Friday, June 17, 2005
On "The Preferential Option for the Poor"
Catholics who are the least bit aquainted with the social doctrine of the Church have encountered the term "preferential option for the poor." According to Charles Curran, the phrase has its origins in the "liberation theology" espoused by radical Catholic theologians in Latin America (excerpt from Catholic Social Teaching Georgetown UP, 2002).
In an article for the U.S. Catholic (Why the preferential option for the poor is not optional, November 1997), Jack Jezreel chronicles the use of the phrase from a 1979 pastoral document by the Latin American Bishops, to the 1986 statement "Economic Justice for All", revisited in 1994's "Communities of Salt and Light", as well as pontificate of Pope John Paul II.
[Update 6/19/05 -- According to one reader, the phrase "first appeared in official episcopal documents in the SECOND Latin American Episcopal Conference, that of Medellin, in 1968 -- the Liberation Theology movement in many ways grew out of this meeting. It is in the last pages of the Medellin documents, under the heading "Preferencia y Solidaridad"." Thanks!]
Pope John Paul II spoke of this preferential option on many occasions, preferring the term "preferential love for the poor" -- the website The Social Agenda, a collection of Magisterial texts compiled by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, from which we offer two excerpts that convey a sense of this "preferential option":
It will not be superfluous therefore to reexamine and further clarify in this light the characteristic themes and guidelines dealt with by the Magisterium in the recent years. Here I would like to indicate one of them: the preferential option or love of preference for the poor. This is an option, a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning our ownership and the use of goods. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 42)
In seeking to promote human dignity, the Church shows a preferential love of the poor and voiceless, because the Lord has identified himself with them in special way (cf. Mt 25:40). This love excludes no one, but simply embodies a priority of service to which the whole Christian tradition bears witness. This love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future. (Ecclesia in Asia, n. 34)
It should not suprise us that the phrase itself is subject to a wide variety of interpretations, often reflecting the political and spiritual orientation of the individual.
For instance, operating in the spirit of St. Francis, the Catholic Worker movement advocates the adoption of voluntary poverty. According to the Catholic Worker "Manifesto" Aims and Means:
"The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge and belief in love." (Dorothy Day) By embracing voluntary poverty, that is, by casting our lot freely with those whose impoverishment is not a choice, we would ask for the grace to abandon ourselves to the love of God. It would put us on the path to incarnate the Church's "preferential option for the poor."
In his thoughtful post Blessed Are They The Poor in Spirit: A Catholic View of Economics (Cooperatores Veritatis June 7, 2003) Greg Mockeridge contends that the "preferential option" entails the necessary inclusion of those in need, helping the poor to better themselves, to improve their economic conditions by putting their creativity to use in the workplace and becoming financially self-sufficient:
The genius in the cultivation of resources and economic success finds its fulfillment in the preferential option for the poor. A society whose economic activity is exclusive to anyone because of race or social class cannot truthfully claim economic prosperity despite superficial appearances of it. In ignoring the poor, society not only fails in its duty to help those in need, but also deprives itself of the beneficial contribution of ingenuity that is gained by those who, through their circumstances, have discovered ways to make astoundingly productive use from the most meager resources. Growing up in a large blue-collar family myself, I know first hand how to make abundances from the scantiest of means. This sort of ingenuity has been the hallmark of American economic prosperity. We have seen immigrants come to this country with nothing more than faith in God and gratitude for their freedom build economic empires. The preferential option for the poor is not a political play toy exploiting the needy by creating an unhealthy dependence on government programs nor is it "...exclusive or discriminatory toward other groups", (Centesimus Annus n 57), but a recognition that the economic chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
In Reforming Our Attitudes (Religion & Liberty September / October 1995), Fr. Robert Sirico, President of the Acton Institute, discusses how we can practice Christian charity in ways which recognize the innate human dignity of the poor:
First, we can no longer believe that the call of compassion is satisfied by simply writing a check. The poor are asking for much more than our money. We must begin to make the more difficult sacrifices of our time, energy and talents. We must go to the poor where they live and enter into their poverty in order to help them rise above it. In our efforts to help those suffering the effects of poverty, dollars may be the least important consideration.
Another attitude that must change is our tendency to believe that as individuals we cannot make a meaningful contribution. When faced with a homeless person, the temptation is to think “What could I, with my limited experience and resources, do?” We therefore turn to simply giving money. We need to rethink this response and consider other ways we can contribute; perhaps volunteering at a private shelter, or maybe starting a shelter where there is none, or even having a conversation with a homeless person, as a person, and ask them what they truly need. This is the more radical approach because it requires that we listen to the poor and allow them to become part of the solution — not just the target of our pity.
A third attitude we must adopt is that we no longer view the poor as incapable. One of the most egregious faults of current government programs is the hidden assumption that the poor will always remain poor. While admitting that some people suffer from more than the effects of poverty which prevent them from becoming productive members of society, many of those receiving government assistance can contribute to the elevation of their standard of living. The poor themselves have to be a part of the solution to their own problems. Requiring some level of participation and responsibility on the part of individuals will offer the opportunity for more than dollars or a job, it will offer the opportunity for self-esteem.
Fr. Sirico's approach strikes me as being suprisingly close to Dorothy Day's -- at least in spirit, if not in policy. Browse through her extensive writings and you'll encounter a strong believer in personal responsibility and self-empowerment, highly critical of state-sanctioned welfare and handouts which leave the poor in a state of dependency.
Contrary to the Catholic Workers of today who indulge in either general dismissals or denunciations of "the neocons", I believe Ms. Day would have the desire and the capacity to truly listen to somebody like Fr. Sirico, or Michael Novak for that matter. They may not see eye to eye on the merits of the free market, but it's likely that they would have discovered common ground in an appreciation of the personalism and social thought of Pope John Paul II.
In his pastoral letter A Time for Honesty, addressing the scandal of "pro-choice politicians" and the argument that "the Church has many social teachings and abortion is one of them," Rev. John J. Myers, Archbishop of Newark, took a moment to clarify the Church's position on social teaching -- given the nature of this post it seems fitting to close with his words:
The Church's social teaching is a diverse and rich tradition of moral truths and biblical insights applied to the political, economic, and cultural aspects of our society. All Catholics should form and inform their conscience in accordance with these teachings. But reasonable Catholics can (and do) disagree about how to apply these teachings in various situations.
For example, our preferential option for the poor is a fundamental aspect of this teaching. But, there are legitimate disagreements about the best way or ways truly to help the poor in our society. No Catholic can legitimately say, "I do not care about the poor." If he or she did so this person would not be objectively in communion with Christ and His Church. But, both those who propose welfare increases and those who propose tax cuts to stimulate the economy may in all sincerity believe that their way is the best method really to help the poor. This is a matter of prudential judgment made by those entrusted with the care of the common good. It is a matter of conscience in the proper sense.
Related Links & Resources
The online archives of The Acton Institute offer much food for thought on how we can engage in effective compassion and assist the poor and financially impoverished. Here are just a few:
Update - A good follow-up discussion of this issue at the Catholic legal theory blog Mirror of Justice: