While preparing for an interview on the radio show Latino USA (to air on NPR stations on the weekend of March 26,27,27), I put together some notes on this question about what it means to have a “preferential option for the poor.” Show host Maria Hinojosa asked me and theologian Ernesto Valiente to speak about the 30th anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s assassination and on what “option for the poor” the life and faith of people today.
The option for the poor is a basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching. It was a fundamental principle embraced by the Catholic Bishops of Latin America at conferences both in Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979).
As a developed theological principle it was further articulated by the Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez in A Theology of Liberation. The principle is rooted in both the Old and New Testaments and claims that a preferential concern for the physical and spiritual welfare of the poor is an essential element of the gospel.
The justice of a society is tested and judged by its treatment of the poor. God’s covenant with Israel was dependent on the way the community treated the poor and unprotected—the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 16.11-12, Ex. 22.21-27, Isa. 1.16-17). Throughout Israel’s history and in the New Testament, the poor are agents of God’s transforming power. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (4.1-22). Similarly, in the Last Judgment, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the stranger (Matthew 25.31-46).
To understand the “poor” in the Bible as a reference to spiritual poverty only is to miss an important message. Indeed, faith without an understanding of justice for the poor is a gospel full of holes—incomplete and in tatters. Now, as in biblical times, financial poverty and spiritual poverty grow up together—but not in the way Christianized capitalism has told us the story.
Material poverty does not occur because one is spiritually poor. Rather, in a society where there are extremes of wealth and poverty, there exists a general spiritual poverty experienced by all. When the wealthy are dying from diseases of overabundance and the poor are dying from inadequate health care, poor diets, and stress-related illnesses, there is a spiritual disease in the society as a whole. How do Christians address poverty in all its forms?
Some Christians are confused on why the gospels demand that we give special attention to the poor—or as Catholic theology puts it, why we have a “preferential option for the poor.” It is not because God loves the poor more than the rich. It is not because God’s salvation is limited in any way. It’s because in order for us to have the society that God intended—one that protects all human dignity—then the needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich when making personal, communal, and political decisions.
“Option” in this sense is to be read as a verb, not a noun. Every Christian must choose, make a conscious choice to prioritize the needs of vulnerable over the needs of the secure. It’s how we keep our souls and conscience in shape. (See Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy by the U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1986).