May 31, 2011

Preferential Option For The Poor

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.


Jeff said...

Hi Brother Charles,

There was a British author I once read who'd had extensive experience working within his country's social welfare system who said something I found interesting. I can't quite recall who it was... Eric Hobsbawm, perhaps... He said something along the lines of "The behavior that is avant-garde for the wealthy and for the upper classes is disatrous when adopted and practiced by the poor." The poor are seldom the people who drive and set the cultural agenda, but they suffer the consequences most heavily. Think of the vast wealth taken in through gambling, for instance, and think of who suffers the most as a consequence of it.

Reading this over, I'm not sure what the particular problem is that you have with the doctrine. As far as I understand it, the Preferential Option for the Poor has always emphasized their spiritual well-being at least as much as their material well-being, so there should be no contradiction there. What I'd always heard was controversial, probably because of its association wih liberation theology, was the suggestion that God was actually on the side of the poor. That the preferential option was not so much referring to ours, but God's. That God has a special love and concern for them as reflected in Luke 4:16-21.

What I fear is that in looking at the moral factor alone, it is easy for the rest of us to assign blame for the state of the poor on the poor themselves. This was too often the case from the Dickensian age until the New Deal. The fact of the matter is, a decent job with a living wage tends to clear up a lot of the pathologies you've mentioned, and therefore justice becomes just as important as charity.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for this. So good to be back in touch!

Marc said...

I 'work for a living doing direct care' (after my time in religion, as a matter of fact), and, good heavens, can I second your observations about "many co-workers": this, along with the rest of my own history and education, reinforces the fact that I see poverty more in moral terms than in material ones, in spite of several years living in a really (economically) poor locale... or, perhaps, because of those years in N., and so I think your 'both/and' hits the mark.

I'd add that the 'preferential option' (as paradoxical as it may read to those who come from non-Catholic milieux) isn't meant to be an attitude or program of exclusion, is it; the poor knights of Malta and housewives of McLean are also Christ's poor.

Sara said...

As a person young in the faith, I have a hard time knowing how to respond to Christians who want to bracket their faith while trying to meet the material needs of the poor.

I mean, I have many non-Christian family and friends who are dedicated to working for justice, and who love the poor. They do great things but they're not acting as Christians.

What's the difference between a group of atheists helping the poor and a group of Christians helping the poor? Shouldn't there be a difference? Is the Christian faith just one more reason among many reasons for doing good works?

If I make the question personal I could say it this way- I worked to help others before I was a Christian. Shouldn't there be something different about the way I do the same work today?

Maybe I'm not making any sense.

Brother Charles said...

Trust it. There's a lot of sense in what you say.

Greg said...

Thanks for the thoughtful blog post. I have become a fan of the Acton Institute, run by Fr. Sirico, that addresses many of these issues, including looking at the political choices that lead to more or less poverty.

Barb, sfo said...

I'm emailing this to my son, a college student in an inner city neighborhood, who has a Service Scholarship requiring 10 hours of weekly service. He serves at a food kitchen and does tutoring and work with AIDS patients for his service. I think this article will provide him with good food for thought before his return to school!

Tausign said...

Russ Reno might consider knocking at the door of a local SFO fraternity and inquiring into the meaning of a life of penance; its purpose,value, fruitfullness as well as it's true source of joy. For most people the thought never crosses their minds but this is the anitdote to the culture he describes.