By Lisa Powell
Though the preferential option for the poor is now considered a pillar of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), the journey to the church’s affirmation of this was fraught with opposition. Much associated with this aspect of CST began with the meeting of CELAM (Conference of Latin American Bishops) in Medellín, Columbia, (1968) to discuss how Vatican II would be implemented in their region, at a time of severe deprivation and extreme inequality.
The church did not anticipate the radical tone voiced in the documents produced, which condemned institutional violence and exhorted the church to break its ties with the elite power structures established through conquest and colonialism and direct its efforts to the impoverished masses.
Many in the church saw this as prophetic, calling the church away from complicity in sinful systems that bring not life but death to the vast majority of the population. As the implications to organize were embraced by priests to support their efforts to educate and empower the poor in their parishes, others in the church sought to retreat from the position staked at Medellín, which they viewed as overly political and biased.
According to one Argentine seminarian interviewed in 1976, even speaking the word “Medellín” was a risk as it had become a symbol of political subversion. A well-organized opposition to Medellín grew in strength. Some in positions of authority viewed the documents, and movement associated with them, as a threat to the stability of the church’s authority and influence in the region. The years that followed saw devastating violence, displacement and staggering numbers of civilians tortured and disappeared in the region.
When CELAM met again in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, many feared the leadership would back away from the commitments of Medellín. Despite efforts within the ranks of bishops in attendance to temper the earlier statements, Puebla gave us the phrase “The Preferential Option for the Poor.”
Less than a decade later the axiom was adopted by the U.S. bishops in their statement “Economic Justice for All” (1986), to express that a preference given to the vulnerable is beneficial to all. While the “option for the poor” means “the needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich,” it is “not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another. Rather it states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community.”
This phrase, birthed in extreme suffering, violence and struggle, is now explicitly recognized as central to the church’s teaching, found even in the Catechism as the “preferential love for the poor.” Pope John Paul II insisted in Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987): “the option or love of preference for the poor … is a special form of primacy …to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness.” It is accepted teaching, despite the opposition who claimed that such an explicit preference for one group cannot be granted if the church is to be a vehicle of grace for all. Rather, it is precisely the specificity of God’s preference that reveals God’s love for all.
The church sees this most clearly in God’s election of Jesus; in the particularity of this poor, Jewish laborer, God demonstrates God’s love for all the world. As Oscar Romero declared in 1980, God in Jesus is an incarnation in specificity. “I am not speaking of a universal incarnation. This is impossible. I am speaking of an incarnation that is preferential and partial: incarnation in the world of the poor.”
The specificity of God’s election for the purpose of universal redemption can be traced to the call of Abram, a promise to a particular man and his wife, a wandering, childless and aged couple. Repeatedly in their narrative God says that because of this covenant “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.” God’s declaration of love, of human worth and dignity, hasn’t come as a sweeping generalization (that would only affirm the status quo), but is made known through a specific preference for the vulnerable: from Abram, to the covenant with liberated Hebrew slaves, to the incarnation in the womb of Mary.
We find ourselves in a moment not dissimilar to that of Medellín. Prophetic voices around the nation are calling our attention to the extremes of inequity and the vulnerability of those with black skin to unnecessary force in encounters with police and with average citizens who claim with impunity a right to the lives of black men, women, boys and girls.
And when voices rise that specify the lives of black people matter, they are rebuffed by a charge that all lives matter, ignorant in their condescension that it is exactly the specificity of “black lives matter” that affirms “all lives matter.” To silence the declaration that black lives matter is, like those critics of Medellín, to prefer a status quo that degrades, devalues and dehumanizes fellow humans. It is through the elevation of the most vulnerable among us that we affirm God’s will for life, for dignity and for the flourishing of all humanity.
(Lisa Powell, PhD, is a professor and chair of the Theology Department at St. Ambrose University in Davenport and a Women and Gender Studies Affiliate.)