homeless people are attended to in addition to their material requirements. It is only in this way that they can receive the healing, reconciliation and God’s love that they need.


The lecture drew to a close with an exploration of an “ethics of disruption” that challenges and upends the oppressive status quo. Catholic Social Teaching provides a framework that can push us to move past thinking around the edges of the housing crisis. It “demands that we begin always with the human person in all her frailty and fragility, recognising the vulnerability that we each share and the reasonable hopes that we each wish to realise.”

In conclusion, Dr Mulligan reminded the audience that we are all in need of God’s redemptive love, something that makes the perceived gap between us and homeless people an illusion. This, with the vision offered by the wealth of theological insight offered by her lecture, should give us hope for the future and for an end to homelessness.

After the lecture there was time for some discussion and Q&A from the audience. People lingered and chatted about the ideas discussed, while enjoying wine and cheese. Feedback from the audience was positive about the lecture, with one attendee declaring publicly after the event “This was such an interesting and, as a Government TD, challenging talk. Being unhoused is an affront to basic human dignity, and in financialising housing as a commodity, we have allowed that to happen to far too many.”

Next year’s JCFJ public lecture will consider the place of disability in our society and will be delivered by Prof. Brian Brock » of Aberdeen University.