Concilium

4. Preferential option for the poor

In Pope Francis’s documents, mercy is the ultimate foundation of ‘the preferential option for the poor’. 

The phrase ‘option for the poor’ was coined by then superior general Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) in 1968 in a letter to his brothers Jesuits in Latin America. It was picked up in the closing document of the third assembly of the Conference of the Bishops of Latin America (CELAM) in Puebla in 1979, with the addition of the adjective ‘preferential’. The notion became the object of a deep controversy. Fearing that its use in liberation theology would darken the universality of the Christian message and introduce divisions along the lines of social classes, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith challenged the term.[18] Eventually, however, the notion was appropriated by Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and again in his Encyclical Centesimus Annus.  It became part of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.[19] In his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI does not use ‘preferential option for the poor’, but in line with the documents written by his predecessor, he emphasizes the specific responsibility of the Church towards the poor as an outcome of charity.[20]

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis returns to the roots of the preferential option for the poor in liberation theology.[21] Quoting his predecessors, , he nevertheless breaks with their tendency to consider the option for the poor faith’s charitable consequence. He locates it in the heart of faith. The God Christians confess, Francis stresses, ‘has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself “became poor”’ in Jesus Christ, as the apostle Paul points out (2 Cor. 8:9). Evangelii Gaudium indicates how the revelatory history of Jesus Christ was intimately connected to the world of the poor (no. 197). Although they are in need of help, their role is by no means restricted to witnessing to the fact that Christians have to be charitable and share their possessions with those in need. In a highly remarkable passage, Pope Francis writes that he wants a Church ‘which is poor and for the poor’, because 

[the poor] have much to teach us. (…) in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. (…) We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them (no. 198).

Ultimately it is not what we give to them that is crucial, but what we are able to see as their gift to us. To see the poor as people who contribute to our lives and our salvation, requires what Pope Francis calls mercy. To see the need for mercy is to be worthy of mercy.

Of course the poor do need help, both to survive and to overcome the unjust structures that make and keep them at the margins of society. However, Pope Francis stresses that what first of all is needed is a loving attentiveness to their fate that inspires true concern and seeking their good as one’s own: 

The poor person, when loved, is esteemed as of great value, and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one’s own personal or political interest. Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation (no. 199). 

Thus the poor, the excluded and marginalized, those who live in what Pope Francis elsewhere has called the periphery, become resources for the liberation of the rich, the powerful and those at the center of things. In an interview in 2014 on the significance of the religious life, Francis stated: 

I am convinced of one thing: the great changes of history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but rather from the periphery. Truly to understand reality we need to move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas.[22]

Going to the periphery is going where Jesus went, according to Pope Francis. Having mercy with the poor, the vulnerable and the excluded in the sense of connecting with them and considering them as one’s own, is imitatio Christi.[23]

5. Liberating grace        

Among liberation theologians, Gustavo Gutiérrez in particular has always stressed God’s preferential option for the poor as pure grace. There is no intrinsic reason for the poor to be loved, in particular loved by God: they are not better human beings, not more virtuous that those who do have enough to survive and participate fully in society.[24] Pope Francis specifies grace as mercy. Their empty hands and empty stomachs make them open for his love, and God gives the poor and the excluded his merciful love, thus making them first in receiving the kingdom of heaven.[25] Human beings who follow God in his mercy and ally themselves with tthe poor will be their co-heirs. From the periphery they will receive God’s breath of life that – in the words of Pope Francis – saves from 

the stifling asphyxia brought on by our selfishness, the stifling asphyxia generated by petty ambition and silent indifference – an asphyxia that smothers the spirit, narrows our horizons and slows the beating of our hearts. The breath of God’s life saves us from this asphyxia that dampens our faith, cools our charity and strangles every hope.[26]

People in the center have grown ‘accustomed to breathing air in which hope has dissipated, the air of glumness and resignation, the stifling air of panic and hostility’. Mercy brings down the wall that separates them from those who are excluded and perceived as dangerous. It teaches them to see with their eyes, hear with their ears and feel with true awareness. Thus new necessities come to the fore, new needs and possibilities, new perspectives. In a small variation on what Pope Francis said in the American Congress: If we want mercy, we have to give mercy.[27]


[18] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Instruction on certain aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’ Libertatis Nuntius (6 August 1984); idem, Instruction on Christian freedom and liberation Libertatis conscientia  (22 March 1986).

[19] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (30 December 1987), no. 42 and 47; idem, Encyclical letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), no. 11 and 57Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2 April 2004), no 182-184.

[20] Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (25 December 2005), esp. no. 26-29 and 31. Benedict XVI does use the expression ‘preferential option for the poor’ in his address at the inaugural session of the fifth General Conference fifth general assembly of the Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida (13 May 2007), no. 3.

[21] For Pope Francis’ connection with liberation theology, cf. A. Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, London: Allen & Unwin 2014, esp. 89-123.

[22] A. Spadaro, ‘“Wake up the World”. Conversation with Pope Francis about the Religious Life’, originele tekst in La civilta cattolica 2014 no. 1, 3-17; for the Engelse translation, see <http://jpicformation.wikispaces.com/file/view/Wake_up_the_world-2.pdf/495026180/Wake_up_the_world-2.pdf>, quotation 3-4.

[23] Spadaro, ‘“Wake up the World”’, 5.

[24] Cf. in particular G. Gutiérrez, We Drink from Our Own Well: The Spiritual Journey of a People, Maryknoll 1984 (1983), 107-113: ‘Gratuitousness: The Atmosphere for Efficacy’; idem, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, Maryknoll 1987 (1985). 

[25] See for instance the meditation at the Angelus on Saint Peter Square on Mt. 5:1-12 (29 January 2017).

[26] Pope Francis, Homily at the celebration of Ash Wednesday (1 March 2017).

[27] Pope Francis, “Address of the Holy Father,” Visit to the Joint Session of the United States Congress, Spetember 24, 2015.

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