Adrian Santos / Catolicos_ES
Pope Francis frequently rode public transit while a cardinal in Argentina
How beautiful those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favour the recognition of others!
Anyone else feel the Pope was looking smack dab at Chicago in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’? Lost in much of the news coverage of whether Presidential candidates feel the Pope has the proper scientific credentials to comment on climate change was a blunt call to action on the need for investment in public transit and public spaces that bring diverse groups of people together, and most of all, to end the ills of segregation.
Indeed, while Pope Francis goes into surprising—and welcome—detail about the need for more investment in public transit and less on roads and parking and for more state investment in housing, the message that resonates most is about our physical separation as human beings, and the resulting detriment to our psyches. “We cannot fail,” urges the Pope, “to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.”
How do our surroundings impact us? He counts the ways:
In our rooms, our homes, our workplaces and neighbourhoods, we use our environment as a way of expressing our identity. We make every effort to adapt to our environment, but when it is disorderly, chaotic or saturated with noise and ugliness, such overstimulation makes it difficult to find ourselves integrated and happy.
In short, where and how we live impacts how we think, feel and act.
He argues that—in the language of the recent Supreme Court fair housing decision—these instances of negative environments have a disparate impact on the poor. Lack of attention to the realities of others is facilitated by physical separation:
… many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality.
In other words, physical distance from others creates and perpetuates a lack of “social empathy,” which my colleague Breann Gala and I have written about before. The idea is that you are less likely to understand or support investment in policies or programs for the poor if you never cross paths with them. We also noted that concentrated wealth is bad for an area’s economy, because when poverty rates and segregation are high in metropolitan areas, those regions perform worse economically relative to less segregated places. The reasons why are many, but chief among them is that increasingly, metropolitan economies rely on high- and low-skilled labor side by side in order to thrive. If a low-skilled worker loses too much paycheck just getting to work, or can’t even get there because public transit doesn’t reach its remote location, the whole economy suffers. The impact on individuals' economic well-being is also striking: recent research from Harvard University highlights that commuting time is the strongest factor in determining whether a person escapes the cycles of poverty.
Notably, the Pope's sentiments were not driven by economics. His is a moral argument, one that implores us to create the spaces to move past distrust of difference and instead recognize our common humanity.
In an earlier paper issued in 2013, an apostolic exhortation entitled Evangelii Gaudium, he reflects on cities’ often extreme separation of lives:
We cannot ignore the fact that in cities …what could be significant places of encounter and solidarity often become places of isolation and mutual distrust. Houses and neighbourhoods are more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate.
and delves further into the theme of integration:
At the same time, creativity should be shown in integrating rundown neighbourhoods into a welcoming city: “How beautiful those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favour the recognition of others!”
This is the not the first time the Pope has called for more integration; in the past his pleas were focused on integration of divorced Catholics and gays in the church. So what of this call to “integrate rundown neighborhoods into a welcoming city?” What is and what has been the Catholic church’s stance on geographic, economic and racial integration? Or more specifically, since Pope Francis is a Jesuit, is there a particular Jesuit take on the topic? I decided to ask my in-house experts—literally. Since moving out of our house in North Lawndale a year ago, we’ve been renting it to members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a group of young people who live together for a year in a low-income community and work with and for people who are disenfranchised, marginalized or vulnerable. The idea is to pursue spiritual growth and social justice in community with those they serve.
One of these members, Amanda Weiler, explained to me that a major tenet of the Jesuit faith lies in the difference between charity and solidarity. “Jesuits strive to live a life of solidarity, “ she told me, “by fully understanding the life circumstances of the people they work with. I have always admired this about the Jesuit way of life because ... one cannot truly have an impact on someone's life until they see that person's hardship firsthand. Our common humanity is sacred and needs to be supported and celebrated in every aspect of life, but especially through where we live and how we live in neighborhoods.”
Where we live and how we live.
This focus illuminates the Pope’s plea for spaces for connection and integration in today’s cities. In Chicago, where people of different incomes and races carry on entirely separate lives from one another, what chances do we have for this shared reflection? What Pope Francis is saying is that people need space to reflect and interact, to discuss and debate—in ways that push us past what we think we already know. And for that, we need people who see the world differently than we do. For that, we need cities that don’t isolate some from the world’s harshest realities, while inundating others. For that, we need, in the words of the Jesuit Pope, houses and neighborhoods that are built to connect and integrate.