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Preferential Option for the Poor’

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 5282 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Meaning of the phrase


The phrase ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’’ is mentioned frequently in CST. It is also sometimes referred to as ‘Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable’ or ‘Preferential Option for the Poor and Marginalised’.  It is a phrase whose exact meaning is not often defined. It may be that an exact definition is not possible. But for the purposes of this present work a working explanation of what it might represent is desirable.

As a start, it might be useful to define ‘poor’ in the current context, and the following explanation by Gustavo Gutierrez is helpful:

What does being poor mean? I believe that a good definition does not exist, but we can approximate it if we say the poor are the non-persons, the insignificant ones, the ones that don’t count either for the rest of society or – far too frequently – for the Christin churches. For example, the poor are the ones who have to wait for a week at the door of the hospital to see the physician, the poor are the ones who have no social or economic relevance, the ones disowned by means of unfair laws; the poor are the ones who have no possibility to speak to change their predicament; the poor are the ones who constitutes a despised and culturally marginalized race. At best the poor are present in statistics, but they do not appear in society with proper names. We do not know the names of the poor. They are and remain anonymous. (Gutierrez, 1997, p71)

Therefore, if the poor are as described above, what does the preferential option mean for them?

In re-examining the basic principles of CST, one sees that it teaches that every human being has a right to those things in life which sustain and nurture him or her and contribute to each individual’s integral human development: food, shelter, employment, a dignified and respected place in society. It is also apparent that, according to the principle of Solidarity, the injustices and structures which prevent or inhibit these conditions should be challenged.  The ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’ also recognises this necessity. But it goes a little bit further.  While fully cognisant that long term solutions are important and desirable, it also acknowledges that in the meantime there are people who are without the necessities of life and that their need is urgent; therefore, a conscious attempt must be made to try to ameliorate their situation:  we must take a ‘Preferential Option’ on their behalf; they are in special need, and therefore have a special claim on Christians. The Preferential Option recognises this claim.

Donal Dorr describes it thus:

An option for the poor is a commitment by individual Christians and the Christian community at every level to engage actively in a struggle to overcome the social injustices that mar our world. (Dorr, p 8).

In a similar vein, Gustavo Gutierrez has written that the Preferential Option is ‘the free commitment of a decision.’ He continues, ‘it is a matter of a deep, ongoing solidarity, a voluntary daily involvement with the world of the poor.’ (Gutierrez, 2015, p 806-807).

The point is not that the poor are better or more loved by God but simply that they are in circumstances which urgently need to be rectified. Gutierrez puts it this way: ‘The very term preference obviously precludes any exclusivity; it simply points to who ought to be first – not the only – objects of our solidarity.’ (Gutierrez, 2015, p778).

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Pope St. John Paul II expressed this as ‘primacy.’ He wrote, ‘This is a Preferential Option, a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness.’ ((John Paul II, 1987, parag 42.) The Compendium of Social Doctrine states that ‘the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern.’ (parag 182).

In 1986 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, (USCCB) explained what they hoped a commitment to the Preferential Option for the Poor would mean for society:

The primary purpose of this special commitment to the poor is to enable them to become active participants in the life of society. It is to enable all persons to share in and contribute to the common good. (USCCB, Economic Justice for All, no. 88)

Origin of the phrase

In 1965, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) which was issued at the very end of the Second Vatican Council, urged Church members to consider the challenges presented by the contemporary world and how they related to their faith:

The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. (Parag. 4)

Those taking this duty seriously identified societal issues and problems which needed pastoral attention or action. One of these was widespread, and in some cases overwhelming, poverty. In particular, liberation theologians and Bishops of South America were aware of the plight of the poor and dispossessed in their countries[1].  Three years after the end of the Vatican Council, at a CELAM conference in 1968  in Medellín in Columbia, those Bishops began a discussion from which emerged the Option for the Poor at Puebla in 1979.[2] Gustavo Gutierrez, active in the discussions at the time, has described the origin and evolution of the phrase thus: 

The precise term was born sometime between the Latin American bishops’ conferences in Medellín (1968) and in Puebla (1979). In Medellín, the three words (option, preference, poor) are all present, but it was only in the years immediately following Medellín that we brought these words into a complete phrase. It would be accurate to say that the term “preferential option for the poor” comes from the Latin American church, but the content, the underlying intuition, is entirely biblical. [3]

Later, despite his opposition to liberation theology, Pope John Paul II began to use the phrase:

A consistent theme of Catholic social teaching is the option or love of preference for the poor. (John Paul II, 1987, parag 42.)

This was he said: 

           …an option, or a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods. (John Paul II, 1987, parag 42.)

It is this definition which has come to be accepted within the Catholic Social Teaching tradition.

The Scriptural Basis of the Preferential Option for the Poor

As Gustavo Gutierrez intimated above, the ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’ is a concept which has deep scriptural roots; both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament illustrate an abiding concern for the poor.

Within the Hebrew Bible, Horsley has stated that ‘the legal collections (Covenant Code, Holiness Code, and most of Deuteronomy) in the books of the Torah/ Pentateuch … are covenantal customs, laws, and measures to guide social-economic life in Israelite society,’ (Horsley 2015, p. 17) and as such they regularly exhorted God’s people to have compassion for the poor, to be welcoming to the stranger, to act justly.

There are very many instances of this, but the following few examples may be illustrative.

 They demanded assistance to the poor that involved giving to the poor ‘whatever they need’ (Deuteronomy 15:8). It emphasised that this way of life was a mark of fidelity to God

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17).

Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord’ (Jeremiah 22:15-16).

In the Book of Leviticus, which can be read as a kind of instruction manual for how the people were to live in accordance with God’s wishes, the emphasis on the ritual, legal and moral practice of the nation also included treatment of the stranger and the poor:

When you gather the harvest in your country, you are not to harvest to the very end of your field, and you are not to gather the gleanings of the harvest. You are to leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am Yahweh your God. (Leviticus 23:22)

And in Deuteronomy, in the series of curses from Mount Ebal, one of them concerns the treatment of the poor:

A curse on him who tampers with the rights of the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  (Deuteronomy 27:20)

And God is seen as a defender of the poor:

‘Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord; ‘I will place him in the safety for which he longs.’ (Psalm 12:5)

The prophetic literature emphasised sympathy for the poor and the prophets, as the messengers of God, frequently spoke out on their behalf. They explicitly called both rulers and citizens to uphold the cause of the poor and needy, and berated them for violating the Law concerning them. Shalum, son of King Josiah, for failing to live up to his father’s standards was reprimanded:

He (Josiah) defended the cause of the poor and needy and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me? “declares the Lord. “But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion. (Jeremiah 22:16)

And in the course of these exhortations, the prophets reveal what God truly wants. Questioned by the people as to whether they need to fast, Zechariah reports God saying:

When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just fasting for yourselves? (Zechariah 7:5-7)

And gave God’s response:

The Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. (Zechariah 7:8)

A similar sentiment is echoed in Isaiah. The people think that by fasting they will please God and thus bring them favour. Isaiah disturbs this view by telling them that what they are doing – ie fasting – and making a show of it – is not what God wants.

Is that the sort of fast that pleases me, a truly penitential day for men? Hanging your head like a reed, lying down on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call fasting, a day acceptable to Yahweh? Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me – it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks – to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the man you see to be naked and not turn from your own kin?

The sacrifices God wants are ones of charity and justice. It is a warning that religious practice is not acceptable if not accompanied by an effort to help those in need.

In the New Testament Christ’s own concern for justice and for the poor and marginalised is evident. Jesus first and foremost proclaimed the Good News to the poor. He performed miracles for them. He mixed with with poor people, including those who were despised and alienated from society: lepers, tax collectors.

When, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus went to the synagogue, he read out what was in effect his mission statement:

He came to Nazara, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day as he usually did. He stood up to read and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written: The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour. (Luke 4:16-19)[4]

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In the Gospel of Matthew where Christ describes the final judgement, he reiterates this concern for the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, stressing to those listening that their salvation depends on how they have treated the poor because ‘in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40) It is a reminder to his followers that concern for others is what is important, a fulfilling of the New Commandment to love one another. (John 13:34). in the Gospel of Luke. where concern for the poor is much in evidence (Miller, 2014). Jesus emphasises consequences of indifference to the plight of others in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) and praises Zacchaeus the tax collector for renouncing his previous selfish ways (Luke: 19:8)

In the early church at Jerusalem, the believers “held all things in common” (Acts 4:32) and where necessary sold their property to help those in poverty.  As Paul and Barnabas set out on their evangelizing mission, the Apostles’ only instruction to them  ‘was that we should remember to help the poor, as indeed I was anxious to do.’ (Galatians 2: 9-10). The letter of James puts it very directly

Take the case, my brothers, of someone who has never done a single good act but claims that he has faith. Will that faith save him? If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, “I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty,” without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that? Faith is like that: if good works do not go with it, it is quite dead. (James 2:14-18).

Indeed, the letter of James shows the complementary nature of faith and practical application: ‘Do realize, you senseless man, that faith without good deeds is useless. (James 2:22).

The Poor in Church History

A necessarily brief examination of the church’s attitude to the poor may help to contextualise current attitudes and thinking on the topic.

In general, poverty has been an historically useful concept for the people of God. For the rich person, helping the poor presented to them a means of attaining holiness in this life and salvation in the next. As for the poor: they themselves were integral to the story of Christianity: Christ was poor, as were his disciples and followers. Jesus’s words about the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom seemed to elevate the poor to a special place in God’s plan. Acting complementarily, both sides could benefit: the rich could give to the poor and the poor could receive, the giver displaying charity, the receiver humility.

Rebecca Weaver states that there were two features which figured prominently in the attitudes of the early church towards poverty, and that ‘frequent repetition of these two features suggests that the practice of almsgiving and negative attitudes toward the rich must have been prominent components in the thinking of early Christians.’  (Weaver, p 368). These features are:

First, a persistent call to almsgiving was coupled with the promise of divine reward. Second, the very persons to whom this exhortation and promise were most explicitly directed, rich Christians, were treated with considerable ambivalence. An undertone of misgiving pervades references to the wealthy.

St Augustine, (354-430) Bishop of Hippo notes the ‘divine reward’ element. He encourages the poor to ask the rich for help and also pointed out that this was a way the wealthy might attain salvation:

Support the temporal life of the poor man, sustain the poor man’s present life, and for this so small and earthly seed you shall receive for harvest life eternal. (Sermon 64),

If we are all passing away, let us do something which cannot pass away, that when we shall have passed away, and have come there whence we may not pass away, we may find our good works there. Christ is the keeper, why do you fear lest you should lose what you spend on the poor? (Sermon 61).

The following quotation from St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the fourth century, reflects the ambivalence toward the rich which Weaver mentions. (And also a very contemporary attitude toward the universal destination of goods.)[5] He notes that the rich have appropriated goods for themselves and challenges their attitude towards charity and almsgiving:

God created the universe in such a manner that all in common might derive their food from it, and that the earth should also be a property common to all. Why do you reject one who has the same rights over nature as you? It is not from your own goods that you give to the beggar; it is a portion of his own that you are restoring to him. The earth belongs to all. So you are paying back a debt and think you are making a gift to which you are not bound. (De Nabuthe, c. 12, n. 53. Quoted in Ryan (1903, p32.)

These views and those of others church fathers, has led Brodman to conclude that ‘religious charity’ goes ‘all the way back to the patristic era,’ (Brodman p 43). He notes that while its practices and effects can be detected in the early medieval period, its fullest expression came with the expansion of the monastic tradition from the twelfth century onwards. Monks and nuns performed many charitable services: housed travellers, nursed the sick, assisted the poor.

This situation continued even after the Reformation. In his examination of the post reformation forms of charity, Kahl has stated:

Northern Protestant countries came to be characterized by schemes predominantly initiated by the local and central governments, whereas the southern Catholic parts of Europe saw a re-enforcement of traditional poor relief, the creation of Catholic institutions for this purpose, and a new lay of clerical orders dedicated to the poor and sick. (Kahl,p 98).

It could be argued that this distinction arose and endured because of the lack of religious orders in Protestant countries. The responsibility for poor relief, now in the hands of civic authorities, resulted in the establishment of poor law legislation across many parts of Europe. In Scotland for example, where the relief of the poor was the responsibility of the parish and the local landlord, the Old Poor Law lasted from the late sixteenth century till the mid nineteenth century. However, within Catholicism, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) confirmed the principle of what might be termed ecclesiastical charity and laid down some precepts. It enjoined bishops and other clerics to have ‘a fatherly care of the poor and of other distressed persons,’ to set up ecclesiastical schools where the children of the poor were to be given preference, and to give alms to the poor.[6] A number of new religious orders sere set up whose broad aim was poor relief: (Ursulines 1535); Visitation Order (1610); Daughters of Charity (1633).

From the Council of Trent until Vatican II, a period of 500 years, the Church remained almost unchanged, as did its practices of poor relief. Its religious orders and institutes continued to provide hospitals, schools, and charity.   New religious orders whose charisms and ministries involved the poor continued to appear: the Little Sisters of the Poor (1839); Hospitaller Sisters (1881). To these efforts can be added societies and charitable institutions operating under the auspices of Catholicism, and very often run and staffed by lay people:  the St Vincent de Paul Society (1833); the Apostleship of the Sea (1920); the Legion of Mary (1921).

The emergence of the welfare state considerably lessened the requirement for relief provided by religious organisations. Nevertheless, as we proceed though the twenty first century, it is apparent that, while diminished, and certainly taking on new forms, the need is still there.

Why adopt the Preferential Option for the Poor?

As indicated earlier, for Christians the scriptural basis of the principle is strong and unavoidable: care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, featured prominently in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  Making a preferential option for the poor then is a way of carrying out the imperatives laid on believers who wish to live by the Word of God. Canon 222:2 has stated this unequivocally: ‘They (the laity) are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources’.[7]

Secondly, the church has now signposted the option for the poor as part of the church’s evangelising mission. Pope John XXIII at the beginning of the Vatican Council asserted that the Bishops’ aims were to redefine – and act upon – a renewed mission of the Church in a world facing many social problems:

She wishes to be the Church of all, and especially the Church of the poor; the miseries of social life which cry for vengeance in the sight of God – all this must be recalled and deplored; the impelling duty of the Christian…to see to it that the administration and distribution of created goods are placed at the advantage of all; …this is called the spread of the social and community sense which is innate in true Christianity. And this is to be energetically put into action. [8]

In fact, Gustavo Gutierrez maintains that poverty is a barrier to evangelisation:

Poverty’s inhumane and antievangelical character, as Medellín and Puebla put it, and its final outcome of early and unjust death make it totally clear that poverty goes beyond the socioeconomic sphere to become a global human problem and therefore a challenge to living and preaching the gospel. Poverty thereby becomes a theological question, and the option for the poor makes us aware of it and provides a way to think about the issue. (Gutierrez 2009, p 322)

Furthermore, if we look at other elements of CST, the most basic CST principle is that is that of human dignity. The ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’ facilitates a determined attempt to create and encourage human dignity for those whose circumstances have deprived them of it. This does not only apply to people who are economically or materially disadvantaged, though clearly this is an important part of the concept; it also includes those who experience poverty other ways: those who are considered insignificant or unimportant in society, those who may be at risk or in danger, those who are ill or lonely; those whose lives lack meaning.  It is this which gives the principle a unique power and allows and encourages Christians respond to an all embracing concept of poverty which does not stop at the materially poor.

Problems associated with the ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’

This particular CST theme, this’ preferential option’ for one particular group in society, may be controversial and/or problematic for Christians, as well as for others.  Stephen Pope in an article which discusses some of the complaints directed at the concept, has referred to this as ‘unjust partiality.’ (Pope, p 242). He writes

It violates justice by requiring that Christians champion the side of the poor in every case of political conflict regardless of the concrete facts of the matter… (it) also assumes that poverty is a privileged source of religious truth.  (Pope p 244)

And underlying all the criticism, is the view ‘that the Preferential Option advocates an unjustifiable partiality or bias in favour of the poor’ (p. 242).

There may be some merit in these views.  At its most simplistic level, this principle could imply a favouritism which could be interpreted as discriminatory or unfair; it could imply that God prefers one section of society over another. 

But Pope himself concludes that this preference or partiality is justifiable when ‘it contributes to our recognition of the dignity of every human being.’ (Pope p. 265).  And Gustavo Gutierrez writes that ‘the very term preference precludes any exclusivity; it simply points to those who ought to be the first – not the only – objects of our solidarity’. (Gutierrez 2015)

 The ‘‘Preferential Option for the Poor’’ does not mean that there is one section of society better than another, but just as Solidarity does when it asks us to work for change in our economic and social structures, it calls us to strengthen the whole community by helping those who are most vulnerable.


  • BRODMAN, J. W. 2011. The Pious and the Practical. In: BRODMAN, J. W. (ed.) Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe. Baltimore: Catholic University of America Press.
  • BROWN, P. 2012. Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
  • CURNOW, R. 2015. Which preferential option for the poor? a history of the doctrine’s bifurcation. Modern Theology 31.
  • DORR, D. 2012. Option for the Poor and for the Earth, New York, Orbis.
  • EAGLESON, J. S., PHILIP (ed.) 1980. Puebla and Beyond, New York: Orbis.
  • GOETZ, H.-W. 1993. Monasteries and Monastic Life. Life in the Middle Ages: from the seventh to the thirteenth century. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • GROODY, D. (ed.) 2007. The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology, Indiana: Notre Dame Press.
  • GUSTAVO, G. 2009. The Option for the Poor arises from faith in Christ Theological Studies 70, 317-326.
  • GUTIERREZ, G. 1974. A Theology of Liberation., London, SCM.
  • GUTIERREZ, G. 1997. Renewing the Option for the Poor. In: BATSTONE, D. (ed.) Liberation Theologies, Postmodernity and the Americas New York: Routledge.
  • GUTIERREZ, G. 2015. The Option for the Poor. In: SOBRINO, J. and IGNACIO, E (ed.) Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology Orbis.
  • JOHN PAUL II. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis [Online]. Available: http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_30121987_sollicitudo-rei-socialis.html [Accessed 12th November 2018].
  • KAHL, S. 2005. The Religious Roots of Modern Poverty Policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant Traditions Compared [Online]. Available: http://www.mpifg.de/pu/doks/kahl_religious_roots.pdf [Accessed 7th November 2018].
  • PEACE, C. C. P. C. F. J. A. 2004. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, London: Burns and Oates.
  • PERLMUTTER, H. 2016. The Attitude to Poverty and the Poor in Early Rabbinic Sources (70-250 CE) Journal for the Study of Judaism, 47 411- 438.
  • PIETRZAK, A. 2017. The Preferential Option for the Poor and Credibility of the Church. Roczniki Teologiczne, 64, 87-98.
  • PULLAN, B. 2005. Catholics, Protestants, and the Poor in Early Modern Europe. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 35, 441-456.
  • WEAVER, R. H. 1987. Wealth and Poverty in the Early Church. Interpretation: a journal of Bible and Theology, 41, 368-381.

[1] Liberation theology was a religious movement in the late 20th-century. Emanating from Central and Southern America, it promoted the Christian duty to help the poor, oppressed and marginalised through involvement in social, civic and political issues and causes.

[2] These conferences were those of the Latin American Episcopal Council, known in Spanish as Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano and abbreviated to CELAM.

[3] Hartnett, D. (2003) Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez. America: the Jesuit Review. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2003/02/03/remembering-poor-interview-gustavo-gutierrez. Accessed 12th November 2018.

[4] All biblical references are from the Jerusalem Bible, 1966. http://www.seraphim.my/bible/

[5] A principle of catholic theology which teaches that God created the earth and all it contains for the benefit of everyone. Therefore, each person has a right to have and to access to those things necessary for full integral human development. It does, however, recognise the right of the individual to private property.

[6] The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848). http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1545-1545,_Concilium_Tridentinum,_Canons_And_Decrees,_EN.pdf

[7] Code of Canon Law. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__PU.HTM

[8] Pope John XIII. (0ctober, 1962). Address at the Opening of Vatican Council: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=3233


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