God’s Preferential Option for the Poor
The preferential option for the poor is a central aspect of liberation theologies and modern Catholic Social Teaching. However, the meaning of the preferential option is not an entirely clear one. What do we mean by “preferential,” “option,” or even “poor”? Both Gustavo Gutiérrez and John Paul II use the phrase “preferential love” as well. The preferential option is complex and multifaceted. Here I would like to explore what it means to say that God makes a preferential option or has a preferential love for the poor (with the help of an excellent essay by Stephen Pope [“Proper and Improper Partiality and the Preferential Option for the Poor,” TS 54 (1993): 242-271]).
The basic claim of the preferential option (or love) is that God loves the poor more than others simply due to their poverty and not due to their moral uprightness or holiness; they are “God’s favorites” (John Paul II) (complicating this are the Anawim, who are praised in the Hebrew Bible for their response of openness and gratitude to God even within their poverty and suffering – but we’ll leave this to the side). But what does “preferential love” mean in light of God’s universal salvific will and the universal significance of the death of Christ? Isn’t God’s love shown for all when, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”?
Pope argues that we must clarify God’s “preferential love” with another concept: care. Care is the response of love to someone in need. Love necessarily involves care in the face of suffering but it is not reduced to care since love can exist in the absence of need. Thus, it would be more accurate to speak of God’s “preferential care” or “preferential loving care” towards those in need. The latter would preserve the fact that the source of the preferential option is love but without seeming to limit the scope of divine love. The parables of the Good Samaritan, the Last Judgment, and Lazarus and the Rich Man all point to God’s preferential care for those in need; and “need” (and thus care) should not be restricted to material poverty as is shown by Jesus’ invitation to the outcasts, women, and tax-collectors. God’s preferential care extends to all victims and “non-persons” of history. Furthermore, this divine praxis of preferential care is not only grace for those who receive it but also a demand for those who follow Christ.
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