It could be claimed that ‘preferential option for the poor’ is a consistent dogma for Catholic Social Teaching since the beginning, (Rerum Novarum, 1891) but concern for the poor is quite different than the ‘preferential option.’
Jesuit economist Perry Roets, S.J. wrote in 1991 that his mentor, renowned economist Bernard Dempsey, S.J., would have had trouble accepting the radical ‘preferential option’ dogma. Roets described Dempsey who died a couple of years before Vatican II:
Dempsey never really understood the powerlessness of ordinary people forced to remain poor for extended periods. …It would be interesting to see Dempsey wrestle with the emphasis given recently by both the Church and his own Society of Jesus to this ‘preferential option for the poor.’ (Roets, Perry J. The Economic Ideas of Bernard W. Dempsey, S.J., Marquette University Press, 1991, p. 38)
Bill Brennan, S.J. (1920 – 2014) lived “Preferential Option for the Poor.”
He is pictured here holding a cross at an S.O.A. protest at Fort Benning, GA. The cross bears the name of Luis Espinal, S.J. martyred in Bolivia.
But even more than fifty years after Vatican II Thomas Massaro , S.J. cautions:
In one sense, the notion of the preferential option for the poor is relatively new to Catholic social teaching, as this phrase appeared in no papal social encyclical until 1987 and in no official Church documents at all until 1979. (Boston College C21 Resources, Fall 2014, p.32)
Massaro is referring to the John Paul II Encyclical of 1987 Solicitudo Rei and the Latin American Bishops (C.E.L.A.M.) document for the Puebla Mexico conferences in 1979. Massaro fails to recognize the revolutionary document that first officially expresses the Church’s ‘preferential option for the poor.’ The document from the 1968 C.E.L.A.M. conference in Medellin states:
El particular mandato del Senior de ‘evangelizar a los pobres’ debe llevarnos a una distribucion de los esfuerzos y del personel Apostolic que de preferencia efectiva al los sectores mas pobres y necesitados y a los segregados por cualquier causa, alentandoy y accelerando las iniciativas y studios que con ese fin ya se hacen. Translation: The specific command of the Lord to bring ‘the Good News’ to the poor ought to raise us to use our forces and our Church personnel to give effective preference to those most poor and segregated for whatever reason, raising and accelerating those initiatives and investigations which actualize the ‘Good News.’ (Documentos Finales de Medellin, 1968, XIV, 3.2, p.176)
This is a value statement that challenges the modern guide of political policy ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’ The ‘greatest good’ should include all people, and let us first consider the poor who have nothing. The statement goes beyond Vatican II’s concern for the poor and moves us to a revolutionary criterion.
The Bishops of Latin America witnessed poverty caused by political and economic structures. With reference to Jesus who denounced the poverty caused by Imperial Rome, the Medellin Bishops declared that poverty was not of God and that the Reign of God was present only in so far as justice for the poor prevailed.
Francis, the first American Pope, emphasized ‘preferential option for the poor’ in his message, The Joy of the Gospel. Francis quotes John Paul II:
Without the preferential option for the poor, ‘the proclamation of The Gospel which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications.’ #199
Francis continues following the lead of Medellin: ‘The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed.’ #202 The Apostolic exhortation Joy of the Gospel resurrects Jesus’ claim to radically overthrow oppression by insisting that ‘the last shall be first’ and preaching this ‘Good News’ to the poor.
Pope Francis has witnessed the political and structural suppression of the poor in Latin America and pleads for preferential solidarity with them. It is not just the poor of Buenos Aires or Chicago or London; what about Africa and Asia? Roman Catholic Social Teaching has had a global range, but especially since the 21st Ecumenical Council of Vatican II. Francis’ message is political and crafted for the Faith community; it is not designed for isolated individual choices.