Pope Francis’s Option for the Poor, Part 6: Is it a true option for the poor?

This is the final post of a 6-part series on this blog. Previous posts are: Part 1 (“Introduction”), Part 2 (“What Is an Option for the Poor?”), Part 3 (“Leading a Pastoral Revolution”), Part 4 (“The Pope on ‘Savage Capitalism'”), and Part 5 (“Continuity and Newness”).

There is one last question to consider in this series. Even if we grant that Pope Francis’s words and actions with regard to poverty are good and true and important, we must ask: is it a true preferential option for the poor, in the full meaning of the phrase? We noted in Part 1 of this series that the preferential option means more than caring about poverty or helping poor people, essential as that is. It includes several essential aspects, and we can summarize them here like this:

1. a special concern for the poor and weak among us, putting them at the center of our attention in pastoral care, theological reflections, and political activism;

2. a recognition that care for the poor is demanded not only by charity, but by justice;

3. a decision to stand on the side of the poor, particularly where more powerful institutions and cultural attitudes stand against them, forming structures of injustice and oppression;

4. work not simply on behalf of the poor, but with the poor, in their midst and in some real way sharing their lives and experience, including work to enable the poor themselves to work on their own behalf.

Does Pope Francis’s teaching and ministry represent, in these terms, a preferential option for the poor? My answer is yes, at least in most ways; but I do offer a qualifier to go along with that affirmative answer.

Regarding (1) above, the Pope clearly intends to put a concern for the poor at the center of his papal ministry. He indicated as much from the start, in his choice of Francis as a name, and made it explicit in his initial comments explaining the choice. Regarding (2) above, he has also made clear that he approaches the demand to care for the poor in terms of love, for sure, but also in terms of justice. He clearly understands that society, and even (more specifically) government, owes to the weakest among us access to the most fundamental needs for living a life of basic dignity. These have been present in his ministry and his words consistently since his election.

Regarding (3) above, Francis has called for a Church that is “for the poor.” Throughout these first months of his pontificate, he has decisively placed the Church on the side of the poor, not hesitating to “take sides” where poweful governmental or economic structures stand in opposition to them. We see this in his dramatic pastoral visit to Lampedusa, his presence washing the feet of young detainees on Holy Thursday, and his intention insertion of a visit to a Rio de Janiero favela into his World Youth Day schedule. We see it, too, in his remarks to the group of new ambassadors to the Holy See in May and in his letter to Prime Minister David Cameron in anticipation of the G8 meeting.

And so, in my opinion, Pope Francis’s ministry clearly includes the first three of the four aspects listed above. With regard to (4), there may be reasons for pausing at least a moment. As for living and working in the midst of the poor, sharing their experience, I suspect most would agree that it is nearly impossible for a modern pope to fully embrace that sort of challenge — though it must also be said that it’s hard to argue that Francis has come closer to it than any other pope of modern times. In rejecting the papal apartments and armored cars, he has taken significant steps in that direction, for example. Before his election as pope, his frequent presence to people living in povery and his choice to cook his own meals and take public transportation were also very real steps toward an option for the poor. All of this is admirable and to be praised. Still, the highly protected and financially secure circumstances in which he lives, we must admit, is far from real poverty as it is experienced by millions every day. I’m not suggesting he should experience that. I’m only saying he’s not and almost certainly can’t, and so at least in this sense, his ministry today is perhaps not a full option of for the poor as the originators of the term, the liberation  theologians, intend it.

But there is one other element, an interesting one, that suggests what Francis is doing is not, in a complete sense, an option for the poor, and this one is more in his control. An option for the poor includes working to help poor people themselves know how to help themselves, to overcome by their own efforts the structures that conspire to keep them poor. Here we realize that Pope Francis has directed his words and work primarily to the rich of the world — to government leaders and to the people of the upper and middle class who are in a position to help the poor by making changes in lifestyles, laws, policies, economic structures, or simply attitudes. All of this is critically important. But it is not the same as working with the poor and enabling to help themselves — and doing that is something that probably is well within the power of a pope who is determined to do it. Indeed, it would be fascinating to see.

Interestingly, even on occasions that might have made it easy to do, he has not. Consider, for example, the Pope’s important visit to the Varginha neighborhood, the Rio de Janiero favela, during this pastoral visit to Brazil, mainly for the purpose of being present for World Youth Day. On that occasion, he did indeed visit the home of a poor family of the neighborhood. And he opened his public comments by saying, “I would have liked to knock on every door, to say “good morning”, to ask for a glass of cold water, to take a cafezinho, – not a glass of grappa! – to speak as one would to family friends, to listen to each person pouring out his or her heart – parents, children, grandparents … But Brazil is so vast! It is impossible to knock on every door!” He in terms of something the poor can do, he did note at the beginning of those same comments that “the Brazilian people, particularly the humblest among you, can offer the world a valuable lesson in solidarity; this word solidarity is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable.”

But after these introductory comments, the Pope said: “I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity!” And the rest of the talk was about how people of means, including young people, can and must help people in poverty. Even as he was present in that poor neighborhood, it seems to me that he spoke more about the poor and about helping the poor than he did to the poor.

A similar observation might be made about the Pope’s important pastoral visit to Lampedusa. On that occasion, too, present at a site where many people living in the midst of great distress, danger, vulnerability, and poverty gather, the Pope certainly had personal contact with some poor immigrants, and this was surely intentional. But in his homily at Mass — his only public comments during this visit — he spoke about the poor, “these brothers of ours,” “these people” to ‘the rest of us’:

How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings; we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live; we don’t care; we don’t protect what God created for everyone, and we end up unable even to care for one another! And when humanity as a whole loses its bearings, it results in tragedies like the one we have witnessed…. I recently listened to one of these brothers of ours. Before arriving here, he and the others were at the mercy of traffickers, people who exploit the poverty of others, people who live off the misery of others. How much these people have suffered! Some of them never made it here…. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be overly critical here. The Pope’s words and witness on behalf of the poor is remarkable. I only intend to point out, in fairness, one aspect of what is typically understood by the term “preferential option for the poor” that is generally not present in the important and beautiful ministry of Pope Francis.

Still, Pope Francis has called for not only for a Church that is “for the poor” but for “a Church that is poor.” These are jarring words, challenging words, words that hold a significance that we have not begun to live out and that hint at a Church of the future that might well be — under the influence of Francis, leaders like him, and a Catholic people who share their vision — very different in appearance and ‘style of living’ than the one that most of us (at least in the United States and other Western countries) know today.

The papal ministry of Jorge Maria Bergoglio stands as a dramatic challenge to the people of “the First World,” the great many of us here in the United States and other wealthy nations who are, by global standards, remarkably rich — which of course includes those of us who do not typically consider ourselves people of great means. That ministry is, in many real and significant ways, a true preferential option for the poor. And it challenges and calls each of us to embrace the same option in our lives, if only by degrees that we find it possible.

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