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An Option that’s not Optional: The Preferential Option for the Poor

Over the last month, as talk has returned to budgets and sequesters, deficits and debt, I found myself extremely frustrated every time I began to blog on economic justice – haven’t I already written extensively on the Ryan budget? (and the conversation hasn’t changed). It feels as if we are stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, repeating the same day over and over – and the poor remain in great vulnerability. So where do we go next? My ballet teacher used to say – when you keep repeating the same mistake…you have to go back to the barre, back to fundamentals.

Our faith is not just a weekend obligation, a mystery to be celebrated around the altar on Sunday. It is a pervasive reality to be practiced every day in homes, offices, factories, schools, and businesses across our land. ~Economic Justice For All, 25

For Catholicism, a primary contribution to the pursuit of economic justice is the preferential option for the poor.   But discussions on the preferential option for the poor often get weighed down by the complexity of its very name. Names are important –When people hear the name preferential option for the poor, many get nervous and even more simply confused.  It is an option that Catholicism believes is not optional but morally required. And so if we are to pursue the Gospel in all things – we must focus on the preferential option for the poor – and what could be called the Matthew 25 test for shorthand.

“A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.”

Preferential: The needs of the poor and vulnerable come first. In discussing the distribution of resources, the needs of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized come first. Why? Because, as Gustavo Gutierrez explains

“Preference implies the universality of God’s love, which excludes no one. It is only within the framework of this universality that we can understand the preference, that is, ‘what comes first.’” (13)

Christians uphold the universal love of God and the equal human dignity of all human persons. The preferential option for the poor is required if we are to practice what we preach. In order to consistently, coherently, and credibly affirm the universal human dignity – we must go to where that dignity is violated, marginalized, and overlooked – that is where we pitch our tent. God loves all equally; therefore God cannot be neutral in the face of oppression, marginalization, poverty, and assaults on human dignity. This is clear throughout Biblical exhortations that the widow, orphan and resident alien will cry out to God and God will hear their cries. Neutrality is not equality; neutrality is siding with the existing power structure – including its distribution of resources and poverty. The universal love of God means that God takes sides.  A preference that then should be made by Christians as well.

Option –why option?  It is perhaps this part that causes the most confusion. In English, option implies choice, implies choosing one of a set of available options – as when one changes cell phone plans or buys a new car. However, as it developed at Medellin and in Church teaching, the option for the poor uses option in the way that Karl Rahner talked about the fundamental option. A firm and persevering commitment – while this involves a choice, it is not optional but morally required.  Rahner argued that we can make a fundamental option for the good, for God in the core of our being that is then born out in our lives. Option is about making a firm and persevering commitment, a moral imperative.

The poor, vulnerable and marginalizedwhy a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, because their human dignity is most vulnerable, most often denied, and because their equal dignity requires their full humanity is prioritized. Often, the public conversation revolves around the deserving vs. undeserving poor. It is a complicated question I’ve tried to examine here before. As Gutierrez clarifies,

“God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.” (313)

It is easier to message and rally around those considered the deserving poor – this is where strong focus on the no fault of their own aspect of the dreamers or children with pre-existing conditions comes in. There is a danger in missing the bigger picture – in seeking to start with undocumented children and young adults, we risk declaring victory too soon. It is not enough to bring them out from the margins; we need to bring their parents out as well. The option for the poor stands as a stark corrective to placing too much emphasis on the needs of those it is easy to love, easy to empathize with, easy to include.  God is good and they are human. It really is that simple – that means that as a Christian I am called to attend to the basic human needs of everyone – including the addict and those in prison. I cannot relinquish my human dignity even through unethical and immoral actions. This week I was at a dinner with Sr. Simone Campbell where she eloquently spoke of the radical acceptance that is at the heart of her spirituality – everyone is a child of God. For her, this has meant a focus not only on extreme poverty but on the working poor who also live in the shadows – since they do not fit into the popular categories of the poor.

A big Catholic news story this week was statements by a bunch of religious and state bishops conferences in favor of the Medicaid expansion.  According to Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City,

“Catholic support for expansion does not rest on dollars and cents calculations,” he wrote. “We support expansion because we believe that it is the role of government to foster the common good, which includes ensuring that all have access to what is needed to lead a truly human life.”

As a nation, our problems are complicated and the human suffering is great. As a church, we need to bring the Gospel to bear on all that we do – and I suspect I will be writing many blogs in the coming months about the specifics at play. Catholic theology maintains a positive and important role for the government, civil society, churches, families and individuals in the common good.

As the recent litany of articles about Pope Francis, gun control, the budget, and immigration show that for Catholic ethics – you cannot separate the unborn from the newborn from the adolescent from the elderly and you cannot pit the immigrant against the citizen for protection of basic human rights. When we begin with the option for the poor firmly in our gaze,we realize that Christian ethics must be done from the margins, then the shape of the debate changes – developing a moral budget, a people-centered economics, and work for the common good.

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