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A Preferential Option for the Poor

A brief introduction to the preferential option for the poor by Sandie Cornish.

The Option for the Poor in Scripture

God’s Reign is one of justice, love and peace. Throughout the Bible, and especially in the Gospel narratives of the life of Jesus, we see many examples of God’s special concern for the poor and the powerless. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus explains his mission as bringing good news to the poor, liberty to captives, new sight to the blind and freedom to the downtrodden (Lk 4: 18 – 19). In the Exodus event, God frees the people from slavery in Egypt, hearing the cry of the poor and oppressed and acting to set them free. The memory of this liberation was to shape the attitude of the Israelites to widows, orphans and strangers, that is, those who were disadvantaged and vulnerable in their own society (Exod 22: 21 – 23). God called the people out of slavery into a covenant relationship, to form a new and more just society. This sense of God as being on the side of the poor as their protector and vindicator is also expressed frequently in the prophetic literature and in the psalms, and underpins the Beatitudes. In the parables of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16: 19 – 31) and of the rich fool (Lk 12: 13 – 21), the materially poor are at an advantage regarding salvation because they are painfully aware of their need for God whereas wealth can provide a false sense of security. In Matthew’s scene of the Great Judgment (25: 31 – 46) there is just one test of whether one is to be saved or not – how one has treated the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned. Jesus identifies totally with them – what we do to them, we do to him.

A Matter of Priority

Making a preferential option for the poor is a way of following the example of Jesus. It is an option in the sense of being a conscious choice to be in solidarity with those who are poor, marginalized or disrespected, and to work for structural change to transform the causes of poverty and marginalization. Our preferential option for the poor is a core commitment – it is not optional! It is preferential because through this option we give preference or priority in our love to those who are poor.

God’s love embraces all of us and so our preferential option for the poor does not exclude care for anyone in need. It calls all of us to right relationships, and it does this by placing those in greatest need at the centre. The experience of the poor and powerless is the test of how just our society really is. That’s why, in offering services, or undertaking advocacy, Catholic organisations demonstrate a preference for the needy, excluded, or devalued members of our society. When we make choices, we consider the impact on those who are poor or pushed to the margins. This is why Pope Francis points out that “every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and underprivileged.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, n 93)

Origin of the Term

The term ‘option for the poor’ arose from liberation theologians’ reading of Scripture in the context of Latin America during the 1960s. The term ‘option for the poor’ began to appear in Church teaching documents in the 1970s. The Medellin Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) made an option for the poor in 1968, but this expression did not appear explicitly in CELAM documents until the Puebla Conference of 1979. The concept of an option for the poor rapidly became influential among Bishops in Asia and Africa, and among religious orders. It was later taken up in the teachings of Bishops in western countries, for example, in the US Bishops’ 1986 Pastoral Letter, Economic Justice for All, (n 25) and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s 1992 Pastoral Statement, Common Wealth for the Common Good (pp 24-25). More recently, the Australian Bishops summed up the option for the poor saying that “any society is judged by how the weakest and poorest of its members are treated. The most vulnerable people are our greatest responsibility” (Vote for the Common Good: Election Statement 2013).

Incorporation into Catholic Social Teaching Documents

In Octogesima Adveniens Paul VI affirmed that “the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others” but he warned against ideologies that are inconsistent with Christian faith and action (n 23, 26 – 29). It was this document that first introduced into Catholic Social Teaching the qualifier ‘preferential’ to make clear that the option for the poor is not exclusive or a warrant for Marxist class struggle. To give preference in our love to the poorest and most vulnerable is not to reject those who are not poor or marginalized, but rather to invite rich and poor alike to enter into right relationships. Amid concerns that an option for the poor reduced salvation to an economic or political project, Evangelii Nuntiandi presented a holistic vision of salvation embracing both material and transcendent dimensions (n 27, 29). Human liberation and salvation in Jesus Christ are linked but not the same thing: “in order that God’s Kingdom should come it is not enough to establish liberation and to create well-being and development” (EN n 35).

In an address to CELAM’s Puebla Conference, John Paul II warned against problematic ways of understanding and practicing an option for the poor, but he also strongly encouraged the Latin American Bishops to actively pursue an authentic Christian approach to the liberation of people from poverty and oppression. He declared an option for the poor to be “a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n 42.) Benedict XVI confirmed that an option for the poor “is not ideological but is born from the Gospel” furthermore it is “implicit in the Christological faith in the God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty (cf 2 Cor 8: 9)” (Address to the Fathers of the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, 21 February 2008, Rome.)

Pope Francis links a preferential option for the poor with key principles of Catholic Social Teaching, saying that in the current global context “where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable” the principle of the common good is “a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.” This option demands recognition of “the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods” it demands “an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers… this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good.” (LS, n 158)

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