“Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ in himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice.”St. John Paul II
The Church sees Christ in the poor. Let this reality sink in for a moment. In describing those who will enter the kingdom of Heaven, Christ said, “For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you made Me welcome” (Matthew 25:35).
Christ is in each person, and each person is called to a common good that enables him to know Christ and fulfill his own nature. These two realities help us grasp the import of the option for the poor and vulnerable, commonly referred to as the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the Church’s seven pillars of Catholic social teaching.
1. Truth Demands Service
A first point every Catholic should realize about the preferential option for the poor is this: Love and justice demand action. They demand making love felt and working to alleviate the material impoverishments that threaten human dignity. A Christian must never oppress persons, including those disenfranchised in society. Personhood always merits respect and each person has certain ineradicable rights that we, united in solidarity across the world, have a responsibility to protect.
This is why the truth of Christ commands service to the poor, to those most in need of justice and love. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Centesimus Annus and Libertatis Conscientia, says:
The Church’s love for the poor . . . is a part of her constant tradition. This love is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of His concern for the poor… Those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church.
2. SERVICE NEEDS TRUTH
The second point every Catholic should take to heart about the preferential option for the poor is that the help that is given to the poor needs direction and guidance from the truth of Christ’s revelation and the Magisterium.
Without the wisdom and objectivity that these sources provide, people can be confused about how to help in an authentic, sustainable way. Are you really “helping” women by giving them access to abortion, for instance? To provide authentic aid, you need to have a deep understanding of what you are doing and whether it is in accord with the fulfillment of the recipient’s nature.
As another example of this, consider how the modern education system is approaching sexuality. Disconnected from the fullness of faith, many educators adopt the naïve mindset that it is love for the truth that is motivating it to discuss sexuality with kindergarteners. The Church, meanwhile, offers guidance on how to serve others in ways that respect their nature and needs.
3. HELP NEEDS TO BE COMPLETE
Also, help of poor and underserved communities needs to be complete: It starts in the physical but ends in the spiritual, the soul. This is where a communist reading of the human person fails. It focuses inordinately on material goals, without considering the transcendent soul of each person. People need food and shelter, yes. But they also need love and conversion of heart.
Etty Hillesum, a Jewish writer killed in Auschwitz, poignantly wrote about how personal ethics has a hefty influence on public policy and the potential for cultural change:
The filth in others is also in us. And I don’t see any other solution, any other solution at all, except to enter into oneself and uproot all that is rotten in our soul. I no longer believe that we can correct anything in the exterior world that we haven’t yet corrected in ourselves. The only lesson that this war has taught us is to look into ourselves and not elsewhere.
Concern for the poor must respond to both the spiritual and physical needs of the person to be effective. Affirming that each human person has an immortal soul plays a central role in true cultural progress.
4. Look for American Poverty
The reality that the preferential option for the poor doesn’t deal exclusively with material poverty but also with social and moral impoverishment leads into a special consideration of our responsibilities as evangelizers to our neighbors within our own country. We are bound by Scripture and Church precept to tithe, yes, but what more are we called to do to address the poverty around us? What kinds of poverty are present in the United States? R. R. Reno writes in “The Preferential Option for the Poor”:
A Christian who hopes to follow the teachings of Jesus needs to reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: Its deepest and most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; the most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic. Many people living at the bottom of American society have cell phones, flat-screen TVs, and some of the other goodies of consumer culture. But their lives are a mess.
While we certainly need to be concerned with those members of our human family suffering from the material impoverishment that makes it difficult to live a life of human decency, we also need to be concerned with the moral poverty that may appear closer to home.
The preferential option also includes the vulnerable, which raises the question: Who are the most vulnerable members in society? The unborn? Those with disabilities? The elderly? How can we care more intentionally for the most vulnerable members of our immediate community?
5. Beware the Threat of Dialectic
A major threat to understanding and living out the option for the poor and vulnerable is falling prey to the temptation to turn to an extreme in responding to the Church’s call. A dialectic view of society pits different readings of the world against each other— either you’re conservative or liberal, either you’re in favor of the poor or the rich.
In regards to the call to the poor, a falsely dialectic view might say, “Enough of this adoration and contemplation… we need to be on the streets with the poor.” The other side of the dialectical view might respond, “We don’t need that social justice and peace gobbledygook. We need old-time religion.” But this is a false dichotomy!
Evangelization has always required that we work for the poor, yet this does not mean that physical and political empowerment of the disenfranchised takes priority over the liturgy or over spirituality. Living our Christian vocation means that we don’t turn away from a neighbor in need; it also means that our actions will not be fruitful if they don’t flow from a life of prayer.
So, in living out this principle of Catholic social teaching— the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable— let’s turn as always to the perfect model, Christ, and ask Him to help us better discover Him and love Him in our neighbors.