Preference for Poverty is Universal

Some may remember a post I wrote a while back concerning the Church's notion of a 'preferential option for the poor.' I think that now would be a good time to revisit this idea, and consider it especially in terms of our current economic and social situation (particularly as they occur around election time).

One thing that will never change is the Catholic Church's hierarchy of values—even if individual Catholics might sometimes get it wrong. At the top will forever be the needs of the people of God for the sake of salvation and sanctification. Below that are the needs of the Church, which are not directly concerned or facilitative of those first level priorities. And finally, there are the personal desires and expressions of faith and value, which are integral to the life of each individual Catholic. These last things are good, but not necessary for salvation; perhaps some examples would include art, music, literature, etc.

But that's a pretty rough sketch of things. None of us experiences life as some kind of clearly delineated progress from phase to phase. No one thinks in such stratified categories. The interplay between the three levels I tried to identify above is very fluctuant. But I think most theologians would agree that something like this model needs to be upheld if the Church will be able to function properly and for the sake of its goal, salvation.

With this in mind, where does a 'preferential option for the poor' fit into the schema. I think it is clear: it is a top-level priority, which facilitates sanctification both for the poor and for those who serve them. It is, in other words, something indispensable in the life of the Church, and something well above a personal devotion or private expression of faith and value. The manifold writings in Catholic tradition regarding social justice are evidence of this fact. We cannot, as Catholics, seek to somehow circumvent such a primary and fundamental act of the Church in order to further lower level expressions of our faith. It is precisely our faith that makes a preferential option for the poor what it is.

Perhaps the largest question arises when one considers: 'What things are we to consider as "poverty"?' This is, after all, really the question at the heart of any preference for the poor. Certainly, material poverty makes human beings 'poor'. Just as plainly, emotional and social poverty are a growing cause of 'poor' people in our society today. Finally—and closely connected with social poverty—the depravation of fundamental rights to life is perhaps the most notable form of poverty, especially in most affluent Western countries. All of these are forms of poverty. They deprive the human person of the most basic needs, which must be met in order to survive, and to live in a way that fosters a love of Christ and an appreciation of the faith of his Church.

To believe that we, as Catholics, might somehow opt to alleviate one form of poverty at the cost of the others is simply folly. There is no way to bargain between one form of poverty and another: both are poverty, and both represent our highest priority as Christians. For this reason, the Church has always promoted the enactment of laws that protect fundamental human rights to life, while at the same time seeking social justice and economic fairness throughout the world. Different forms of poverty require different approaches, but none of them exclude another.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing to remember when speaking of a 'preferential option for the poor' is that poverty is not something we will eradicate. The poor will always be with you, Jesus tells us. Rather, we would do well to consider poverty as a mystery—as an insight into the life of the Trinity. By seeking to aid those who are poor, we will in turn make ourselves spiritually poor. And it is this holy self-emptiness that most reflects the self-gift of Father to Son and Son to Father by the procession of the Holy Spirit.