(4) The Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

"Positive signs in the contemporary world are the growing awareness of the solidarity of the poor among themselves, their efforts to support one another, and their public demonstrations on the social scene which, without recourse to violence, present their own needs and rights in the face of the inefficiency or corruption of public authorities. By virtue of her own evangelical duty the Church feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern the justice of their requests, and to help satisfy them, without losing sight of the good of groups in the context of the common good." (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, para. 39)

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.

From the Scriptures we learn that the justice of a society is tested and judged by its treatment of the poor. God's covenant with Israel was dependant on the way the community treated the poor and unprotected—the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 16.11-12, Ex. 22.21-27, Isa. 1.16-17). Throughout Israel's history and in the New Testament, the poor are agents of God's transforming power. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (4.1-22). Similarly, in the Last Judgment, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the stranger (Matthew 25.31-46).

Therefore, the preferential option for the poor is not optional. The Latin American bishops' conferences at Medillín (1968) and Puebla (1979) aimed to emphasize the use of option as a verb rather than as a noun. As such, each Christian must make a choice to lift up the poor and disadvantaged in very real and concrete ways. Preferential option for the poor means that Christians are called to look at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and to work in solidarity for justice.

Student Reflection:

The option for the poor asks everyone to realize the plight of those who struggle to survive, and to put the needs of these most vulnerable members of society ahead of individual selfish interests…We can never stop questioning an oppressive system that forces billions of our brothers and sisters in our country and around the world to live in poverty. We need to ask "why?" Why are people starving around the world? How can the United States, the richest nation in the world, allow its people to live in poverty, to be homeless in the "land of opportunity," to lack good education and adequate health care and to starve to death?…What occurs in the United States and throughout the world that allows so many to have so little when so few have so much? As one of the elite—the fed, the clothed, the sheltered, the educated—what are my responsibilities as I step out into this unjust world society and try to make my way?-- Christine Raslavsky, Seminar on Poverty and Development in Chile, 1995.


Questions for discussion/reflection:

  1. The Bishop's Pastoral on the U.S. Economy states, "Followers of Christ must avoid a tragic separation between faith and everyday life…economic life is one of the chief areas where we live out our faith [and] love our neighbor." In what ways ought we manage our economic resources as faithful Christians? In what ways are you conscious of those who are economically poor or disadvantaged?
  2. What are some very concrete ways that you can make a preferential option for the poor?
  3. Are we collectively responsible for the conditions of poverty both locally and globally? What can you do both directly and indirectly to work for change?
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