I think it’s safe to say that Pope Francis has made the so-called “preferential option for the poor” one of the overriding themes, if not the centerpiece, of his papacy.
With this in mind, it may be useful to take a closer look at the Church’s understanding of what it means to serve the poor.
The notion of a “preferential option” is often said to be drawn from the opening sentence of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II:
“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” (GS 1)
In other words, the Church, out of Her concern for mankind, experiences in all of Her members everything that the human family experiences, but especially as it relates to the sufferings of the poor.
Even so, it is important to keep in mind that the Second Vatican Council did not invent this notion. One might even say that the “preferential option for the poor” actually hearkens all the way back to Biblical times.
Numerous examples can be found in the Old Testament of God’s solicitousness of the poor; e.g., the prohibition against extracting interest on loans, the forgiveness of debts in the jubilee years, the commandments concerning care for widows, etc.
Needless to say, the Gospels give us many concrete indications of the Our Blessed Lord’s special concern for the poor, wherein we discover in no uncertain terms the degree to which He personally identifies with the neediest among us.
Perhaps no other passage articulates this better than, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me … What you did for the least of these you did for me.”
Where people of our day tend to miss the boat, however, is in confining our understanding of what it means to serve the poor to things like giving money to a favored charity, or donating clothing and food to a shelter, and so on.
All of these things are most certainly good, but in order to truly appreciate what it means to serve the poor we must consider all that Jesus said and did in this regard.
First, consider, did Jesus give money and food to the poor?
Well, sure, He replenished the wine at Cana, and He miraculously fed the 5,000, but certainly we know that these were not just “random acts of kindness” that were ends unto themselves; rather, they were ordered toward addressing the deepest source of human poverty, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Furthermore, the Gospels do not speak of Jesus giving material aid like money or housing to the lepers, the blind, or the lame, those people who in Jesus’ day were the most materially needy.
So what did He do?
Ultimately, He removed from their lives that which prevented them from participating in the broader society in a manner that is truly reflective of human dignity.
The Council Fathers of Vatican II touch on this when they speak of the impoverished as “the poor who are deprived of the opportunity to exercise responsibility” (cf GS 57).
There is a great deal being conveyed in this one simple phrase.
All of us have a responsibility to ourselves, our families, our neighbors, society, and so on. Embracing that duty reflects human dignity, while also allowing us to develop and perfect it as we become more like Christ in charity.
For the materially impoverished, this can be a very tall order. That is why our efforts to serve the poor, if they are to be an accurate reflection of Catholic social doctrine, must include creating, as best we can, a society that offers real opportunities for the poor to become more self-sufficient, apart from which we risk moving them from the bondage of poverty to a slavery to charity.
Even this, however, is but the least important part of what it means to serve the poor after the example of Christ.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
From this alone it is clear that service to the poor must ultimately address the spiritual needs of those so impoverished.
Now, this is not to minimize the necessity of meeting the material needs of those who lack basic human necessities; it is simply to put such things in perspective.
It is also to say that we must reject any temptation to embrace a false dichotomy between teaching the doctrine of the faith as a means of delivering the spiritual food necessary for eternal life, and meeting the material needs of our fellow man relative to the temporal life.
That is why the Church, in addition to all of her efforts to meet the physical needs of the sick and the suffering, also labors to propagate the true faith, “teaching everything whatsoever that Jesus commanded.”
To follow Christ, therefore, we too must seek to remove from people’s lives that which prevents them from living a life truly reflective of human dignity, recognizing that there is no greater burden than sin, and nothing more dignified than responding to the Lords invitation to enter into communion with Him through His Holy Catholic Church, the unique way of salvation established by Our Blessed Lord.
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com