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Option for the Poor


The meaning and intent of the phrase "option for the poor" is found in Octogesimo adveniens (1971), an apostolic letter of Pope Paul VI, which stated, "In teaching us charity, 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" (n. 23; cf. n. 42). The voluntary commitment to the cause of the socially deprived and solidarity with them in their problems and struggles was first given formal expression by the Latin American bishops at Medellin (1968), and was reaffirmed at their Conference in Puebla (Mexico), attended by Pope John Paul II in 1979.

In the Latin American framework the "preferential option for the poor" is inextricably associated with themes of liberation theology, and the struggle against oppression of every kind. During the period between Medellin and Puebla, considerable controversy surrounded the struggle for social justice that Medellin had affirmed and accelerated. As base communities began to organize and contend for the rights of the poor, individuals and groups with vested interests in the establishment used repressive methods to defend their power bases and privileges. Advocates of a new, more just social order were subjected to torture, imprisonment, murder and exile.

The document published by the Latin American bishops at the close of the Puebla meeting contains a chapter titled, "A Preferential Option for the Poor" (nn. 11341165). Although the document does not present a systematic analysis of the phrase, it clearly describes what is involved.

we are going to take up once again the position of Medellin, which adopted a clear and prophetic option expressing preference for, and solidarity with, the poor. We affirm the needfor conversion on the part of the whole Church to a preferential option for the poor, an option aimed at their integral liberation (n. 1134).

This option, demanded by the scandalous reality of economic imbalances in Latin America, should

lead us to establish a dignified, fraternal way of life together as human beings and to construct a just and free society (n. 1154).

We will make every effort to understand and denounce the mechanisms that generate this poverty (n. 1160).

The Puebla Document (DP) identifies the poor as the indigenous peoples (DP 34), the peasants (DP 35), the workers (DP 29, 36), the marginalized urban dwellers (DP 38), the underemployed and the unemployed (DP 37, 50, 576, 838), children (DP 32) and the elderly (DP 39). It concerned the bishops that the marginalized were looked upon as second-class citizens whose rights could be crushed underfoot with impunity (DP 1291, DP 18). In a "Message to the Peoples of Latin America" the Puebla Conference stated very clearly that to opt for the poor means to take up their cause (n. 3).

Although Pope John Paul II in his address to the bishops at Puebla did not use the phrase "option for the poor," he expressed a similar idea when he stated, the Church "is prompted by an authentically evangelical commitment which, like that of Christ, is primarily (sobre todo ) a commitment to those most in need." On other occasions during his visit to Mexico he expressed a preferential, though, he took pains to make it clear, not an exclusive love for the poor.

The option for the poor has been adopted as a formal principle by the Canadian and U.S. bishops in recent statements on the economies of their respective nations. This is an important acknowledgment by these hierarchies that the program of social reform that this axiom implies is relevant also in first-world contexts. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in its statement on the socioeconomic order mentioned "the preferential option for the poor," and then added:

In a given economic order, the needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich. This does not, in turn, simply mean more handouts for the poor. It calls, instead, for an equitable redistribution of wealth and power among peoples and regions.

The U.S. bishops in their pastoral message Economic Justice for All (1986) do not speak of a preferential, but of a fundamental option for the poor.

This "option for the poor" does not mean pitting one group against another, but rather, strengthening the whole community by assisting those who are most vulnerable. As Christians, we are called to respond to the needs of all our brothers and sisters, but those with the greatest needs require the greatest response (n. 16).

The American bishops introduce their reflection on the option for the poor with the assertion, "the justice of a society is tested by the treatment of the poor."

In his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis (On Social Concern, 1987) Pope John Paul II spoke of the "option or love of preference for the poor" and explained, "This is an option, or special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness" (SRS 42). The pope goes on to emphasize the global dimensions of the social question and says:

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. It is impossible not to take account of these realities (SRS 42).

This same terminology, "a preferential love" for people oppressed by poverty, appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2448). The CCC also quotes the Vatican II decree Apostolicam actuositatem, which makes the point that "the demands of justice" requires that we share our goods with the poor, and "that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as an act of charity" (2446). The Catechism, like Sollicitudo rei socialis, calls for structural reform at all levels to redress the inequitable distribution of the world's goods and the international economic imbalance.

In the years since the axiom was first formulated, the preferential option for the victims of social injustice has come to represent a short-hand description for a new kind of program aiming at integral liberation of all powerless, marginalized, economically deprived, despised and outcast persons. The elimination of starvation, disease, unemployment, unjust wages, homelessness, illiteracy, impoverishment, in brief, all manifestations of institutionalized violence or social sin is seen as a prophetic challenge to all people who yearn for peace founded on justice. And this agenda which uses a variety of descriptions to illustrate a sociology of oppression is seen as an inescapable consequence of fidelity to the gospel message which, according to the pastoral statements of bishops across several continents, itself gives priority to service of the poor and disadvantaged.

Bibliography: r. antoncich, Christians in the Face of Injustice. A Latin American Reading of Catholic Social Teaching (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1987). g. baum, The Priority of Labor: A Commentary on Laborem exercens Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II (New York 1982). g. baum and d. cameron, Ethics and Economics: Canada's Catholic Bishops on the Economic Crisis (Toronto 1984). l. boff and v. elizondo, eds., Option for the Poor: Challenge to the Rich Countries (Edinburgh 1986). l. boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1997). m. byers, ed., Justice in the Marketplace: Collected Statements of the Vatican the United States Catholic Bishops on Economic Policy, 18911984 (Wash., D.C. 1985). d. dorr, Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1992). i. ellacuria and j. sobrino, eds. Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1993). j. eagleson and p. scharper, eds., Puebla and Beyond: Documentation and Commentary (New York 1979). g. gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History (New York 1983). national conference of catholic bishops, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (Wash.,D.C. 1986).

[p. surlis]

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