In that first audience with journalists, which I mentioned in the Part 1, Francis called for “a Church which is poor and for the poor.” This may be as succinct and effective a description of church teaching on the preferential option of the poor as you will find.
The idea of an option for the poor insists that people living in poverty need and deserve the special concern of the Church and society and that where there are social or political structures, practices, or attitudes that work against people living in poverty, the Church must take the side of the poor. A primary question in approaching all social, ecclesial, and personal decisions should be, “How will it affect the poor?”
The Christian option for the poor is, more than anything else, an imitation of the attitude and the behavior of God. Throughout salvation history, God reveals God’s own preferential option for the poor, in a way that allowed Pope John Paul II to feel comfortable calling people living in poverty “God’s favorites.”
From the very beginnings of the story of the Israelite people, God chooses to work through the poor, the weak, and the marginalized, and God works in direct opposition to the indignities and the oppression that they face at the hands of the rich and powerful of the world and on behalf of their liberation. In the Old Testament, it is impossible to separate the theme of poverty from the theme of liberation from injustice and oppression.
With the coming of Christ, salvation history takes a dramatic new turn, but God’s option for the poor remains an unbroken theme of the story. Christ, the incarnate God, is truly God’s option for the poor made flesh. We see this expressed, for example, in the song of Mary, who proclaims after her initial encounter with the angel who announced the coming of the Christ that the Lord has “dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart./ He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones / but lifted up the lowly. / The hungry he has filled with good things; / the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1: 51-53). We see it in Jesus’s homily in the synagogue of Nazareth, when he says that he was sent to proclaim freedom to captives and let the oppressed go free (Luke 4: 18). We see it in his own Resurrection, a divine vindication in which he can be seen to stand in the place of all of the crucified people of the history.
An option for the poor, in other words, is absolutely christocentric. This is expressed well by the 2007 Aparecida document of the Latin American Episcopal Conference, a document upon which then-Cardinal Bergoglio had a strong influence: “Everything having to do with Christ has to do with the poor, and everything connected to the poor cries out to Jesus Christ: ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Mt 25:40)…. For in Christ the great became small, the strong became weak, the rich became poor” (n. 393).
Throughout the history of Christianity, people of faith have recognized and responded to this revelation of God’s love for the poor by loving and helping the poor, often in dramatic and heroic ways. Effective and important hospitals, schools, religious orders, and more – some prominent and well-known, but many more small and unnoticed — illumine the landscape of Christian history.
But there is more to the idea of an “option for the poor” than helping the poor, and what is new comes thanks to two important threads of development in the church and modern society.
First, the twentieth century brought some new insights about poverty. Poverty had been understood, through much of history, as the result mostly of chance, fate, blind luck, personal virtue, or even God’s plan. But we have more recently seen clearly that the experience of poverty — who is poor and who is not and their ability to avoid or overcome poverty — has a lot more to do with the way people have chosen to organize society. Pope John Paul II spoke of these social, political, and legal aspects of poverty as “structures of sin.” In the United States, we have seen — to name an obvious few — legal slavery, Jim Crow laws, “redlining,” and, more broadly, racism and sexism.
Second, the twentieth century also brought a new theological development that in turn had a big impact on church life in some parts of the globe. The 1970s saw the appearance in Latin America of liberation theology, a theological movement that understood Christianity through the prism of the poverty and oppression in the world and also in Scripture. Preferential option for the poor is one important aspect of liberation theology. More than just call to help the poor or acting on behalf of the poor, the option for the poor is also essentially
- sharing experiences and life with the poor
- opposing social and economic structures and injustices that help make or keep many people poor
- relating to the dominant powers of society with some suspicion and prophetic challenge
It is easy to identify each of these elements on the pages of the Bible itself. We also find it expressed in various ways throughout Christian tradition. But it took a new and central place in the work of liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, and Jon Sobrino of El Salvador.
I want to note, finally, that there has at times been some conflict between liberation theology and Vatican authorities. Because of this, some people are under the impression that liberation theology as a project has been condemned by the Church’s teaching authority, which can easily lead to the conclusion that its most important ideas, including the preferential option for the poor, are to be avoided as heterodox or dangerous. Neither is true.
It’s true that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did criticize some aspects of liberation theology in a 1984 document. The focus of its criticism was the way some theologians had at times incorporated Marxist theory too readily into their theological work and politicized the Christian faith. But a follow-up 1986 document from the same Vatican congregation took a much more positive approach and offered support to many of the most important elements of liberation theology.
It’s safe to say that the oppositional element of the preferential option, while it had some place in the teaching and the ministry of John Paul II, has been downplayed by the magisterium, perhaps especially by Benedict XVI. (But see this interesting article from John Allen a couple of years back, on “The lonely liberation theology of Benedict XVI.”) And yet many of its ideas are considered “mainstream,” orthodox Catholic doctrine today, including preferential option for the poor. In fact, we can note that Archbishop Gerhard Müller, appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Benedict in 2012, is said to be a student, friend, and supporter of Gutiérrez. The two even co-authored a book, the title of which could be translated, On the Side of the Poor. “The theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez,” Müller has said, “independently of how you look at it, is orthodox.”
In Part 3, we’ll consider Pope Francis’s preferential option for the poor.