Option for the poor

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The option for the poor, or the preferential option for the poor, is one of the newer principles of the Catholic social teaching, as articulated in the latter half of the 20th century; it is also a theological emphasis in Methodism.[1] The concept was first articulated within Latin American liberation theology, and was championed by many Latin American Christian democratic parties at the time.[2]

Theological significance[edit]

The "preferential option for the poor" refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of priority being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people. Jesus taught that on the Day of Judgment, God will ask what each person did to help the poor and needy: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."[3] This is reflected in Catholic canon law, which states, "[The Christian Faithful] are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources."[4]

According to said doctrine, through one's words, prayers and deeds one must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor. Therefore, when instituting public policy one must always keep the "preferential option for the poor" at the forefront of one's mind. Accordingly, this doctrine implies that the moral test of any society is "how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor".[5]

Pope Benedict XVI has taught that "love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel".[6] This preferential option for the poor and vulnerable includes all who are marginalized in society, including unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, and victims of injustice and oppression.

Since its inception, Methodism has emphasized a preferential option for the poor.[1] Early Methodism reached individuals that the established Church did not, such as miners and other workers, aiding in its spread.[1] This belief has manifested itself in Methodists being active in the underground railroad, as well as abolishing the former pew rental system.[1]

Origin and usage[edit]

The phrase "option for the poor" was used by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1968 in a letter to the Jesuits of Latin America, although its principle existed before Arrupe coined the term.[7] The Option for the Poor, according to theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, "involves a commitment that implies leaving the road one is on" in order to enter the world of an "insignificant" person; selflessness is the goal of this lifestyle.[8] The option for the poor "goes through all of modern Catholic social teaching" according to theologian Daniel Groody.[9] The phrase rose to prominence during the 1960s for its connection to Liberation Theology, along with its simplicity in capturing doctrinal thought in a turbulent period for the Catholic church.

Jesuit activity in Ciudad Neza, Mexico in 1969 is an example of the option for the poor in action. After the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968, demoralized young Jesuits activists "decided to leave behind the comforts of middle-class life in the capital and moved to Ciudad Neza in 1969," bringing a fresh, democratic air to a traditional violent political method in post-revolution Mexico.[10]

The principle was articulated by the Catholic Bishops of Latin America (CELAM) at the influential conferences in Medellin and Puebla. The resulting Medellin document, Excerpts on Justice, Peace, and Poverty, stated that the Church should support national communities "where all of the peoples but more especially the lower classes have, by means of territorial and functional structures" power to affect societal changes.[11] Christian Smith, in analyzing the Medellin document, writes that, while mild compared to other liberation theology doctrines, it "marked a radical departure from the rhetoric and strategy of an institution" which often provided religious passive support for conservative, authoritarian power.[12]

The Puebla conference held many of the same principles, but with some caveats. Conservative members of the Church saw the meeting as an opening to reverse social claims made by the Medellin conference, while liberation theologians desired to re-affirm the progress made in 1968. López Trujillo, the secretary general of CELAM made sure that "[c]onservative bishops were strategically placed to control committees" while "conservative staff members wrote the preparatory documents."[12] The Washington Post reported that the conservative presence "will be felt in the direction of the conference, in the preparatory documents that will form the basis of discussion, and in the selection of bishops and others participating both as voting delegates and as advisers and official observers."[13] However, as reported by The New York Times, the meeting ultimately struck a middle-ground, criticizing both capitalism and Marxism while calling on local communities to support the common person.[14]

But the principle behind the phrase was articulated earlier by the Catholic Bishops at the Second Vatican Council, when in their Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes they spoke of the poor from the very first line, repeating the word nine times and concluding: "The council, considering the immensity of the hardships which still afflict the greater part of mankind today, regards it as most opportune that an organism of the universal Church be set up in order that both the justice and love of Christ toward the poor might be developed everywhere."[15]

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Roman Curia in 2004, summarizes the principle:

This love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without health care and, above all, those without hope of a better future.[16]

Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium includes a long section on "The inclusion of the poor in society" (186-216) in which he noted that "Without the preferential option for the poor, 'the proclamation of the Gospel ... risks being misunderstood or submerged'."[17]

Liberation theology debate[edit]

In its origins, the concept was connected with the Latin American liberation theology movement of the mid-20th century. As a developed theological principle, the option for the poor was first articulated by Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P. in his landmark work, A Theology of Liberation (1971). Gutiérrez asserts that 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.

In the mid-1980s, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, led the effort by the Holy See to stop liberation theology, which he viewed as a form of Marxism. In August 1984, shortly before the release of the official view of the Holy See, he strongly criticized several arguments of liberation theology in a private document to theologians leaked to the press.[18] Ratzinger believed that liberation theologians contend that Christians must engage in a class struggle (in the Marxist sense) in the present to break down the gulf between rich and poor.[citation needed] As summarized by Cardinal Ratzinger, "The biblical concept of the poor provides a starting point for fusing the Bible's view of history with Marxist dialectic; it is interpreted by the idea of the proletariat in the Marxist sense and thus justifies Marxism as the legitimate hermeneutics for understanding the Bible."[18]

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (of which Ratzinger was the Prefect) formulated the official Vatican view in "Instruction on Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation'". Its "limited and precise purpose: to draw the attention of pastors, theologians, and all the faithful to the deviations, and risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living, that are brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought." The Instruction elaborated that it was not a disavowal of people who were responding to "the 'preferential option for the poor.' It should not at all serve as an excuse for those who maintain the attitude of neutrality and indifference in the face of the tragic and pressing problems of human misery and injustice."[19]

The Instruction implied that some liberation theologians supported methods similar to the deprivation of people's freedoms by totalitarian regimes in the name of liberation. It charged that these supporters "betray the very poor they mean to help."[20]

Jesuit theologian Enrique Nardoni has argued at length in his exhaustive study, Rise Up, O Judge, that the Bible as a whole and its cultural context support a preferential option for the poor.[21]

Several representatives of Latin American liberation theology also use the option for the poor as a criterion for assessing environmental conflicts. Arguing that the consequences of environmental degradation are distributed unequally and concern the developing countries and the poor to a greater extent than the industrialized countries that caused the problem, authors like Leonardo Boff[22] urge the Church to get engaged in environmental policy advocacy and to act as a lawyer on the side of the poor and marginalized. A position paper of the German Bishops' Conference on Climate Change (2007) therefore pleads for also applying the option for the poor to the victims of climate change (no. 40).[23]


  1. ^ a b c d Winn, Christian T. Collins (2007). From the Margins: A Celebration of the Theological Work of Donald W. Dayton. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 131. ISBN 9781630878320.
  2. ^ Mainwaring, Scott (2003). Christian Democracy in Latin America: Electoral Competition and Regime Conflicts. Stanford University Press. p. 181. ISBN 9780804745987.
  3. ^ Matthew 25:40.
  4. ^ 1983 CIC, canon 222 §2.
  5. ^ Option for the Poor, Major themes from Catholic Social Teaching, Office for Social Justice, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
  6. ^ Deus Caritas Est §22.
  7. ^ "The Portal to Jesuit Studies". Retrieved 2022-05-31.
  8. ^ Gutiérrez, Gustavo (2009). "The Option for the Poor Arises From Faith in Christ". Theological Studies (70): 318 – via EBSCOhost.
  9. ^ Groody, Daniel (2007). Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. p. 110.
  10. ^ Yee, David (2021). "Shantytown Mexico: the Democratic Opening in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, 1969–1976". The Americas. 78 (1): 125.
  11. ^ "Medellin 1968 (excerpts) – Gerald W. Schlabach". Retrieved 2022-05-09.
  12. ^ a b Smith, Christian (1991). The Emergence of Liberation Theology. The University of Chicago Press. p. 23. ISBN 0-226-76409-5.
  13. ^ Hyer, Marjorie (1979-01-28). "Conservatives Seen in Control at Puebla'Theology of Liberation' in Retreat at Latin American Bishops' Meeting". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2022-05-09.
  14. ^ Times, George Vecsey Special to The New York (1979-02-14). "Bishops End Puebla Conference With Plea for Rights of the Poor". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-05-09.
  15. ^ "Gaudium et Spes, 90". Retrieved 1 April 2017.
  16. ^ Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2004), Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Paragraphs 182-184.
  17. ^ Evangelii gaudium, Paragraph 199.
  18. ^ a b The Ratzinger Report, by Vittorio Messori, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1985
  19. ^ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Prefect); Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (6 Aug 1984). "Instructio de quibusdam rationibus "Theologiae Liberationis"" [Instruction on certain aspects of the "Theology of Liberation"] (English translation). Acta Apostolicae Sedis. Vatican City. 76: 876–909. ISSN 0001-5199. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
  20. ^ Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Prefect) (6 Aug 1984). "By the same token, the overthrow by means of revolutionary violence of structures which generate violence is not ipso facto the beginning of a just regime. A major fact of our time ought to evoke the reflection of all those who would sincerely work for the true liberation of their brothers: millions of our own contemporaries legitimately yearn to recover those basic freedoms of which they were deprived by totalitarian and atheistic regimes which came to power by violent and revolutionary means, precisely in the name of the liberation of the people. This shame of our time cannot be ignored: while claiming to bring them freedom, these regimes keep whole nations in conditions of servitude which are unworthy of mankind. Those who, perhaps inadvertently, make themselves accomplices of similar enslavements betray the very poor they mean to help."
  21. ^ Enrique Nardoni, translated by Sean Martin (2004). Rise Up, O Judge: A Study of Justice in the Biblical World. Baker Books.
  22. ^ Leonardo Boff: Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. Maryknoll 1997. ISBN 978-1570751363
  23. ^ Commission for Society and Social Affairs/Commission for International Church Affairs: Climate Change: A Focal Point of Global, Intergenerational and Ecological Justice. 2nd, updated edition, Bonn 2007. Cf. Thorsten Philipp, Gruenzonen einer Lerngemeinschaft: Umweltschutz als Handlungs-, Wirkungs- und Erfahrungsort der Kirche. Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3865811776, p. 183-185.