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By: Todd Walatka, University of Notre Dame
Pope Francis has spoken on many occasions of the “preferential option for the poor” as an essential part of his vision for the Church. The preferential option is a fundamental principle in Catholic Social Teaching, but it is also easily misunderstood. As a part of Catholic Social Teaching, the preferential option presents an ethical and political demand. Meghan Clark has an excellent post that unpacks the preferential option in the realm of economic justice. “Preferential” indicates that “the needs of the poor and vulnerable come first”; “option” does not mean “optional,” but rather the choice (to “opt”) to do what is morally required; “poor” signifies those vulnerable and marginalized peoples whose human dignity is trampled upon and whose basic needs are not met. As ethical and political, the preferential option for the poor relates to everything from an individual Christian’s commitment to works of mercy to alleviate the suffering of the poor to the pursuit of a more equitable health care system for the poor and vulnerable.
The preferential option also has to do with how we come to know truth. This is clearly related to ethical stance above. Blessed Oscar Romero describes this as coming to know reality “from the perspective of the poor.” The end of 2015 has witnessed the intensifying refugee crisis coming out of the Middle East. This crisis is immensely complex and there are no easy solutions—and the preferential option for the poor does not offer one. Instead, the preferential option offers an orientation. If we want to understand the “truth” of the refugee crisis, we should direct our attention preferentially to the poor and vulnerable, to the sufferings, challenges, and hopes of the refugees themselves.
The preferential option has a third dimension. This is a deepest core of the preferential option and I have found that it is often the most difficult to grasp. From the perspective of Christian faith, the fundamental reason for the preferential option as an ethical-political demand or as a way of coming to know truth is that God opts for the poor. Gustavo Gutiérrez says it in this way: “as Christians, we base that commitment fundamentally on the God of our faith. It is a theocentric, prophetic option we make, one which strikes its roots deep in the gratuity of God’s love and is demanded by that love.” Initially it is important to recognize three elements of God’s option for the poor: 1) Christians confess that “God is love,” and, as suggested in the quote from Gutiérrez, the preferential option is not a peripheral truth but rather is part of God’s core loving identity; 2) Though God’s love is expressed preferentially, this love is also universal and embraces all. 3) God’s “preferential love” for the poor is not based upon their moral goodness or faithfulness to God, but rather there concrete situation of need.
Understanding these three aspects of a divine option for the poor demands asking a further question: why does God opt for the poor? The quote from Gutiérrez above offers one possible response: the preferential option is gratuitous, it is a freely-chosen, mysterious element of divine love. Just as one cannot fully explain why God created the world, one cannot “explain” God’s preference. Just as creation is a gratuitous, altruistic act of divine love, God’s preference for the poor is grounded in the sovereign freedom of God. There is indeed something to this response. God’s ways are not our ways and God’s loving embrace of the weak and vulnerable—think of the parables of the Lost Sheep and Prodigal Son in Luke 15—are free and gracious rather than something God is required to do. Nevertheless, if we turn to the Bible we can say more than this.
God’s preferential love of the poor is part of God’s mercy and justice. Within the Catholic tradition, mercy is understood as an essential aspect of love—as love which moves to alleviate the suffering of another—and thus also part of God’s identity. As Thomas Aquinas argues, “mercy is especially to be attributed to God…in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy.” And later, “mercy is accounted as being proper to God: and therein His omnipotence is declared to be chiefly manifested.” It is because God is merciful that God “opts” for the poor. Given a situation in which one child has just burned his finger and the other is playing happily, parental love—though hopefully equal towards each child—is expressed preferentially towards the one who suffers. To do otherwise would be a failure to love. John Chrysostom draws this point out with particular vigor: “The poor man has one plea, his want and his standing in need: do not require anything else from him; but even if he is the most wicked of all men and is at a loss for his necessary sustenance, let us free him from hunger…need alone is the poor man’s worthiness…we show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune.” Chrysostom is speaking here of Christian ethical action, but the basic idea helps elucidate divine mercy as well.
The option for the poor is also grounded in divine justice. In a situation of injustice and victimization, God opts for the victim and, therefore, against the victimizer. God’s love is still universal—God’s merciful offer of forgiveness and call to conversion are ever-present for the victimizer—but the Bible witnesses again and again to God’s rejection of injustice and God’s siding with the victim, whether a king is oppressing his people (Jeremiah 22), the people are oppressing foreigners in their midst (Leviticus 19), or employers are defrauding their workers (James 5). Because God is a God of mercy and justice, “God hears the cry of the poor” (Ps. 34).
The Bible makes clear the demands of the Christian life in the face of the poor and vulnerable. In James 1, the author writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Likewise, in Luke when Jesus gives the great commandments of love and is asked, “Who is my neighbor,” he tells the story of the Good Samaritan and teaches that to be another’s neighbor is to be merciful. Finally, in the scene of the last judgment in Matthew 25, it is works of mercy which determine the final destiny of the nations. These ethical demands are at the core of the preferential option for the poor. But they are not arbitrary demands made by God; they are a call to follow the path of God’s love in a world marked by suffering, marginalization, and injustice.
For those interested in further reading, there are many helpful chapters and essays on the preferential option for the poor:
- Oscar Romero’s Louvain Address, “The Political Dimension of the Faith from the Perspective of the Option for the Poor” (in the Voice of the Voiceless volume) is a classic account of the option for the poor. But even more than this essay, I would recommend reading his homilies (6/21/1979 and 2/17/1980 are two good examples) or about his life an exemplification of the option for the poor in action. Two great biographies are James Brockman’s Romero: A Life and Scott Wright’s, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints.
- Gustavo Gutiérrez has a number of excellent essays or chapters related to the option for the poor. In addition to the essay referenced above from Mysterium Liberationis, see ch.6 of On Job and chapter 3 of On the Side of the Poor (co-written with Cardinal Müller)
- Chapter 6 of Maria Pilar Aquino, Our Cry for Life helpfully and insightfully complexifies the option for the poor in terms of the experience of women. The essay referenced above from Stephen Pope offers an excellent engagement with the preferential option. José M. Vigil, “The Option for the Poor is an Option for Justice and not Preferential: A new theological-systematic framework for the preferential option,” Voices from the Third World1 (2004): 6-21 is another interesting essay.
- In terms of ecclesiastical texts, the preferential option for the poor is discussed in the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church§182-184, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis §42 and Evangelii Gaudium §§197-216 among other places.
Todd Walatka is the Assistant Chair for Graduate Studies in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.
This page originally appeared, and was last updated, on December 7, 2015.
 Archbishop Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Addresses (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985), 179. Romero writes, “it is the poor who tell us what the world is, and what the church’s service to the world should be.”
 See Stephen J. Pope’s excellent essay, “Proper and Improper Partiality and the Preferential Option for the Poor” Theological Studies 54 (1993): 242-271 for a similar structuring of the option for poor in three dimensions. Pope discusses partiality as moral, cognitive, and religious.
 Gutiérrez, “Option for the poor,” in Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology, ed. Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 240
 John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 1984), 52-53