Politics Thursday: The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

Today, a few days late, we examine a controversial tenet of Catholic Social Teaching, "Option for the Poor and Vulnerable", also known as "The Preferential Option for the Poor." Actually, the basic concept isn't as controversial as much as its application is. Let's first examine how the US Catholic Bishops see this concept.

The following paragraph is from US Catholic Bishops "A Century of Social Teaching", as taken from the Diocese of Juneau web site:

Poor and vulnerable people have a special place in Catholic social teaching. A basic moral test of a society is how its most vulnerable members are faring. This is not a new insight; it is the lesson of the parable of the Last Judgment (see Mt.25). Our tradition calls us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. As Christians, we are called to respond to the needs of all of our brothers and sisters, but those with the greatest needs require the greatest response.

I think most Christians and Americans accept the call of charity to help the less fortunate, and this is how many Catholics view this call. Others who trace this option from Biblical times believe the call to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first as more radical. Rather than trace this development myself, I will quote a few paragraphs from Marvin L. Krier Mich's "The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching." (I'm not including an Open WorldCat link for this book as it was not in OCLC as of this writing.):

The "preferential option for the poor" is a central theme in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The foundational event in the history of the Hebrew community was God's response to the cries of the oppressed in Egypt: "I have heard the cry of my people and I see how they are being oppressed" (Ex. 3:9). God instructs Moses, "Go to Pharaoh and tell him that Yahwah says, "Let my people go"" (Ex 8:1). This event reveals what kind of God Yahwah is and what kind of people Israel is to become. As Jorge Pixley notes, "The correct referent [for God] is always that God who redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt. Any god who is not the savior of the poor and oppressed cannot be the true God of Israel." He continues in language that could be applied to today's use of religion to justify slavery and oppression: "A god who legitimates the oppression of peasants, no matter how solemn its cult, is not the true God of Israel, for the true God is only that One who hears the cries of the oppressed and frees them from their oppressors."


God's identification with the poor and outcast is clearly evident in the Christian Scriptures when God chooses a poor, young, single woman to be the bearer of the Christ child. The message and action of Jesus continues the tradition of social justice proclaimed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus stands on the shoulders of the prophets and the psalmist who proclaim God's love for the poor in many words and actions.


In 1968 the bishops of Latin America met in Medellin, Columbia, to examine the situation in light of the new approaches of the Second Vatican Council. The bishops came face-to-face with the growing poverty in Latin America. In their analysis they shifted their support to the poor: "It is necessary that small basic communities be developed in order to establish a balance with minority groups, which are the groups in power...The church—the people of God—will lend its support to the downtrodden of every social class so that they might come to know their rights and how to make use of them."

The bishops confirmed a new direction in Latin America. As Father Alfred Hennelly noted, the Medellin documents "provided legitimation, inspiration, and pastoral plans for a continent-wide preferential option for the poor, encouraging those already engaged in the struggle and exhorting the entire church, both rich and poor, to become involved."


Pope John Paul II echoed the preferential option for the poor in his writing and speaking. He used the phrase "preferential love of the poor" and interpreted the prior one hundred hears of Catholic social teaching as evidence of the church's option for the poor even before this phrase was coined. Pope John Paul II characterized the preferential option for the poor as a "call to have a special openness with the small and the weak, those who suffer and weep, those that are humilated and left on the margin of society, so as to help them with their dignity as human persons and children of God."

So much for the basic concept. The controversy I keep referring to is related to an outgrowth of Medellín known as liberation theology. You can read about it at the wikipedia entry above. I personally believe that it is a matter of degree. If you focus exclusively on raising the wealth of the poor through any means necessary, then you have fallen into the same trap of materialism as though who defend their wealth by any means necessary.

Have Catholics lived this out? No, but many of us try. Does the Church? Now more than it used to. As we aspire to live it out, it is a beacon letting us know that our treasure is not on Earth but in heaven and that all we think we own is merely in trust for God and others. If more people would live this out, I think a lot of social problems would solve themselves.

A last word, and this goes back to the Bible's apparent support for the poor and weak (people and nations) against the elites and empires of the the day. This preference terrifies me and it should terrify you as well. None of the great empires (Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome) survived. All were swept aside by God. All of them once straddled the known world and insisted it was their way or the highway. As do we today. What then might have God in store for us if we continue to see ourselves as a law unto ourselves? This is assuming God still deals with nations. Looking at the New Testament, it seems like God deals more with individuals than with the larger societies that surround them. This gives me some hope.

Whew. Now you know why this entry couldn't go up on Thursday! This Thursday (I hope!) we will examine "Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers."

Selected Resources:

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