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Preferential Option for the Poor

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November 21, 2011

Christians have a special place in their hearts for the poor and vulnerable because Jesus had a special place in his heart for them.  The Gospels are filled with stories of how he helped those in need. Some of the most famous - the Beatitudes, the Last Judgment  and the Good Samaritan - summarize the importance of Christian service to the marginalized of society.

One of the most important documents to emerge from the Second Vatican Council illustrates the strength of a Christian's commitment to the marginalized. The opening line of Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) illustrates the point. To be Christian, it says, is to be one with the poor:

"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ." 

The popular term "preferential option for the poor" is relatively new. Its first use in a Church document is in 1968 from a meeting of the Conference of Latin American Bishops held in Medellin, Columbia.

The Economy Exist to Serve People

A severe recession struck the United States in the early 1980s, and the Bishops of the US issued a statement in 1986 highlighting the Church's teaching on economic life. Economic Justice for All discussed how we as Christians and our elected governments are called to make economic decisions in an increasingly globalized free market economy.

Every economic decision, says the document, must take into consideration how it impacts the dignity of the human person. Take the California budget, for instance. How does each decision impact the poor? Are they helped or made poorer? Do the rich gain more than the poor?

We are part of a community and are called to look out for everyone, explains the pastoral letter. Everyone must have the opportunity to participate. And we are urged to do that both in our public decision making and our personal choices.

Poverty in California 

California is the Golden State but its very prosperity magnifies the difference between rich and poor  that has developed in this nation and the world. The American Human Development Project  has identified the best and worse Congressional districts in the United States based on health, education and income. Both ends of the spectrum are within 100 miles of each other in our state.

The worst, according to the report, is the California 20th Congressional district - the area surrounding Coalinga, Hanford, and Wasco in the Central Valley. It came in last in the ranking of 436 districts. The third best in the nation is the California 14th in the heart of the Silicon Valley. The assumptions of the study can be questioned (although no one has), but the overall rankings of the districts will not change much.

Poverty facts in California are well known: most of the poor are working; we have more poverty in California than we have had since the late 1960s; and California's high cost of living is not reflected in the official poverty statistics.

Love of Neighbor in Practice 

In Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) Pope Benedict XVI used the occasion of his first encyclical to emphasize the importance of love, charity and justice to our faith. He explained that charity is just as central to the church as are the sacraments and scripture. 
"Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level," he says.

In the United States, Catholic Charities or Catholic Social Service agencies are working in almost every diocese in the nation. And the Catholic Campaign for Human Development supports the grassroots efforts of the marginalized working to address their issues together. Added to this are the thousands of hospitals, senior services, poverty programs, awareness campaigns and more operated by religious orders and lay groups.

Ideas for parish involvement in social ministry are also available in Communities of Salt and Light from the U.S. Bishops.

The official work of the U.S. Catholic community overseas is carried on by Catholic Relief Services , which alleviates suffering in more than 100 countries around the world. 

In his last visit to the United States Pope John Paul II gave a word of advice to the most powerful nation on earth:

"From salvation history we learn that power is responsibility: it is service, not privilege. Its exercise is morally justifiable when it is used for the good of all, when it is sensitive to the needs of the poor and defenseless," he said. (St. Louis, Missouri, January 1999)