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”:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
- In Human Capital and Poverty (Religion & Liberty January/February 1998), Gery Becker notes that “Human capital, e.g., the skills, education, and values of an individual, constitutes our most valuable and available resource for ameliorating poverty.”
- In Effective Aid to the Poor, Dr. Digby Anderson, Director of the London-based Social Affairs Unit, addresses the two challenges which poverty-relief faces: Generosity and Efficiency:
Giving away money is easy, provided you’ve got enough in the first place. But giving away money efficiently is very difficult. And that remains true whether the donor is the state, a voluntary association, or an individual. . . . The modern church rightly tells the rich to give to the poor. It presents the problem as one of lack of generosity. And so, in part, it is. But the church has little to say about how the poor are to be identified, how much each one should get, how to establish priorities among claims for charity, which forms of help are best, and how to avoid help becoming harm.
- In Poverty, Virtue, and Grace (1996 Lord Acton Essay), Fr. Robert Johansen — yes, of the blog Thrown Back — draws upon the thought of Lord Acton, who “held the conviction, expressed by Christian thinkers throughout history, that poverty is not a merely material problem, but a moral and spiritual problem as well.”
- John Paul II’s Use of the Term Neo-Liberalism in Ecclesia in America, by Michel Therrien. Based on a paper delivered at the Pontifical College Josephinum April 8, 2000.
- Finally, Fr. Neuhaus illustrates the need for civil dialogue on such matters between Catholics in “Against Neoliberalism” (First Things 95 August/September 1999: 80-99.):
The Zwicks’ essay is an extended polemic against neoconservatism, a.k.a. neoliberalism, a.k.a. capitalism. So, as might be expected, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Father Robert Sirico come in for very unfavorable mention. The neoliberalism supported by this writer and his friends, say the editors, “mows down people who are in other countries through slave wages, international trade agreements and torture taught at the School of the Americas to ensure that ‘freedom’ prevails. It is very violent.” But the Zwicks go beyond the usual suspects. They write, “Another well–respected priest, Fr. Avery Dulles, S.J., defends slave wages as being better than no wages.” Fr. Dulles is not simply a well–respected priest, he is undoubtedly the most widely respected Catholic theologian in the United States (to whom, not incidently, Appointment in Rome is dedicated). And, if one really wanted to press the point, might one not be able to make the case that low wages, even very low wages, are better than no wages at all? But, in fact, what the Catholic Worker says is false.
Fr. Dulles tells me that he remembers meeting the Zwicks at a meeting in Washington and, in private conversation, asked them what they thought of the argument of an acquaintance of his who does business in Latin America and claims that, although the wages he pays are low by North American standards, they are much higher than his workers could otherwise obtain. He says he does not recall how the Zwicks responded to his question, if they did. Since then, however, they have more than once published the claim that Fr. Dulles “defends slave wages” in Latin America. Such libel does nothing to enhance the legacy of Dorothy Day which the Catholic Worker supposedly champions.
Surely, as reasonable Catholics, we can do better?
Update – A good follow-up discussion of this issue at the Catholic legal theory blog Mirror of Justice:
- Mark Sargent asks How Elastic Is the Preferential Option for the Poor? (6/20/05)
- MOJ colleague Rick Garnett counters inThe Prefential Option: A follow-up (6/21/05)
- Another lively discussion by the Commentariat at Amy Welborn. (6/22/05)
- A thought in progress @ Disputations:
If poverty is an economic problem to be solved, then it’s not my problem; I can barely handle my own economic problems, much less help others with theirs. If it’s an economic debate, it’s not my debate.
And if it’s an economic problem or debate, it’s not really the Church’s problem or debate, in any particular way. All the Church would have to do is remind everyone of the basic moral principles, then let the economists and policy makers go to town.
But I don’t think that’s what the Church says. I don’t think she regards poverty as a problem to be solved so much as a sorrow to be joined in. . . .
The Gospel is not an economic development plan. The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or of drinking. Those of us who can speak of “the poor” rather than “we poor” must be in communion with those who can’t, to share the life of the Spirit with them. Not in a patronizing way, assuring them they’ll be just fine once they’re dead; but in the way Christians were once known for loving each other.