When I was very young in the faith, I once went to volunteer at a ministry of direct service to the poor. As the priest in charge was introducing the work of the place, he asked a rhetorical question: "What's the problem with the poor?" Then he answered himself: "The problem with the poor is that they don't have enough money." We all laughed because it was so plain and obvious. But just as was the case with a lot of things that seemed plain and obvious when I was young in the faith, I was being formed in a doctrine without knowing it.
The doctrine is that the primary issues to be addressed in the preferential option for the poor are material in nature. Therefore, work and ministry on behalf of the poor should focus on supplying for material needs or--as seems to be the style of our time--trying to compel secular government to supply them. In my optimism, as well as my upbringing in secular liberalism, I believed this doctrine. If we could arrange ourselves and the world such that the poor had enough to eat, adequate housing, opportunities for education and access to health care, their problems would be solved and we would be favorably received at the Judgment.
I began to question this doctrine when I was working for a living in between my first and second time in religious formation. I worked in human services doing direct care, and I had many coworkers who were young women without a lot of resources. Nevertheless, they had jobs, homes, and access to health care. Over and over I noticed that it was not their lack of access to material resources but the chaos of their personal lives that kept them in a place of insecurity. Cycles of addiction and imprisonment in their families, and especially the way in which they would have to manage a range of husbands, boyfriends, and 'baby daddies,' as well as many other sorts of chaos seemed to keep these women from security in their jobs and peace in their minds.
With these questionings of my earlier formation rolling around in my mind over the last few years, I was almost able to assent to Russ Reno in the latest issue of First Things: "A Christian who hopes to follow the teachings of Jesus needs to reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: Its deepest and most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; the most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic."
Almost. I have come around to believe that poverty is more a moral and cultural than a financial and economic problem, but only because morality and culture are logically prior to economic behavior and the practical arrangement of material needs in society.
That Christians must serve the poor, even with a 'preferential option,' is a given. We should even expect and look forward to being judged on it. But what counts as helping the poor and the best way to serve become hard questions. Should our service concentrate on material, natural needs or on cultural and spiritual formation? More and more I realize that how I answer this question at this point in my life will decide what sort of Christian I will become in the future.
But there is a twofold danger in this dilemma. It is not an 'either/or' at all, and we can't let our worldly politics drive us into such a reduction. If I happen to be a social conservative, I shouldn't imagine that I have served the poor in a full and coherent way just because I have worked to strengthen the culture of marriage and family and weakened the culture of contraception and abortion, for example, without also thinking about the immediate material needs of the poor. If I my worldly politics are liberal, I shouldn't imagine that I have fulfilled the whole of the gospel mandate just because I have worked and organized communities so that poor folks are fed, housed, and have access to education and health care.
In the first case people are still hungry, and hungry people don't have time to think about lifting up their culture and addressing the spiritual poverties which so afflict the world in our time. In the second case, folks will find themselves unable to take advantage of benefits achieved because their lives and still chaotic and ungrounded.
The answer is 'both/and.' We should neither try to preach to the poor without seeking to help them with their material needs, nor bracket off our faith in direct service, as if the faith itself weren't the best thing we have to offer people. And yet sometimes one encounters this, as if the faith and the Eucharist are things that send us out to serve, but stay at home themselves. On the contrary, the Eucharist is the best social program we have.
Material, spiritual, and moral poverty don't necessarily imply each other, but they can easily reinforce each other when relationships, families, and neighborhoods spiral down into misery. The whole of the poor person needs to be served if we are going to fulfill the gospel, without any of the reductions provided by the politics of this world.