A lot of people like the phrase "preferential option for the poor" because it sounds, well, so optional. We'd prefer if you put in some time at a food bank or picketed your local Representative to raise the minimum wage, but, heck, we know you've got a plateful of things to do around the house so if you don't get around to it don't fret.Those poor people aren't going anywhere.
Really, isn't that much-quoted batch of words a mirage? It is supposed to define the pope's major initiative, yet it is a signpost of misdirection. It's something right out of the old theology books whose inelegance may even purposely water down a central requirement of the Gospel. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus or Paul or anyone else tell us that economic and social justice are fine if we have time for it as we pursue our own life progress but, in fact, as Pope Paul VI said,it's a non-negotiable teaching, a "constitutive element" of that Gospel. No wiggle room there. The parable of the rich young ruler packs the punch. The young man asks Jesus how to lock in salvation and presents his credentials: he's done all the commandments. One more thing, Jesus says. Give all your money to the poor. "The man went away very sad," the Scripture says, "for he had many possessions."
The vagueness and malleability of the "preferential option" suits many privileged Christians very well. It echoes the prevalent, free enterprise conviction that poor people could rise to prosperity if they'd only shed their indolence, their lack of discipline and their "bad choices," just as we, the successes, have done. It raises the old specter of blaming the victim and perpetuates the excuse that it's okay to skip that issue because there's "no right way" to go about it. People who decry moral relativism often default to that very thing when the subject impinges on their well-being.
The other confusion that's caused by the wooden phrase (remember Nixon's "lift of a driving dream"?) is whether it optionally prefers charity or justice. Charity usually gets the nod by those who pick up the option. That seems to be true of Pope Francis. He shows affection and alliance with poor people, and has attended to many of their immediate needs, but thus far hasn't pushed for changes in the social, political and economic arrangements that might bolster basic justice. The fluid "preferential option" wording in no way rules out charity, but is that all there is?
Catholics have long operated a broad array of wonderful charities to which one can contribute or not. The other dimension of going to bat against poverty has been danced around since Catholic Social Teaching came into existence. While it could be said to have always been implicitly part of the tradition, Pope Leo XIII inaugurated its written form in 1893 in response to the pains of modern industrialization, so its existence as a set of documents is little more than a century old. A significant portion of Catholicism has never quite accepted it as part of the official package of teachings. To many it was treated as an add-on, extra credit if you chose to do it. In America, it did sometimes became a factor in union movements and civil rights and sometimes ignored, especially on matters of economic justice as Catholics found themselves rapidly gaining prosperity and facing the rich young ruler dilemma. The Catholic bishops' 1987 "Economic Justice for All" pastoral letter was openly denounced by Catholics who believed it wrongly criticized capitalism.
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Placing oneself on the side of actual strategies for improving the lot of poor people has been a feature of Catholic leadership in many areas over time, but leaders, understandably, have difficulty pressing the point that relieving the underlying suffering of the poor is central to basking in the Almighty's favor at the end of things. It remains option.
I think it's time to consider a new slogan with teeth such as "Abolish Poverty or Risk Your Eternal Soul."