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Preferential Option for the Poor

Preferential Option for the Poor

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Published by: forbear on Sep 02, 2011
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03/30/2012

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T
HE
P
REFERENTIAL
O
PTION FOR THE
P
OOR
 H
ELEN
M
ILLER
,
 
MA
 
-
 
R
EGIS
U
NIVERSITY
,
 
2004
 
 – 
 
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The Preferential Option for the PoorHelen MillerRegis University, 2004This paper provides an introduction to the concept of “preferential option for the poor,” asfound through an examination of Scripture, writings of theologians, documents of churches, inpersonal experience and in community. Here, Catholic writings and academic research onhuman behavior contribute to a deeper understanding of charitable philosophies as well asmicro- and macro-levels of application of the preferential option for the poor.Concept OriginsAccording to Curran (2002) in his book on contemporary Catholic social teaching, thebasis for the meaning behind the phrase “preferential option for the poor” was evidenced in
Rerum novarum 
text, which technically found its way into print via the 1987 encyclical
Sollicitudo rei socialis 
. At that time John Paul II wrote of an “option or love of preference for the poor” inthis document which had been created for the twentieth anniversary of
Populorum Progressio.
According to Dorr (1983), the Catholic church has always been deliberate and determined incommunicating the necessity of caring for the poor, a practice and concept which stems frombiblical times, although the phrase did not become widely known in historical archives andcommunity dialogues until the 1970s. The term was used as a title for one of the sections of thedocument created from the 1979 General Conference of Latin American bishops in Puebla,Mexico, the impetus behind which had growing since the 1968 meeting on Latin Americanpoverty in Medellin, Colombia.In contemporary America the concept “preferential option for the poor” became theunderlying foundation for the direction of Catholic social teaching as described in
Economic Justice for All 
, a pastoral letter written by the U.S. bishops in 1986. Mentioned again in the1994 document
Communities of Light and Salt,
the concept and its meaning were renewedwhen U.S. bishops wrote that the Catholic people would be measured by how the least of thepeople in their communities were cared for. More recently in one of the weekly audiences byPope John Paul II in October 2003 (CWN, 2004), “the preferential option for the poor” becamethe topic that influenced a series of catechetical talks revolving around the specific theme ofcharity, i.e., “special exercise of Christian charity” and “witnesses of charity.”Contemporary MethodologyIn education and social work arenas, the concept
preferential option for the poor 
hasoften been associated with liberation theology and the work of Freire in Latin America in the1970s (Freire, 1970). Freire’s adoption of the preferential option involved an emancipatorypedagogy that combined adult education and a "Third World" revolutionary approach to combatissues of poverty and injustice. This approach promoted a practical approach to emancipationthrough education (Hart, 1990) with its foundation in community action or social activism, criticalreflection, and the development of new ways of interpreting experiences that empowered thepoor and vulnerable to survive against oppressive elements of reality. This method provided acommunity-based, adult-education working model to resolve the social problems (i.e., hunger,ignorance, homelessness, oppression, health care, etc.) of the Latin American peasantpopulations.Rather than invoking a personal transformation in people that would prompt greaternumbers to follow Christ’s message of caring for the poor, Freire’s understanding of preferentialoption called for the wakening of a social consciousness. This perspective required a life-longreflective process with which people could transform inequitable social, political, and economic
 
T
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REFERENTIAL
O
PTION FOR THE
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OOR
 H
ELEN
M
ILLER
,
 
MA
 
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R
EGIS
U
NIVERSITY
,
 
2004
 
 – 
 
2/7
elements into sustainable human development. It presupposed an understanding of caring forthe poor and oppressed based on truth discovered in meditation on emancipatory praxis
1
(asopposed to academic and scientific research). It contained elements of Marxism and thepoliticization of faith. Freire’s methodology involved a limited range of participants (e.g., LatinAmericans, Catholics, Marxists, and educators) compared to the rest of the world also affectedby issues of social injustice and has limited potential outside the chaos of war-torn revolutionswhere social change erupts suddenly and forcefully.On the other hand, the preferential option that defines the foundation of Catholic socialteaching in America adopts a more universal approach and ultimately addresses a more globalpopulation as agents of social change. This theoretical approach includes a broad body of botheducated and uneducated participants of all ages and ethnic groups, from powerful as well asThird World countries, during peacetime or wartime, in times of prosperity and times ofhardship. The preferential option promoted in America calls for the personal transformation andexamination of conscience of every human being to make a fundamental “option for the poor”(Economic Justice for All) versus knowledge through praxis. Interestingly, with the universalaspects of Catholic ecclesiology and its traditionally centralized understanding of churchdoctrine comes the post-Vatican II emphasis on local and regional churches.The contemporary American view of preferential option adopts a more top-downapproach to poverty (wealthy people are barriers to social change) versus the bottom-upapproach of Freire (poor people are barriers to social change) (Curran, 2002). The U.S.perspective attempts to take into consideration all agents of change, e.g., ecumenical andinterreligious, as opposed to the spiritualism of liberation theology and its narrow focus on thedichotomy between oppressors and oppressed. This particular application of preferential optiongrounds the human rights and responsibility for others into a call for stewardship and solidarity.Catholic ResearchIts roots based in Scripture and early church teachings, the concept of the “preferentialoption for the poor” grew from the issues of human poverty and injustice that lie at the heart ofthe ministry of Moses and behind Jesus’ teachings. In Scripture, the Psalms and literature ofthe Hebrew Bible reveal God hearing the cries of the oppressed and protecting the poor andvulnerable. Here also Exodus describes the liberation of a people (the Hebrews from Egypt)and the answers to problems of homelessness, oppression, and hunger through social justice.Contemporary solutions to injustice continue to be traced back to historical biblical narratives.At Puebla and Medellin the bishops were forced to acknowledge the widespreaddeprivation and desperation of the majority of the Latin America populations. Their resultantwritings on liberation theology eventually set the tone for the progressive pastoral and socialinvolvement of the church in Latin America for many decades. The context of their meetingswas founded upon the Bible’s revolutionary themes of promise, exodus, resurrection and spirit,and as such the needs of the peasants ultimately were incorporated into their holistic reflectionon the words of biblical prophets. The poor who sought reconciliation between privilege andpoverty, the
campesina 
widows whose husbands were killed by the governments, and thechildren who suffered – all were connected by and to the words of Jesus. The homeless,penniless, persecuted man whose commitment to the dignity of mankind and the liberation ofthe oppressed and whose passion and strength of conviction led him to death drew people byexample to adopt and adapt the preferential option for the poor.
1
 
Praxis is a process through which people create culture and society and become critically conscious individuals who are challengedto change the world around them.
 
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2004
 
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The bishops at General Conferences in the U.S. have also issued many significantdocuments on social questions such as the protection of rights, fair wages and workingconditions, the right of women to participate in the religious community, antiviolence alternativesto war and terrorism, the call to family, community and participation, etc. The wider body ofresearch that supports the invocation of the preferential option via Catholic responsibility,intentional action, and civic participation comes from a large synthesis of religious and academicresearch bodies (i.e., Christian, non-Christian, secular, theological, etc.). Many of theseresearch studies while not specifically Catholic in nature reflect the overwhelmingly emergentnature of the effect of social problems on world peace and human life.Despite its emphasis on Faith as a defining element of Catholicism, the U.S. Catholicapproach to understanding and practicing the preferential option for the poor is based on anintellectual tradition. Consequently much scientific research has been performed, the results ofwhich can be adapted to Catholic social teaching to promote the personal and collectiveadoption and modeling of a life-long philosophy of preferential option. Within the results of thisnon-theological, non-faith-based social science research lie pieces to the puzzle, which cancontribute to the engagement of greater numbers of Catholics, if not all people in general, toadopt the principles of active community participation. Such research efforts examine humanbehavior in relation to concepts of justice, charity, and the common good, the findings of whichcan be applied to Catholic social teaching. Some of these more scientific studies are listedbelow and may provide insight to a broader acceptance of a charitable perspective on life.Social Science ResearchHardin's "the Tragedy of the Commons" (1968) emphasizes the need to look forsolutions to shared social dilemmas within the realms of human behavior and not necessarily inthe area of science and technology. According to Hardin problems such as overpopulation,pollution, depletion of natural resources, and nuclear armaments have answers, which lie in thecontrolled decisions of individuals who consciously act in the best interests of greater society.He claimed that to avoid unhappiness people in the world must act more deliberately toward thesurvival of all society. In his article, Hardin mentioned how guilt has been a valuable element ofbehavioral change in past civilizations. He related that selfish individuals who had been warnedto modify destructive behaviors did not do so because they received contradictory messagesfrom guiding entities. Hardin’s assumption that the answer to the unresolved guilty consciencelay in changing human behavior is congruent with the body of doctrine supporting CatholicSocial Teaching (CST) on matters of poverty and wealth, economics and social organization.Platt’s (1973) work with a group of professionals at the University of Michigan resulted inthe classification of various types of social traps. His research identified the first steps inproblem solving as analyzing and then breaking down a dilemma into separate processes. Withdefinitive language, he described individual and social formulas for extrication from destructive,unrewarding social traps, which included excessive selfishness and antisocial attitudes. Heasserted that the social trap of the individual good versus the collective bad became a problemdue to the sheer numbers of people involved.Platt’s research broke down social problems into unconscious tricks into which peoplecan fall. His work resulted in formulas that identified a circular concept of reinforced behavior.He described sliding reinforcers as those present in drug addiction and one-person traps as areversal of reinforcers that were more obvious in long-term situations. Platt stated that thepoints involved in locked-in behaviors were not good or bad; rather education and awarenesswere necessary to break the stereotypical explanations for human actions contradictory to social

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