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What is the preferential option for the poor?

John Burger - published on 02/04/13

The preferential option for the poor is not optional.

As one Catholic website puts it, the preferential option for the poor is not optional.

“Each Christian must make a choice to lift up the poor and disadvantaged in very real and concrete ways,” says the website of the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame. “Preferential option for the poor means that Christians are called to look at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and to work in solidarity for justice.”

The preferential option is part of the social teaching of the Church. Because God created all that is good, all men have a share in the earth’s bounty. This “principle of the universal destination of goods,” says the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “requires that the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern.”

The preferential option for the poor is a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity,” says Pope John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis. “It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods.”

The doctrine has its roots in Christ’s life and teaching itself. “Christ the Savior showed compassion…, identifying himself with the ‘least’ among men. ‘It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen ones,’” the Compendium says, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2443).

The U.S. bishops note that it is Christ’s presence in the poor that ought to motivate the Christian in his upholding the poor. “This presence requires the Church to make a preferential option for those who are poor and vulnerable,” say the bishops in their 2002 pastoral reflection, “A Place at the Table: A Catholic Recommitment to Overcome Poverty and to Respect the Dignity of All God’s Children.”

The preferential option involves not only almsgiving but also “addressing the social and political dimensions of the problem of poverty,” the Compendium notes. It concerns not only material poverty but also "the numerous forms of cultural and religious poverty.”

How does the average Christian make the preferential option part of his own life? Father Geoffrey Gneuhs, who has been associated with the Catholic Worker Movement since 1974, answered that question by quoting from Dorothy Day herself. Father Gneuhs, a former Dominican who is seeking incardination in the Archdiocese of New York, preached at Day’s funeral in 1980. The founder of the Catholic Worker Movement said this: "The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love.  The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love."

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