Preferential Option for the Poor, Take Two

Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the Kingdom of God is theirs.” Jesus instructs his followers to engage in corporal and spiritual works of mercy, including feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. And Jesus warns his flock: “What you do onto the least of your brothers, you do onto me.”

In modern Catholic social-justice theory, good Christians must put the needs of the poor at the top of moral ratiocination. We must give a “preferential option” for the poor, as it were. Particularly in matters governing man’s relationship to man, protecting the poor and ameliorating their plight must always be paramount.

It’s a commonplace of secular contemporary socioeconomic discourse to ascribe various government-intensive solutions to address the plight of the poor. You see this in the “War on Poverty,” various social-welfare programs, the burgeoning diversity movement, anti-poverty activism and direct-transfer payments from the wealthy to support programs for the poor.

In “Preferential Option for the Poor,” new First Things editor R.R. Reno raises a salient point about this bedrock principle of Catholic social justice. He notes that we almost never consider poverty in anything but raw economic terms: No one seems much to care about moral and spiritual poverty. Reno’s conclusion is that a more holistic understanding of “the poor” will lead us to a conservative social agenda that favors stabilizing families, nurturing shared community norms and enriching public culture.

The problem, as I read Reno’s perspective, is that a secular “preferential option” focuses on economic conditions, leaving moral poverty to libertine impulses. “Who are we to judge?” after all. Yet this bastardizes a properly Christian conception of care for the poor; what good does it do to provide material benefits to a family without the the moral sense to make sound long-term decisions? For example, why should the state subsidize pregnancies among single low-income women without also teaching them the virtue of chastity?

Poverty of spirit is just as dangerous and just as open to repair as material poverty, yet left-wing activists encourage redistribution and big-government schemes to repair the latter while paying the former no heed. Is that virtuous? Or is it a bastardization of the full and authentic meaning of the “preferential option?”

Reno’s analysis is spot-on, and well-worth the read. Were I to add anything to his commentary, it would merely be this: Even if you do focus only on helping the poor in a material sense, the virtue that attaches comes from doing it yourself. There is no real spiritual benefit to paying higher taxes to fund a government redistribution of wealth. The spiritual and moral benefit to helping the poor comes from working the soup kitchen or rape crisis center. It doesn’t come from mere advocacy or from writing a check.

Jesus also said: “Woe to the rich, for they have already enjoyed their reward.” Woe also to the armchair liberal who would rather be seen to be virtuous among his peers while doing very little to help the poor in the ways that matter most. They have already enjoyed their reward.

News Roundup III

Of interest —

  • Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City argues that making illegal immigrants pay a fine, catch up on back taxes and learn English in order to become lawful residents is not “amnesty” because the illegals aren’t getting something for nothing.  Ummm, OK.  He also says that the Catholic Church supports a country’s right to enforce its borders, although the U.S. bishops believe (apparently, anyway; straight answers are hard to come by) that current U.S. policy is unjust because … well, just because.  Inasmuch as there are signs of hope within the U.S. episcopacy regarding its recovery from its jackbooted leftism following Vatican II (remember how the bishops got involved with nuclear disarmament?), on some issues the Men in Purple haven’t quite figured out how to reconcile state sovereignty against the nostrums of left-wing human-rights activists.  Although I am sympathetic to the plight of many poor Mexicans who seek employment in the United States — I dealt with some of them, working for a Meijer store near a farming community, and came away from that experience with a positive impression of itinerant laborers — one would think the bishops would seek first to influence the socioeconomic situation in Mexico before reflexively criticizing the push by some conservatives to enforce existing border-security laws.  This is a supply-and-demand problem, but wouldn’t it be more consistent with authentic Gospel teachings to agitate for reform in Mexico’s redistributionist, crime-ridden culture than to berate Americans who oppose an open border and all the social and economic externalities it entails?
  • I am giving serious consideration to dumping my Facebook profile. The growing privacy/security instability of that platform is really starting to worry me; I am not a fan of having my personally identifiable information made available to the masses, shared without my consent and sold like a commodity with no compensation pushed in my direction.  There is a call for an open-source set of APIs to replicate Facebook functions without needing to use Facebook.  I’m considering doing something similar with this blog — deleting the Facebook and using as my central social-networking repository, with Twitter as the outbound push and all of my data focused inward, under my complete control.

Happy Mother’s Day.