Option for the poor

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The option for the poor or the preferential option for the poor is one of the basic principles of the Catholic social teaching as articulated in the 20th century.

Theological significance

According to proponents of this principle, the "[preferential] option for the poor" refers to a trend, throughout the Judeo-Christian Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people. Jesus taught that on the Day of Judgment, God will ask what each person did to help the poor and needy: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."[1] This is reflected in Catholic canon law, which states, "The Christian faithful are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor."[2]

According to said doctrine, through one's words, prayers and deeds one must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor. Therefore, when instituting public policy one must always keep the "preferential option for the poor" at the forefront of one's mind. Accordingly, this doctrine implies that the moral test of any society is "how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.".[3]

Pope Benedict XVI has taught that “love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel”.[4] This preferential option for the poor and vulnerable includes all who are marginalized in society, including unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, and victims of injustice and oppression.

Origin and usage

The phrase "option for the poor" was used by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1968 in a letter to the Jesuits of Latin America.

The principle was articulated by the Catholic Bishops of Latin America (CELAM) at the influential conferences in Medellin and Puebla, as well as by several popes, particularly Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus annus (1991) elaborates on this principle, declaring it "not limited to material poverty but encompasses cultural and spiritual poverty as well."[5]

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church published by the Roman Curia summarizes the principle.[6]

Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium includes a section on "The special place of the poor in God’s people" in which he noted that "Without the preferential option for the poor, 'the proclamation of the Gospel … risks being misunderstood or submerged'."[7]

Liberation theology debate

In its origins, the concept was connected with the liberation theology movement of the mid-20th century. As a developed theological principle, the option for the poor was first articulated by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P. in his landmark work, A Theology of Liberation (1971). Gutierrez asserts that the principle is rooted in both the Old and New Testaments and claims that a preferential concern for the physical and spiritual welfare of the poor is an essential element of the Gospel.

In the mid-1980s, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, led the effort by the Holy See to stop liberation theology, which he viewed as a form of Marxism. In August 1984, shortly before the release of the official view of the Holy See, he strongly criticized several arguments of liberation theology in a private document to theologians leaked to the press.[8] Ratzinger believed that liberation theologians contend that Christians must engage in a class struggle (in the Marxist sense) in the present to break down the gulf between rich and poor.[citation needed] As summarized by Cardinal Ratzinger, "The biblical concept of the poor provides a starting point for fusing the Bible's view of history with marxist dialectic; it is interpreted by the idea of the proletariat in the marxist sense and thus justifies marxism as the legitimate hermeneutics for understanding the Bible."[8]

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (of which Ratzinger was the Prefect) formulated the official Vatican view in "Instruction on Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation'". Its "limited and precise purpose: to draw the attention of pastors, theologians, and all the faithful to the deviations, and risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living, that are brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought." The Instruction elaborated that it was not a disavowal of people who were responding to "the 'preferential option for the poor.' It should not at all serve as an excuse for those who maintain the attitude of neutrality and indifference in the face of the tragic and pressing problems of human misery and injustice."[9]

The Instruction implied that some liberation theologians supported methods similar to the deprivation of people's freedoms by totalitarian regimes in the name of liberation. It charged that these supporters "betray the very poor they mean to help."[10]

Jesuit theologian Enrique Nardoni has argued at length in his exhaustive study, Rise Up, O Judge, that the Bible as a whole and its cultural context support a preferential option for the poor.[11]

Several representatives of liberation theology use the option for the poor also as a criterion for assessing environmental conflicts. Arguing that the consequences of environmental degradation are distributed unequally and concern the developing countries and the poor to a greater extend as the industrialized countries that caused the problem, authors like Leonardo Boff[12] urge the Church to get engaged in environment policy advocacy and to act as a lawyer on the side of the poor and marginalized. A position paper of the German Bishops' Conference on Climate Change (2007) therefore pleads for applying the option for the poor also to the victims of climate change (no. 40).[13]


  1. Matthew 25:40.
  2. 1983 CIC, canon 222 §2.
  3. Option for the Poor, Major themes from Catholic Social Teaching, Office for Social Justice, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
  4. Deus Caritas Est §22.
  5. Paragraph 57.
  6. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Paragraphs 182-184.
  7. Evangelii gaudium, Paragraph 199.
  8. 8.0 8.1 The Ratzinger Report, by Vittorio Messori, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1985
  9. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (6 Aug 1984). "Instructio de quibusdam rationibus "Theologiae Liberationis"" (English translation). Acta Apostolicae Sedis. Vatican City. 76: 876–909. ISSN 0001-5199. Retrieved 10 December 2011. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help); Unknown parameter |trans_title= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Prefect) (6 Aug 1984). "By the same token, the overthrow by means of revolutionary violence of structures which generate violence is not ipso facto the beginning of a just regime. A major fact of our time ought to evoke the reflection of all those who would sincerely work for the true liberation of their brothers: millions of our own contemporaries legitimately yearn to recover those basic freedoms of which they were deprived by totalitarian and atheistic regimes which came to power by violent and revolutionary means, precisely in the name of the liberation of the people. This shame of our time cannot be ignored: while claiming to bring them freedom, these regimes keep whole nations in conditions of servitude which are unworthy of mankind. Those who, perhaps inadvertently, make themselves accomplices of similar enslavements betray the very poor they mean to help."
  11. Enrique Nardoni, translated by Sean Martin (2004). Rise Up, O Judge: A Study of Justice in the Biblical World. Baker Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Leonardo Boff: Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. Maryknoll 1997. ISBN 978-1570751363
  13. Commission for Society and Social Affairs/Commission for International Church Affairs: Climate Change: A Focal Point of Global, Intergenerational and Ecological Justice. 2nd, updated edition, Bonn 2007. Cf. Thorsten Philipp, Gruenzonen einer Lerngemeinschaft: Umweltschutz als Handlungs-, Wirkungs- und Erfahrungsort der Kirche. Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3865811776, p. 183-185.