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The Preferential Option for the Poor Helen Miller Regis University, 2004 This paper provides an introduction to the concept of “preferential option for the poor,” as found through an examination of Scripture, writings of theologians, documents of churches, in personal experience and in community. Here, Catholic writings and academic research on human behavior contribute to a deeper understanding of charitable philosophies as well as micro- and macro-levels of application of the preferential option for the poor. Concept Origins According to Curran (2002) in his book on contemporary Catholic social teaching, the basis 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” in this 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 in communicating the necessity of caring for the poor, a practice and concept which stems from biblical times, although the phrase did not become widely known in historical archives and community dialogues until the 1970s. The term was used as a title for one of the sections of the document 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 American poverty in Medellin, Colombia. In contemporary America the concept “preferential option for the poor” became the underlying 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 the 1994 document Communities of Light and Salt, the concept and its meaning were renewed when U.S. bishops wrote that the Catholic people would be measured by how the least of the people in their communities were cared for. More recently in one of the weekly audiences by Pope John Paul II in October 2003 (CWN, 2004), “the preferential option for the poor” became the topic that influenced a series of catechetical talks revolving around the specific theme of charity, i.e., “special exercise of Christian charity” and “witnesses of charity.” Contemporary Methodology In education and social work arenas, the concept preferential option for the poor has often been associated with liberation theology and the work of Freire in Latin America in the 1970s (Freire, 1970). Freire’s adoption of the preferential option involved an emancipatory pedagogy that combined adult education and a "Third World" revolutionary approach to combat issues of poverty and injustice. This approach promoted a practical approach to emancipation through education (Hart, 1990) with its foundation in community action or social activism, critical reflection, and the development of new ways of interpreting experiences that empowered the poor and vulnerable to survive against oppressive elements of reality. This method provided a community-based, adult-education working model to resolve the social problems (i.e., hunger, ignorance, homelessness, oppression, health care, etc.) of the Latin American peasant populations. Rather than invoking a personal transformation in people that would prompt greater numbers to follow Christ’s message of caring for the poor, Freire’s understanding of preferential option called for the wakening of a social consciousness. This perspective required a life-long reflective process with which people could transform inequitable social, political, and economic
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elements into sustainable human development. It presupposed an understanding of caring for the poor and oppressed based on truth discovered in meditation on emancipatory praxis1 (as opposed to academic and scientific research). It contained elements of Marxism and the politicization of faith. Freire’s methodology involved a limited range of participants (e.g., Latin Americans, Catholics, Marxists, and educators) compared to the rest of the world also affected by issues of social injustice and has limited potential outside the chaos of war-torn revolutions where social change erupts suddenly and forcefully. On the other hand, the preferential option that defines the foundation of Catholic social teaching in America adopts a more universal approach and ultimately addresses a more global population as agents of social change. This theoretical approach includes a broad body of both educated and uneducated participants of all ages and ethnic groups, from powerful as well as Third World countries, during peacetime or wartime, in times of prosperity and times of hardship. The preferential option promoted in America calls for the personal transformation and examination 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 universal aspects of Catholic ecclesiology and its traditionally centralized understanding of church doctrine comes the post-Vatican II emphasis on local and regional churches. The contemporary American view of preferential option adopts a more top-down approach to poverty (wealthy people are barriers to social change) versus the bottom-up approach 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 and interreligious, as opposed to the spiritualism of liberation theology and its narrow focus on the dichotomy between oppressors and oppressed. This particular application of preferential option grounds the human rights and responsibility for others into a call for stewardship and solidarity. Catholic Research Its roots based in Scripture and early church teachings, the concept of the “preferential option for the poor” grew from the issues of human poverty and injustice that lie at the heart of the ministry of Moses and behind Jesus’ teachings. In Scripture, the Psalms and literature of the Hebrew Bible reveal God hearing the cries of the oppressed and protecting the poor and vulnerable. 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 widespread deprivation and desperation of the majority of the Latin America populations. Their resultant writings on liberation theology eventually set the tone for the progressive pastoral and social involvement of the church in Latin America for many decades. The context of their meetings was 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 reflection on the words of biblical prophets. The poor who sought reconciliation between privilege and poverty, the campesina widows whose husbands were killed by the governments, and the children 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 of the oppressed and whose passion and strength of conviction led him to death drew people by example to adopt and adapt the preferential option for the poor.
Praxis is a process through which people create culture and society and become critically conscious individuals who are challenged to change the world around them.
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The bishops at General Conferences in the U.S. have also issued many significant documents on social questions such as the protection of rights, fair wages and working conditions, the right of women to participate in the religious community, antiviolence alternatives to war and terrorism, the call to family, community and participation, etc. The wider body of research that supports the invocation of the preferential option via Catholic responsibility, intentional action, and civic participation comes from a large synthesis of religious and academic research bodies (i.e., Christian, non-Christian, secular, theological, etc.). Many of these research studies while not specifically Catholic in nature reflect the overwhelmingly emergent nature 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. Catholic approach to understanding and practicing the preferential option for the poor is based on an intellectual tradition. Consequently much scientific research has been performed, the results of which can be adapted to Catholic social teaching to promote the personal and collective adoption and modeling of a life-long philosophy of preferential option. Within the results of this non-theological, non-faith-based social science research lie pieces to the puzzle, which can contribute to the engagement of greater numbers of Catholics, if not all people in general, to adopt the principles of active community participation. Such research efforts examine human behavior in relation to concepts of justice, charity, and the common good, the findings of which can be applied to Catholic social teaching. Some of these more scientific studies are listed below and may provide insight to a broader acceptance of a charitable perspective on life. Social Science Research Hardin's "the Tragedy of the Commons" (1968) emphasizes the need to look for solutions to shared social dilemmas within the realms of human behavior and not necessarily in the 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 the controlled 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 the survival of all society. In his article, Hardin mentioned how guilt has been a valuable element of behavioral change in past civilizations. He related that selfish individuals who had been warned to modify destructive behaviors did not do so because they received contradictory messages from guiding entities. Hardin’s assumption that the answer to the unresolved guilty conscience lay in changing human behavior is congruent with the body of doctrine supporting Catholic Social 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 in the classification of various types of social traps. His research identified the first steps in problem solving as analyzing and then breaking down a dilemma into separate processes. With definitive language, he described individual and social formulas for extrication from destructive, unrewarding social traps, which included excessive selfishness and antisocial attitudes. He asserted that the social trap of the individual good versus the collective bad became a problem due to the sheer numbers of people involved. Platt’s research broke down social problems into unconscious tricks into which people can 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 a reversal of reinforcers that were more obvious in long-term situations. Platt stated that the points involved in locked-in behaviors were not good or bad; rather education and awareness were necessary to break the stereotypical explanations for human actions contradictory to social
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interest. Indeed, the preferential option calls people to action in community with attention to the common good of the global human family. The application of Catholic social teaching (CST) principles provides the vehicle for raising awareness of economic imbalances and the obligation to promote social justice beginning with personal resources as the resolution to many social problems. In 1988 Kerr conducted four experiments to explore the relationship of group size to individual and collective efficacy with respect to social dilemmas. Kerr, like Hardin, noted that private choices, which are at first personally rewarding, could turn out to be detrimental later for the greater group. Uncontrolled exploitation of a resource by too many members of a group can wind up with depletion of that resource for all members of the group. Kerr included political participation, trade protectionism, and special-interest politics as social problems in addition to overpopulation and resource management. His research focus was on the effects of group size on peoples' perceptions of cooperative behavior in solving group issues. Kerr’s findings are applicable to managing social issues in community. While the Catholic Church will always have a petrine office, much more attention is being directed towards dialogue with individual believers. Kerr cites voting as an example of how individual contribution has less influence on group effectiveness as the group grows in number. He defines collective good as something that which once produced cannot be denied to anybody in the group even though a member may not have helped create that something. One of his findings suggested that perceptions of collective efficacy within large groups might be what they are because individuals are unwilling to contribute to the collective good as group numbers increase. He claimed that individuals often chose self-interest over group survival with the justification that too many group advocates allowed others to hitch a free ride at their expense. The Catholic Church clearly spells out the principle of charity as the underlying foundation of all micro and macro relationships in the world and promotes solidarity as the interdependence and connectivity present between all people. In his article Kerr explained how members of groups faced with social problems felt deindividuated and helpless, that their actions were insignificant to group efforts. Self-efficacy, which seemed to be lower in larger groups, gave the reverse illusion of greater individual power in smaller groups, and illusions of self-efficacy due to group size were felt to be due to poor judgment calls rather than group size. Reframing social dilemmas in terms of small groups was felt to be one positive way that individuals could engage in cooperation for the group's survival. Kerr’s findings can be applied to the concepts of mandatory contributions for the collective good such as taxes for welfare conditions and profit sharing for employees of large corporations. Catholic social teaching (CST) works to ensure the survival of the human race in part through the equitable distribution of resources to resolve individual and community social problems. Micro- and Macro-Levels The Catechism of the Catholic Church advocates men and women each have equal personal dignity, though gender and equality remain important components of social justice and human rights violations. Many public policies address unemployment, violence, and poverty, as social problems continue to grow from parenteral institutions and economic structures built upon hegemony. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World speaks of the inherent dignity of the human person beginning with conception and proceeding until natural death. The application of concepts of multiculturalism and diversity require adoption of a fidelity to all human life and require widespread social change. Such change is advanced with contemporary instructional tools, such as Web 2.0 and Internet technology. Ethnic and gender analysis lies at the heart of Jesus’ teachings on love and justice and is a powerful way to address a variety of
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social problems, such as nationalism, racism, and ethnicity (Duster, 1991), bilingualism and social class (Levin and Riffel, 1994), and poverty and violence (VanSoest and Crosby, 1997). There are no true safeguards against the violence associated with the illegal drug industry; one cartel’s displaced drug enterprise is soon replaced by another. As a result, the long string of social problems, including death, homelessness, starvation, and suffering are the focus of many missives and messages by both Church and government. Reducing local and International drug production, trafficking (Shuman and Harvey, 1993), and consumption (Focus on Drug Treatment, 1994) can alleviate much human suffering. In this respect, structural violence, e.g., poverty and homelessness, personal violence, e.g., rape and assault, and institutional violence, e.g., war and torture can be reduced through a global application of advocacy for the basic structure of human dignity. The writing of Populorum Progressio supports the role of International organizations in pursuing free trade and world peace as a means of protecting human life. However, Catholic social teaching also suggests the lives of human beings may be defended against aggressors and that the common good may be protected by the suppression of offenders. Many good arguments exist in favor of the deconstruction of the patriarchal dominion, two of which are equity and efficiency, factors that empower females to grow and prosper as members of families and in community. It has been said that any unit of membership is only as strong as its weakest link. It is the low economic status of women and girls as well as the subordination of females in society in general that contributes to their vulnerability to violence (UN, 1989). As such, the female gender, virtually silent in many matters of great importance to the common good, needs to stand up and speak out for basic human rights (Minnesota NASW Chapter Center, 1994), particularly through increased involvement in health care and education. Though humanitarian aid organizations might be composed of primarily men, women are the driving force behind delivering health care and education services to developing countries. Public policy- and decision-making processes are rooted in economic, political, and cultural systems. When these processes preclude the involvement of women at any stage of design and implementation (Tisch and Wallace, 1994), past traditions and cultures not rooted in the doctrine of social justice will prevail and continue to legitimize gender and ethnic discrimination (Anderson and Moore, 1993). Political and economic decisions that affect minorities and women lead to the reconstruction of the traditional patriarchical ways in the longrun, yet without the initial collaboration and participation of women and minorities in creating those policies, the costs outweigh the benefits. Conclusion In summary, Catholic social teaching (CST) needs to grow a world-wide advocacy for the Church’s guiding statements on human conditions, particularly with its emphasis on International and inter-faith applicability. The survival of humanity and resolution social dilemmas are dependent upon raising awareness levels of individual and group rights and responsibilities to actively fulfill requirements for a just society.
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