Catholic Studies and the
New Directions in Catholic Humanism
MAUREEN H. O’CONNELL
Coming of age as a Catholic in metropolitan Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s, I was desensitized to the unjust reality of urban poverty at an early age. I simply assumed that trash and graffiti, abandoned cars, blocks of blighted row homes, schools that looked more like prisons, and massive stone churches that used to be Catholic were as natural to the urban landscape as homes with manicured lawns and driveways, parks for soccer and baseball, and church bells that rang at noon were to my suburban one. Even as a young adult, I assumed that both environments were simply givens, with little connection to my own family’s history on both sides of the city line or with any hope for meaningful change.
Acts of charity and works of mercy in my Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, from first grade through my senior year of college, did little to challenge this false assumption or to reconstruct the unjust dichotomies of city and suburb. I simply associated loving my inner-city neighbor with seemingly endless canned good drives, Catholic Charities Appeals, hot meals delivered to homebound folks living with HIV/AIDS, and spring break “urban plunges.” While personally transformative, these acts of charity trapped those of us from the affluent suburbs in a good-intentioned but unreflective cycle of charity that treated the symptoms of social injustice, but never its root causes. They precluded me from perceiving the real humanity of the neighbor, as well as from acknowledging my family’s complicity in causes of urban injustice. Charity and mercy did not necessarily cultivate the imagination either. We spent little time conjuring different futures for Philadelphia or dreaming up alternate ways of “brotherly love.” In short, my Catholic education also gradually desensitized me to the hard intellectual, spiritual, political, and physical work that the real solutions to urban poverty demand.