Teaching on the Preferential Option for the Poor
Jesus tells his disciples they are not to impress people by their authority but by their willingness to put themselves at the service of others. A disciple doesn’t brag, “I’m the one in charge.” Jesus came to serve the least of his brothers and sisters. In doing so, he fulfilled what Isaiah said, having come to “bring good tidings to the poor…to let the oppressed go free.” “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Any authority we have is based on service. Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Over the past forty-five years, this has become a mantra of the Latin American Church. Since the Medellín Conference of 1968, the Latin American Bishops, with papal assistance, have spoken of liberation of the poor and their exploitation by capitalist development. The poor are not the primary beneficiaries of economic progress. Rather, they are often its victims. Human dignity was fundamental to any social teaching by Pope Paul VI. Best expressed in his 1967 encyclical On the Development of Peoples, in which he teaches that true progress is the human person fully alive. This can’t happen if the majority of human persons live in extreme poverty. In his teachings, he connected equality and participation with human dignity and freedom. Thus, Paul VI encouraged Christian communities to reflect on this reality and to take political action to build a better society.
Paul VI opened the Medellín Conference exhorting the Latin American Bishops to put the human person first—all other goods subordinate to human advancement. Bishops were challenged to regard the political as well as the spiritual implications of taking up the cause of the poor. This was a shift in Catholic social teaching. Paul didn’t exhort the poor to practice patience and await reward in heaven. And he challenged the wealthy to share more than just surplus goods by carrying out the preferential love of Jesus for the poor (Luke 4:16–18). In reference to the common good, Paul VI points to the Catholic tradition that teaches the goods of the earth should be shared by all, not just a few. He says government has a responsibility to all. In his apostolic letter on the eightieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), Paul wrote: “Political power, which is the natural and necessary link for ensuring the cohesion of the social body, must have as its aim the achievement of the common good.” This requires a great respect of the human person in his or her fundamental and inalienable rights and the understanding that the well-being of the community or society must be integrated with these rights.