What is home? Part 5: Reconnecting participation in our common home

‘Man, being the only creature created for his own sake, finds himself only in a sincere gift of himself.’

Gaudium et spes, 24.

The final part of this reflection presents a bold view of some systemic changes that realising integral ecology may call forth in England over at least a generation.

Over the course of re-entering public life, Catholics in England have tended to focus charity on the ‘most excluded’ people, described informally in at least one Catholic charity as ‘those who most need help and whom we are most able to help’. But the city’s welfare – and the Body of Christ – envisions the participation of all, not just those on the margins. This makes the links between housing, isolation and participation the principal battlefield in which the Church as ‘field hospital’ is called at once to bring healing and endure being shelled, even by ‘friendly fire’ (note 1).

The Church’s universal vocation to holiness (Lumen Gentium, 40), received by each Christian at baptism, includes making time for contemplation and learning how to live with inner loneliness. Formal Catholic teaching, including the Catechism, recognises two primary vocations: marriage and consecrated life, including being in holy orders(2). There are also various ‘states of life’, including being without a family (cf. Familiaris consortio, 85). Everyone not in either state of permanent self-donation is encouraged, as they are able, to remain open to the two primary vocations. To a culture and planning system that regards provision for ‘single person households’ as equivalent to shared households, it is important to be circumspect about declaring housing as a ‘right’ that could then be interpreted on the same level as, for example, the right to found a family. If housing is understood first as a means of securing everyone’s capacity to participate in creating the welfare of the city, and secondly as an indefinite-term support to the permanent stability of families and shifting communities, then it might be reasonable to deduce that, except where a person is in a consecrated state of life, there is no clear entitlement for a single person to a permanent occupation of a single person housing unit(3) in what the Church acknowledges as a right to an ‘adequate standard of living’.  The point here is not to force people into marriage, control how people live, or deny an indefinite period of discernment to a primary vocation, but to be clear about distinctions between Church teaching and ‘human rights’.

Public planning powers, in their current institutional and landowner-weighted forms, deny a community’s vision and participatory ownership of place, and are antithetical to a Christian vision of organic development, forming place identity, and beauty(4).

Catholic charitable focus on material destitution needs to be accompanied by a focus on the bigger picture: how and why communities can regain heart in themselves. A coherent Catholic voice on planning would be enriched by our understanding of liturgy (public work), the historical development of places of worship, and the agility of Pope Francis’s field hospital image (echoing the traditional combination of living, producing and selling in the same dwelling space). A bold view of some challenges would include:

  • Replacement of national planning frameworks and imposed long-distance infrastructure projects with community-led planning, in which all affected individuals/families are included as far as they reasonably can be(5). Ultimately this is how human scale development will be restored.
  • Overcoming the idolatrous idea that some settlements are to be protected more than others, for example from natural forces, or on grounds of productivity. This is echoed in other ideas: some banks are ‘too big to fail’, and of untrammelled city growth (e.g. skywards), and mirrored by social behaviours such as the treatment of ‘private’ gardens.
  • Healing the divorce between urban concentrations and rural hinterlands, for example by a shift to ‘grow your own’ and building with local materials. This seems more holistic than a conservative New Urbanism in which centrally planned cities are understood to be the best environment for human fulfilment. 
  • Restoring responsibility for utilities and waste to their source regions(6).
  • Encouraging much wider adoption of co-housing approaches and including some means of economic production within new build schemes(7).

In a global context, communism and city-states tended to reduce individuals’ and families’ agency. The Church’s experience suggests that integral ecology tends to be nurtured successfully in communities that are economically, environmentally and socially viable (Laudato si, 129).

The unceasing flight from the land, industrial growth, continual demographic expansion and the attraction of urban, centres bring about concentrations of population, the extent of which is difficult to imagine, for people are already speaking in terms of a “megalopolis” grouping together tens of millions of persons. Of course there exist medium-sized towns, the dimension of which ensures a better balance in the population. While being able to offer employment to those that progress in agriculture makes available, they permit an adjustment of the human environment which better avoids the proletarianism and crowding of the great built-up areas.

Octogesima adveniens, 8

In conclusion, two pointers for our whole society’s future stand out:

  • The need to recover belief in the agency and freedom of communities from remote exploitation and technocracy.  This is not about replacing one myth of self-sufficiency with another! ‘Who you know’, rather than where you live (and how long you have lived there) needs to be revalidated as a positive basis for a community’s welfare, trade and a smaller state(8). This does not excuse anyone from reaching out and welcoming strangers, since all share responsibility to become better known to each other. Deeper reflection on new forms of participatory politics through the lenses of Catholic social teaching and Eucharistic theology would be helpful.
  • The need to develop a clear understanding of the ‘region’ as a viable entity capable of supporting the life of those within it. Such regions may look different from current administrative areas. This is by no means to suggest greater planning centralisation or an anarchic disregard for the culture and identities of existing settlements. Rather there is a need to use faithfully the tools to engage with our emerging understanding of what it means to be human, for example through an assessment of bioregionalism and ecological economics.

Picture: Tarr Steps, Somerset. This bridge epitomises local people’s use of local materials in an indefinite way that brings people together.


  1. Mk. 6:4; Pope Francis, interview with Antonio Spadaro SJ, August 2013; see also William Cavanaugh, Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World, 2016.
  2. Consecrated eremitic/anchoritic life (1983 Code of Canon Law, 603) is a rare gift.
  3. i.e. a dwelling designed for, or occupied by, one person regardless of the number of rooms.
  4. cf. Schumacher: ‘It seems to me that the only intelligible meaning of the words ‘a national plan’ in a free society would be the fullest possible statement of intentions by all people wielding substantial economic power, such statements being collected by some central agency.’  Small is Beautiful, Vintage Classics, London, 2011, p197. Pope Francis notes that new planning often results in places more ugly (in every sense) than existing settlements.
  5. cf. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to 2030, 11.3: Enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.
  6. cf. SDG 6.b: ‘Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.’
  7. In the UK this approach has tended to be limited to care homes, student and some co-operative accommodation; co-housing is more associated with housing groups of mixed households.
  8. Two underlying messages: 1) there is no security in life except in association. Local associations are the foremost expression of belonging; 2) we cannot ‘ignore that the world of concrete places is full of exiles, displaced peoples, diaspora communities, increasingly inflamed border disputes and the violent struggles by indigenous people and cultural minorities to achieve liberation.’ (Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity (2001).

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  1. Pingback: What is home? Part 4: A Christian vision for housing in England – Abiding Places

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