Of the many resources available to the curious Christian pondering questions of poverty and opportunity, perhaps none are more complex (nor raise better questions) than the social encyclicals of the Roman Catholic tradition. The “preferential option for the poor,” as articulated in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, suggests that justice is more complex than eliminating economic brackets or leveling everyone’s basic income. Indeed, Pope John Paul II says it is “the Church's constant concern for and dedication to categories of people who are especially beloved to the Lord Jesus.”
The question for the citizen, then, must be whether the purpose of the state is to eliminate categories of poverty. Often candidates run on a platform of eliminating some of these distinctions—“equal education for all!”, “no more poverty!” and the like. Equality as a tenet of American political culture is deeply entrenched, and the promises of true equality of opportunity and resources are often enticing. But the Catholic understanding of this “preferential option for the poor” seeks primarily not to eliminate poverty, but to care for the poor—an under appreciated perspective on the conversation of poverty and opportunity, which often seeks the broad societal causes and solutions to the problem.
To take a quick example of a “broad cause approach” to the problem, I will turn to President Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address. In addressing the question of poverty and opportunity, the president said,
“Tonight, let’s also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job. America is not a place where the chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them” (the full speech can be read here).
This approach to the problem of poverty and opportunity acknowledges the responsibility we have to address the system as a whole - how communities and even generations can be caught in circumstances that prevent them from rising from poverty on their own merits. It acknowledges our hope that we can eliminate some of these unjust causes in order to widen opportunity for those with gifts and talents to more fully pursue them. But the approach here is to level the playing field and then, essentially, to leave the individual to climb the ladder himself. When President Obama speaks of providing ladders of opportunity, he speaks about the system, the environment - but not about the poor who live in it.
Poverty, in this interpretation, is a barrier to that individual self-determination. But is this the only way to understand the question of poverty? President Obama answers the dilemma he articulated about poverty this way:
“Let’s offer incentives to companies that hire Americans who’ve got what it takes to fill that job opening, but have been out of work so long that no one will give them a chance anymore. Let’s put people back to work rebuilding vacant homes in run-down neighborhoods. And this year, my administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet. We’ll work with local leaders to target resources at public safety, and education, and housing."
But we must ask ourselves, does that address caring for the human beings that are living in poverty? By addressing poverty through simply creating more ladders of opportunity or eliminating more barriers to the free movement and self-determination of individuals, I wonder whether we lose some of the human face of the problem. Care for the poor must be more than setting them on a so-called even playing field. It must involve meeting them, prioritizing them, and learning from them. Catholic social thought - Centesimus Annus especially, reminds us that the poor were especially beloved by the Lord Jesus, and calls us to a deeper engagement with the human face of the problem.
As the Center for Social Concern at the University of Notre Dame expresses the idea,
“As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a preferential option for the poor, namely, to create conditions for marginalized voices to be heard, to defend the defenseless, and to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor. The option for the poor does not mean pitting one group against another, but rather, it calls us to strengthen the whole community by assisting those who are most vulnerable” (read more here).
Surely care for the poor involves reforming policy, creating mandates, and widespread measures. But the riches of the Catholic tradition call on us to remember that a “preferential option” for the poor does not mean a category of policy nearly so much as a humbled approach to policy and a moral command that governs our system beyond the particular reforms we might consider. Listening more closely to the Catholic social thought tradition reminds us that care for the poor is far beyond discrete policy choices, and is instead an attitude and approach.
-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt