6.3.8 SRS chapter VI on the preferential option for the poor

Back to 6.3.7

Unit 6 Contents

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So far in SRS, Pope John Paul II has,

*  reviewed Populorum Progressio (PP) (chapter II)

*  given a lengthy analysis of the state of the world (chapter III)

*  rearticulated and developed PP’s conception of integral human development, criticising sharply along the way views of development that are narrowly economic (chapter IV)

*  presented a ‘theological reading of modern problems’ that has incorporated the concept of ‘structures of sin’ explicitly into CST, and argued that overcoming them crucially requires the practice of solidarity, a concept that he expounds more fully than it is in any previous CST statement (chapter V).

Much in chapters IV and V can be read as responding to challenges made by liberation theology, especially the recognition of the importance, even centrality, of ‘structures of sin’ for understanding both the failure of development since PP and Cold War conflict.

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Reflection

From your reading of much of SRS, to what extent do you think it is right to see it as a response to issues raised by liberation theology?

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The remainder of the encyclical has the character of a wrapping up after the bulk of the work has been done.  Chapter VI has the title ‘Some particular guidelines’ and, as this implies, does not have only one theme.  Chapter VII is the Conclusion.

Yet in chapter VI Pope John Paul speaks about one further main issue that liberation theology had put on the agenda, the preferential option for the poor.

This has come up a number of times in Unit 6.  After looking at Church teaching on poverty in the introduction (6.1.3), we saw the way that Gutiérrez initially presented the idea of an option for the poor, emphasizing that Christians who are not poor should be willing to become materially poor in solidarity with those who are (6.2.4).  In addressing the question of liberation theology’s relation with Marxism, we gave attention to a passage in which Gutiérrez described “resolutely opting for the oppressed” as “combatting the oppressive class” (quoted on 6.2.6).  This suggests a class-based reading of the option for the poor, and such an understanding of it was no doubt one reason for the Vatican’s critical reactions to liberation theology, as expressed especially in the two CDF Instructions (6.2.8).

As these two documents lie in the background to SRS, it will be helpful to read here the main passage in them about the option for the poor. It comes in the second, ICFL, which as a whole gives a broad vision of Christian teaching on freedom and liberation.  The reading below comes in the chapter headed ‘The Liberating Mission of the Church’ (chapter IV).  Shortly before the passage in the reading, the text sums up:

[T]he love which impels the Church to communicate to all people a sharing in the grace of divine life also causes her, through the effective action of her members, to pursue people’s true temporal good, help them in their needs, provide for their education and promote an integral liberation from everything that hinders [their] development. (ICFL, #63, italics added)

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Reading (2pp)

CDF, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, ##66-68 (from chap. VI, sec. II) 

The link will take you to the start of the document, so scroll to #66.

Note that the text speaks of a “love of preference” for the poor to refer to what is otherwise known as a “preferential option”, which is slightly confusing: no reason is evident for the different term. Just before the end, however, it refers also to a “special option for the poor” (#68).

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We saw at the beginning of Unit 6 that there are many expressions in the Old Testament that God’s blessing will come to the poor, in Hebrew the anawim, and that this is also very prominent in Jesus’ ministry (6.1.3).  The reading strongly reflects this, referring explicitly to “the poor of Yahweh” (#66) and to Christ identifying with “the least of his brethren” (#68, quoting Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats).

Going beyond this, the passage is striking in locating the fundamental justification for the option for the poor at the very centre of the Christian faith: in the incarnation.  In coming to the world as a human person, Jesus Christ became poor for those who suffer thanks to the effects of human sin.  In this way, God himself embodies the option for the poor.

Human misery [in its various forms], material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illnesses, and finally death… drew the compassion of Christ the Saviour to take it upon himself and to be identified with the least of his brethren (cf. Mt 25:40, 45). (#68)

Therefore, “those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a love of preference” in the Church’s mission and ministry, including in promotion of ”structural changes in society so as to secure conditions of life worthy of the human person” (#68).

It is only in the last sentence of the reading that it articulates criticism of a Marxist way of interpreting the option for the poor; this would make it “a partisan choice and a source of conflict” (#68).

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Reflection

Is it an exaggeration to say that ICFL sees the option for the poor as a defining element of the Christian gospel?

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Against this background, we come to what SRS says about this principle.  The next reading begins by, apparently, seeking to clear up any confusion over the terminology: it presents “the option or love of preference for the poor” simply as two ways of referring to the same thing.  It goes on to connect it with a number of issues in international development.

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Reading (2pp)

Solicitudo Rei Socialis, chapter VI, ##42-43

The link will take you to #41, the start of chapter VI.

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This reading insists plainly that the option for the poor applies both in “the life of each Christian” (#42) and institutionally.  In relation to the latter, it “must be translated at all levels into concrete actions” in order to attain “necessary reforms” (#43). The first example John Paul gives of what this requires in practice is stopping international trade rules from discriminating against developing countries. (We considered the same issue when first looking at the option for the poor in Unit 1, in particular some of the European Union’s trade policies, and need not repeat this here; see 1.3.6.)

In the last part of chapter VI, SRS speaks, if indirectly, about yet another issue raised by liberation theology: whether the poor themselves must be recognised as the primary agents of development of their own societies.  Pope John Paul puts across with some emphasis (expressed by repetition of similar points) that development “begins and is most appropriately accomplished in the dedication of each people to its own development, in collaboration with others” (#44).

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Reading (2pp)

Solicitudo Rei Socialis, chapter VI, ##44-45

The link again takes you to the start of chapter VI.

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In the first paragraph of SRS’s Conclusion, John Paul finally refers to liberation theology directly. By doing so he indicates that much in the foregoing chapters has been about issues questions it had raised, and he reminds readers of what chapters IV and V have said about integral development/liberation, structures of sin and solidarity.

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Reading (1p.)

Solicitudo Rei Socialis, chapter VII, #46

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With this we come to the end of our reading of SRS, and so of study of the five main documents in which we can find the Vatican’s response to and assessment of liberation theology.

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Reflection

In that final short reading from SRS, John Paul summarizes:

The principal obstacle to be overcome on the way to authentic liberation is sin and the structures produced by sin as it multiplies and spreads.

The freedom with which Christ has set us free (cf. Gal. 5:1) encourages us to become the servants of all. Thus the process of development and liberation takes concrete shape in the exercise of solidarity, that is to say in the love and service of neighbour, especially of the poorest. (#46, italics added)

Notice the way that, in the italicized phrases, this quotation refers to four ways in which liberation theology prompted development in CST: to do with integral liberation, structures of sin, solidarity, and the option for the poor.

A fifth point not expressed in the quotation is the emphasis that the poor are the primary agents of their own liberation and development.

Are these five all the ways in which liberation theology had influence on CST (at least up to SRS) or, in the light of your study, can you think of any others?

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End of 6.3.8

Go to 6.3.9 CST on international development after liberation theology

Module B outline

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