By Ben Shedlock
When Amethyst entered the Catholic Charities Rising Strong program, the 4-month-old had already suffered trauma many adults never experience.
At birth, she tested positive for substances and was removed from the custody of her mother, Tilly, and placed with her grandmother for several weeks. She spent the next three months with her mother in a residential treatment center.
It is a natural and reasonable human impulse to distinguish between this mother and her daughter. Our compassion removes the child from harm’s way, and our sense of justice holds the mother accountable.
But as Catholics, our faith cautions us not to overextend the distinction: the Church believes every human life is precious. Pope Francis has written that modern society has created a “throw away culture” that values certain lives over others (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 153).
So our Catholicism challenges us with this question: how do we take the necessary steps to protect the precious life of Amethyst while honoring the precious life of Tilly?
Every Human Life has Inherent Dignity
To answer such questions, Catholic Charities Eastern Washington observes a body of doctrines that help us build just communities and challenge systems of oppression.
The first principle of these doctrines of Catholic Social Teaching anchors the other six: “The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society,” writes the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
This cornerstone of our conscience rests on Scripture’s insistence that God individually created and loves each person. Genesis 1:27 tells us “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them.” First John 4:7-12 exhorts us to “love one another because love is from God.”
Catholic Tradition reinforces this notion. Saint Pope John Paul II wrote “[Human persons’] dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are.” For Catholics, human dignity means honoring the vulnerable, helping people flourish and correcting systemic injustices.
Honoring the Dignity of the Vulnerable
Catholic Social Teaching radically asserts that people who gravely sin or simply fail to work hard retain their God-given dignity. Bishop Robert Barron has said that “everyone is worthy of reverence and protection, but especially the weakest among us.” Human dignity demands we meet the basic needs of those who are not able, who are not willing, or who are too broken to do more.
Catholic Charities programs like the House of Charity are built around dignity. The House of Charity provides meals, case management, shelter and other services to men and women in any condition who are experiencing homelessness.
Every day, people come to the House of Charity to eat breakfast and lunch, to access services, to see their friends and sometimes just to sleep in peace. We ask only that they respect each other and the law and not abuse substances onsite. We serve patrons with minimal preconditions simply because God created them and God loves them.
Dignity Invites us to Flourish
For those who are hungry for more from life, Catholic Social Teaching requires us to make space to grow. According to Dr. Jonathan Reyes of the USCCB, “part of life…is actually creating the opportunities for everyone to have the fullness of life.”
Our Catholic Housing Communities help people reach the fullness of life. These complexes for migrant farmworkers, seniors, veterans, people living with disabilities and chronically homeless individuals and families are staffed with professionals who help residents achieve their goals for themselves.
Peer counselors with lived experience of homelessness and/or substance use disorder help residents transition into sobriety or apartment living. Social service coordinators create community and provide social outlets. Property managers provide a safe and comfortable environment for family life.
Dignity Opposes Systemic Oppression
Catholic Social Teaching also recognizes that the way our society is organized can prevent people from experiencing dignity. “We have to be attentive to more global, more societal violations of justice,” said Bishop Barron. For example, it is a “societal violation of justice” when parents and children are separated by substance use disorders, just like Tilly and Amethyst were.
Often, while parents address their substance use disorders, children enter foster care. Children deserve protection, but children who enter foster care often experience trauma that causes them to experience the same poverty and addictions their parents face.
Catholic Charities believes that communities must collaborate to envision a new way to help these families. By creating new systems, we can honor the dignity of both Tilly and Amethyst. Catholic Charities came together with regional healthcare, legal, governmental and social service systems.
The result was Rising Strong, a court-ordered alternative that keeps children with their parents while the families heal from addiction and trauma. Parents attend intensive treatment and counseling while children attend their regular schools and receive counseling.
Rising Strong’s first pilot cohort reunified 15 families. Among them were Tilly and Amethyst. Because of the new system Catholic Charities helped build, Tilly was able to work hard and achieve a vision for her own life she never thought possible.
“I never thought I could have a year of sobriety, or have my own place that I call home where I pay rent and live with my daughter,” Tilly said. “I never could have imagined that.”
Ben Shedlock is the communications coordinator for Catholic Charities Eastern Washington. Before working as a writer, he served Catholic Charities as a refugee resettlement caseworker. Ben’s career has emphasized Catholic Social Teaching’s themes of solidarity and an option for the poor. He is a member of St. Ann’s Catholic Church. You can reach him at email@example.com.