In February 1977, another
conservative priest was named archbishop in a small Latin American
country. A modest and good man, he was mostly inclined toward books
and theological study. Little of significance was expected of
a few months, his responsibility for a war-torn country full of poor
Catholics changed him. In his conversion, Archbishop Oscar Ro-mero
recognized the tragedy and devastation of the poverty of his native
El Salvador. He saw with new eyes children dying of chronic diarrhea
and villages devastated by malnutrition, joblessness, and
his skilled mind enabled him to quickly identify the true causesthe
political and economic causesthat were the ruin of many of his fellow
Salvadorans. He would spend his remaining three years in the service
of the poor. In some ways, it is just another story about a
another way, something dramatic and divine occurred here that reveals
what it means to be Catholic, what it means to be neighbor, and what
it means to be human. We can be tugged by the despair and desperation
of others away from our books and comfort to places and positions
unfamiliar and difficult. We might even spendliterally spendour lives
in the service of that tug.
March, parts of the state of Kentucky where I live received the
heaviest rainfall ever recorded for that area in a 24-hour period.
Creeks and rivers swelled, flooding and destroying many towns and
cities. Many people were killed.
as staggering as the devastation and loss were, as remarkable were
the stories of self-sacrifice and courage of neighbors who saved one
another from harm's way. Particularly poignant were the stories of
those who actually lost their lives as they tried to save others
swept away by the rushing water.
elderly women tell the story of their rescue by a high-school boy who
swam back and forth to their flooded apartment and carried each of
them to safety on his back, and then left them in search of others. A
week later, his body was discovered downstream.
the story of Romero's life, there is something extraordinary and even
holy about this story. We have an inner prod that draws us to the
care of others in peril; so strong is that prod that we may even risk
much to obey its meaning.
are, we believe, made in the image of God. But what does that mean? I
think it means that we are made in the image of a God whose call to
Moses was motivated by the suffering and despair of a group of
are made in the image of a God who, in the person of Jesus, noticed
and responded to the desperation of the sick, the poor, the stranger,
the broken. In other words, we are made with a predisposition to care
about one another's lives. And that predisposition intensifies around
The power of a phrase
1979, the Latin American bishops met in Puebla, Mexico to address the
affairs and direction of the Catholic Church in Latin America and
issued a statement that included the following: "From the heart of
Latin America, a cry rises to the heavens ever louder and more
imperative. It is the cry of a people who suffer."
most popular and powerful effect of the document issued from that
meeting has been the impact of a simple, five-word phrase. The
bishops titled one of the key sections of their document "The
Preferential Option for the Poor," and it is that single phrase that
has so provoked the larger church's social imagination.
when the U.S. Catholic bishops issued their pastoral on the economy
only seven years later in 1986, they referred to the preferential
option for the poor as a touchstone for their writing, applying it to
the situation in the U.S.
recently, in their 1994 document on the social mission of the parish,
titled "Communities of Salt and Light," the U.S. bishops again refer
to the phrase. They state boldly and unambiguously: "Our parish
communities are measured by how they serve 'the least of these' in
our parish and beyond its boundariesthe hungry, the homeless, the
sick, those in prison, the stranger."
is difficult to find a book written in the last 15 years addressing
the topic of Catholic (or Christian) response to poverty that does
not mention or elaborate on the phrase. Even Pope John Paul II has
adopted his own version of the phrase when he talks about a
"preferential love of the poor."
such immediate and widespread attention to this relatively recent and
simple phrase? There are three reasons.
when the Latin American bishops met in Puebla for their General
Conference in 1979 and, before that, in Medellín, Colombia in
1968, the predominant experience of the church there was poverty. As
the bishops wrote in the earlier document from Medellín, "[We]
cannot remain indifferent in the face of the tremendous social
injustice existent in Latin America, which keeps the majority of our
people in dismal poverty, which in many cases becomes inhuman
poverty" and "inhuman wretchedness" were filling the pews.
Either the church would have to address these realities or
cease to be credible. The preferential option for the poor
portrays a serious, open-eyed, determined posture toward the
problem of poverty.
the bishops at Puebla and Medellín were having to
negotiate not only the fact of widespread deprivation and
desperation but a local church history of disinterest and
even disdain for the poor. In her momentous book
of the People
(Viking Penguin, 1991), Penny Lernoux chron-icles the legacy
of the Catholic Church in Latin America.
church, Lernoux wrote, "encouraged a deep strain of cynicism
among the upper classes, who learned that they might do
anything, including slaughter innocent peasants, as long as
they went to Mass, contributed land and money to the
church's aggrandizement, and baptized their children. These
were the 'good Christians' honored by the Latin American
this context the bishops were put in the unenviable position
of having to assume the role of prophet. They needed to
speak a word that not only expressed a commitment by church
leadership to the poor but also opened the eyes of those
blind to their suffering and encouraged broader commitment
to the poor among church membership.
the poor or . . .
this country, ministers aided by parish members have rallied
across lines of race, class, and region to bring food and
clothing to needy "sister" parishes and to suffering
communities near and far. Even 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old
children try to help.
think of a Protestant Sunday School teacher in a Boston
suburb who enlisted sixth- and seventh-graders to carry food
packages, collect clothing, and become summer hosts to
children living under great duress in an urban ghetto. The
minister told me something about what they were doing and
is selfish, I knowwe
the obvious beneficiaries of all this. Our children escape
their suburban cocoon and learn how the world goes for
others who are not as lucky as they are.
have to forget that though; I have to assume that we are put
here by the good Lord to reach out to othersthat is our
mission, as it was His. I tell our youngsters and their
parents that what we are doing, this voluntary activity, is
an expression of our Christianity. This is who a Christian
is: someone who doesn't sit back and say, I go to church on
Sundays, so I'm a Christian, but someone who remembers how
Jesus lived and tries hard to follow that lead."From
Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism,
by Robert Coles (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
bishops did their job well. The transformation of the Latin American
church in the last 25 years borders on the miraculous. And the
adaptation of the preferential option for the poor by other
conferences of bishops, the pope, theologians, and other Christian
and non-Christian traditions is testimony to the provocative power of
third reason the phrase has received such attention is its
theological and biblical soundness. As Latin Americans and their
pastors looked to the Bible for answers to landlessness and
oppression, the Exodus story came alive with its account of a people
being liberated from slavery and brought to a land they could call
their own, to a place where justice could reign. As peasants
encountered the words of the prophets, they heard of a God whose care
seemed particularly committed to those in anguish. In other words,
God cared about them and cared about a solution to their
whose husbands had been tortured and killed by government forces,
gathered to study Jesus' words about the reign of God, Jesus' own
actions, and even his cause of death, they encountered a man poor
like themselves, a man who yearned for reconciliation between
privilege and poverty, a man whose commitment to the dignity of all
and the liberation of the poor was of such passion and importance
that he was willing to die for those convictions.
German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has observed, "Reading the
Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it
with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and
hopes of the oppressed, the Bible's revolutionary themespromise,
exodus, resurrection and spiritcome alive."
Six things you can do
you may wonder, what might a preferential option for the poor mean in
our own lives? I assume most readers are of relative privilege.
Father Jon Sobrino writes that there are two classes of people in the
world: rich and poor. The rich do not worry about whether they will
eat tomorrow. The poor do. So we must accept that most of us are
rich. Given our privileged status, how do we make a preferential
option for the poor? Here I will try to be as practical as
you grew up like me, it's likely that you really just don't care much
about poverty. Or, at least, you don't care enough to do much more
than wish it didn't exist.
here's my confession: I am the son of a rich couple. My youth was
spent in contemplation of tennis and water skiing. I spent $700 my
first semester in college just on dates. I once had 30 pairs of
shoes. I am, at times, utterly disinterested in matters even remotely
connected with the poor. So, if you are half the scoundrel I am,
consider these possibilities drawn straight from my own tarnished
1. It is important to be directly connected to the
didn't care a thing about the world's poor until I cared about one
poor person. And I only came to care about one poor person because I
put myself in a place where that could happen. In my case, it
happened at a day shelter for the homeless. Tom and I played cards,
drank coffee (I hate coffee), and just talked (I love to
a month or so, I stopped being scared of Tom and started to like him.
And, despite my 30 pairs of shoes, Tom seemed to like me. I actually
gave himhesitantly, I admitsome of my shoes. I swear that's true.
And, more important, I heard Tom's story. I heard the story of his
cruel, broken life, and it changed me some.
have had other such encounters since then, with the poor of Central
America and with the rural poor in this country. All these
experiences changed me as well. But the point is that we need at
least to give ourselves an opportunity to care about somebody who's
poor, somebody we probably wouldn't spend time with in the normal
course of our day.
spend some time with an abandoned old person at a nursing home or
serve and eat lunch with the guest of a soup kitchen. Become a big
brother or big sister to a child growing up in inner-city poverty or
in a rural shack with only one parent. That's step one.
2. Ask questions and search for answers.
the first step, our face-to-face contact may stimulate an appetite
for some kind of information or education. As I continued to visit
the soup kitchen, I started to ask myself, "Why are half the men here
Vietnam vets?" (I still don't know the full answer to that.) I wanted
to know why a great many of the visitors to the soup kitchen were
mentally ill, and I wanted to know what opportunities were available
are simply the questions that come to us when we care about somebody
else. And perhaps they stimulate associated questions about poverty:
Why are some people unable to escape the projects? Why are the people
of El Salvador unable to feed themselves? Why do Third World
countries export food when their own people are dying of
I just read Sports
but now I also read Sojourners
National Catholic Reporter and
Bread for the World newsletters. I occasionally get depressed reading
this stuff. But I can't stop reading them. It would be like
abandoning my heart at this point.
some good ideas about things you can read, connect with your diocesan
parish social ministry office for materials. Or just talk to the
people who are already veterans of this stuff. They'll be your
keep an eye open for lectures or workshops offered in your diocese
that pertain to matters of human suffering. I know it doesn't sound
like a fun use of a free evening, but God is full of
3. Start to advocate.
is very important that we become advocates for the healing of the
political and economic relationships and policies that are broken. We
can spend all the time we want at soup kitchens, but unless something
changes, the one thing that we will probably notice is that there are
more and more people showing up every day.
need to ask ourselves, "So what's going on that makes the soup
kitchen such a popular place these days? How are we going to fix it?
How can I help? And how can nonprofit groups, businesses, the church,
and the government help?"
is possible that our faith and our love will move us into political
participation and political responsibility. Might not religious
education and Confirmation classes and the RCIA want to prepare
blossoming Catholics for such a task? And for us old Catholics who
have not been trained for such, we might simply have to breathe deep
and just do it.
you could volunteer to be on the board of a nonprofit organization or
to work with your diocesan Catholic Charities or Campaign for Human
Development. I wish I had some flashier, more enticing advice. But
let me offer this story.
for the World, a great Christian organization that lobbies in
Washington on hunger and poverty issues (and which you can join),
estimates that for every letter written on behalf of anti-hunger
legislation, a life is saved! One letter written; one life saved.
Have I something better to do? Even my most dearly held lethargy and
apathy have limits.
4. Work with the poor as they help themselves.
we might call solidarity work. It's a mixture of the first three, and
it involves working side by side with the poor as they negotiate the
solutions to their own poverty.
have been involved for years with soup-kitchen work and giving talks
and writing letters; it's only recently that I've become acquainted
with this work. It is exciting and downright inspiring to work with
the poor as they consider and strategize and organize for their
recovery from neglect and voicelessness. I have been connected with
both an urban and a rural version of this work. For a lead, you might
call your local diocesan Campaign for Human Development office. But
do steps one, two, or three before tackling this.
5. Watch your money.
suppose you might be familiar with the story of Harry Wu, the Chinese
Catholic who returned to his native country under the threat of death
to document the forced child-labor camps producing, of all things,
stuffed toys. Well, besides reading up on labor-rights abuses, trying
to educate congregations, and possibly writing letters to the Chinese
government, it strikes me that we're not going to want to buy
products made by young slaves. Even if they're cheaper.
I think not buying a teddy bear made in China will change the world?
Yes. I do not want to be part of a market demand that reduces
children to such a state. I can support companies that care for their
employees and can petition my government to pressure the Chinese
government into a more responsible posture toward such abuse. In the
meantime, my children watch and learn something valuable. Yes, it
does change the world.
mature, well-considered dedication to the poor also will probably
result in a simpler life, with less things and less preoccupation
with money and possessions. It's tougher to care too much about
another pair of shoes when you've met people who have none. And there
is something freeing about having less stuff. Saint Francis called
the simple life "a lady," which I guess meant he liked it.
6. Give money.
to give a good bit of your money away. The early Christian definition
of so-called disposable income is that it is the rightful possession
of the poor. Like all things, the key is just to get started. Decide
that you are going to give away 5 percent of your income, or 1
percent, or .001 percent. Then do it, and periodically and
prayerfully consider if this is still suitable or needs to be
me suggest that you earmark some money for local causes, some for
international causes, and some for person-to-person support. Some may
question this last suggestion, but I think it's important to know
people well enough to trust them with regular assistanceand well
enough for them to trust you. In the words of Saint Vincent de Paul,
"The poor will forgive your gifts of food only by feeling your
possible, do all these things with a friend or with family. It is
great to have someone else who is having the same experience to talk
with. My most stubbornly held dream is that one day entire parishes
will evolve to the point where every member will be formed and
encouraged in the tradition of a preferential love for the poor. I'd
like to be at their liturgies.
that at the heart of the preferential option for the poor is a faith
that love, generosity, compassion, and justice are the values dearest
to God's heart and our own hearts. Remember, too, that our faith
tradition tells us that we discover our lives only as we give them
preferential option for the poor simply reminds us who we are: a
people who, when we are honest and awake, would do anything to end
one another's suffering.End
theologians may differ on some aspects of the meaning of the phrase,
it is safe to highlight a few critical characteristics of the
preferential option for the poor.
1. It is scriptural.
option for the poor is reflected inyou could even say advocated byGod
in scripture. While that may startle us at first, the preferential
option for the poor is, in fact, a responsible, reasonable way to
describe Yahweh's activity in the Bible.
is a valid description of the call of Moses and the liberation of the
Hebrew people from Egypt in the book of Exodus, and of the Old
Testament prophets and their particular concern for the care of
widows, orphans, and foreigners. Most important, it is a description
of the ministry of Jesus, whose care and teaching demonstrated a
dedication to the weak and neglected.
caution: God does not love poor people more than rich people. But the
love of God gets focused in a particular way on those who suffer.
This is not unfamiliar to us; imagine the love of parents when one of
their children is seriously sick. They dedicate themselves to the
recovery of the sick child with special care, all the while not
loving any less their healthy children.
it is with God. God's preferential love for the poor is motivated by
their pain and God's intention that all live lives of dignity and
2. It has a goal.
preferential option for the poor does not assent to the position that
poverty is inevitable or acceptable. The meaningfulness of love is
that it makes a difference. Love that pours itself out for the poor
ultimately desires the end of the suffering as well as an end to the
cause of the suffering.
God's arena of care and healing includes not only family,
neighborhood, prayer, and sacrament, but politics and
both Moses' covenant and Jesus's notion of the Reign of God address
realities that merge the ideas of faith and politics. The ministry of
Moses, motivated by God's love for the Hebrew slaves but obstructed
by the designs of the pharaoh, was necessarily political and
revolutionary. For much of the poor, "a land of milk and honey" can
only be understood in the light of faith and of politics.
some forms of human brokenness and suffering are not matters of
politics: for example, the suffering caused by tornadoes or old age.
Butand this is criticalpoverty almost always is. The majority of the
poor are poor because of political and economic forces out of their
3. It is multifaceted. This
doesn't mean that a preferential option for the poor can be expressed
only in political and economic activism. I think a healthy,
integrated care for the poor expresses itself in myriad ways,
including many familiar though precious expressions of charity:
donations, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and so on. However, a
holy determination to ease or eliminate poverty will ultimately
evolve into the recognition of and engagement with the political and
economic forces at play.
4. It is a response to sin. Donal
Dorr's book, Option
for the Poor
(Orbis, 1992), written only four years after the 1979 Puebla General
Conference, analyzes the history of Catholic social teaching as it
concerns itself specifically with the idea of a preferential option
for the poor. Historically, he observes, the church has been
deliberate and persistent in its statement of care for the poor and
its call of conversion and responsibility to the rich. However, the
church has not been nearly as helpful in counseling the poor when
faced with an unrepentant oppressor, a pharaoh.
and economic decisionsas Moses, the prophets, and Jesus
recognizedoften pay homage to the preference of self-interest of the
powerful at the expense of the well-being of others. Pork-barrel
politics is a familiar example.
preferential option for the poor calls us to stand on the side of
those whose lives have been diminished by neglect or scarcity. This
means we stand, not as enemies of anyone, but as allies of the poor
and as adversaries of the decisions and realities that rob them of
5. It is based on faith. While
a preferential option for the poor may express itself in political
and economic as well as civic and charitable ways, it is ultimately a
matter of faith. "Preferential option for the poor" names the size of
our heart and the energy of our care. It names our willingness to
suffer and sacrifice and endure hardship on behalf of our sisters and
can holiness mean in our faith tradition except that we become people
whose love grows and grows to include the care of all? And what would
our love mean if it did not seek out and care for the most wounded