Someone who wants to learn about the Church’s teaching or theology on preferential option for the poor will find plenty of good choices today of books and other resources. (In fact, there’s a pretty good chapter on it — if you don’t mind my saying — in a little book called Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching.) Presentations and explorations of the doctrinal, scriptural, and theological aspects of the option for the poor are plenty – thank heavens.
A new book edited by two highly regarded authors on the topic – Gustavo Gutierrez and Daniel Groody – tries to go in a bit of a different direction, and so offers some great new insights that you don’t find in a lot other such resources. The Preferential Option for the Poor beyond Theology (from University of Notre Dame Press) offers, as the title suggests, a different perspective. Actually, a collection of different perspectives.
The book is a set of essays by people who are not professional theologians or church leaders, but who have made serious and successful efforts to integrate the preferential option for the poor into their professional lives. Through the course of the book, we are offered the compelling witness of how the principle has been integrated into the professional lives of lawyers, politicians, scientists, college professors, movie producers, medical professionals, and health policy officials.
The authors make clear that important as it is to give money to agencies that directly help the poor or to volunteer at these agencies – and note, those are things we mostly do outside of work hours, in whatever time we have left over – there are all kinds of real, concrete, and effective things we can do at work, while doing what we do every day.
Lawyer Robert Rodes, Jr., for example, points out that “the burdens of the poor are being fashioned in the major law firms faster than they can be relieved by the public interest offices…. We can serve the poor at least as effectively by confronting and challenging power on their behalf as by exercising it on their behalf.” He does not just offer pie-in-the-sky reflections to say that’s what lawyers ought to do; he offers, towards the end of his career, a personal account of ways that he managed to do it.
Similar things can be said of the other people who contribute chapters to this book. All in all, the book leaves no question that Catholic social teaching is not a set of vague aspirations and unrealistic principles. Social justice is not what scholars write about; it’s what people do, day in and day out. It’s a lesson that all that we have – not just our money, but our education, skills, gifts, opportunities – is given to us for the good of all, to be shared, and shared especially with people who are poor.
Along the way, we also get a compelling warning against the kind of thinking we too often use to fool ourselves and dull our consciences, a warning of how inadequate and dangerous to the poor are approaches to poverty that are limited to charity and even efforts at development. For example, try reading this without feeling first guilty and then inspired:
It is easy to believe that we live and prosper under a basically beneficent system, that the misfortunes of those who, unlike ourselves, fail to prosper under it are either the result of their own improvidence or the inevitable consequences of an imperfect world, and that if we tinker more than incrementally with the system unimaginable disasters will ensue. The belief sometimes takes the form of a global methodology – cost-benefit analysis – or of a jurisprudential theory – law and economics. In other cases it simply fuels opposition to a particular reform. If we free the slaves, they will all starve. If we give women the vote, families will be destroyed. If we make employers hire blacks, all their white workers will quit. If we pay workers a living wage, we cannot compete with manufacturers based in Guatemala or Thailand.
Against any manifestation of this argument, the preferential option for the poor prevails by virtue of the maxim fiat justitia ruat coelom, let justice be done though the skies may fall.
If I could offer one criticism of this book, it’s that it limits its scope to professional life. It pushes readers to consider carefully how they can do justice to the poor at work, whatever that work happens to be. But I’d love to have seen at least a chapter on what it means to live the preferential option in one’s personal life, in a typical middle-class marriage, through parenting and family life. These too are central aspects of many people’s lives, and so shining the light of the book’s insights in that direction would have been equally helpful.
Still, I highly recommend The Preferential Option for the Poor beyond Theology. It is a witness of God’s claim upon our entire lives, including all the ways we encounter him in the poor – or the ways we could encounter him if only we were willing to.