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Behind Pope Francis' teaching about the poor


The second anniversary of the election of Pope Francis has just passed, and a hallmark of his papacy has been his calls for ‘a Church which is poor and for the poor.’

He has given new currency to the term ‘preferential option for the poor’ which has strong associations with Liberation Theology. Ever since it was coined by Latin American theologians in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, it’s been controversial and contested in the Church.

The theologian featured in this interview on Eureka Street TV is well qualified to explain the meaning of the term and its implications and application in the present day Church.

Rohan Curnow’s PhD thesis was on this topic, and he recently published a book based on the thesis entitled The Preferential Option for the Poor: A Short History and a Reading Based on the Thought of Bernard Lonergan. It was launched by Frank Brennan, whose speech was published in Eureka Street.

Curnow was raised in Canberra in a devout Catholic family with seven brothers and sisters. His mother’s side of the family was steeped in the trade union tradition, and his father had an interest in politics and history. These were strong and abiding influences on him as he grew up.

In school he was mainly interested in science and technical subjects, and after school started a degree in architecture. He quickly changed direction however and studied arts at the Australian National University in Canberra, majoring in philosophy and religious studies.

Following this he flirted with the idea of the Catholic priesthood, but remained a lay person and studied for a Bachelor of Theology, then a Master of Theology at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.

After this, through the Jesuits, he gained a scholarship to study for his doctorate at Regis College in the University of Toronto in Canada. Here he was strongly influenced by the work of Canadian Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan who died in 1984 and is acclaimed as one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century.

Lonergan was a great teacher and lecturer, and a prolific author. Among his many books are the seminal works Insight: A Study of Human Understanding and Method in Theology.

Curnow is now Academic Registrar and Senior Lecturer in Theology at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and a Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.

This interview is in two parts - Part 1 (9 mins) above, and Part 2 (10 mins) below:


Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Rohan Curnow, Pope Francis, Preferential Option for the Poor, theology, Lonergan



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Existing comments

As you say, Peter, at school Rohan was "mainly interested in science and technical subjects." He was one of a strong group of maths students who have gone on to medicine and finance and allied high income success, where he too could have prospered. It is doubtful if his maths teacher had any influence on his future career, but please tell him that the said person is proud of him. The final ten-minute segment is particularly strong and I will be passing it on.

Frank | 25 March 2015  

Thank you Peter for bringing Rohan's ground breaking work to a larger audience than it might have otherwise had. The fact that the "preferential option for poor" is now part of mainstream Catholic thought is a reminder to all of us that it is still possible for insights born in grass roots movements to work their way to the doctrinal and administrative centre of the Church and that the direction of influence is not just from the top down.

John Francis Collins | 25 March 2015  

A wonderful exposition of the current interpretation of exactly what "preferential option for the poor" means. I was certainly enlightened by it and ,perhaps, needed to be, since I have always struggled with the terminology, believing that Christ in his life as man and in his dying sacrifice as God expressed no preferential option for any group of human beings. Perhaps the greatest problem with the "preferential option for the poor" is the terminology. Perhaps something that expressed the conversion capacity of poverty to bring an awareness of Christ in our midst would not be as controversial. Such a descriptor would eliminate the Marxist overtones of Liberation theology and might bestow greater understanding. The Marxism of Liberation Theology was easily identified in the attempts by militant Catholic priests in South America to back the ideology by force of arms - not a very Christ-like approach..

john frawley | 25 March 2015  

Thanks to Peter Kirkwood and Rohan Curnow for this excellent summary of the Option for the Poor. Good to see the universal church return to it under Pope Francis.

Terry Fitzpatrick | 25 March 2015  

Thank you. I enjoyed this conversation immensely

Anne Schmid | 25 March 2015  

“A preferential option for the poor” should be maintained in our Catholic schools. If we find that we cannot afford to keep our schools open to the poor, the Church should be ready to use its resources for something else which can be kept open to the poor. We cannot allow our Church to become a church primarily for the middle-class and rich while throwing a bone to the poor. The priority should be given to the poor even if we have to let the middle-class and rich fend for themselves. Practically speaking, the Catholic schools must give up general education in those countries where the State is providing it. The resources of the Church could then be focused on Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and other programs which can be kept open to the poor. These resources could then be used to help society become more human in solidarity with the poor. Remember, the Church managed without Catholic schools for centuries.The essential factor from the Christian point of view is to cultivate enough Faith to act in the Gospel Tradition, namely, THE POOR GET PRIORITY. The rich and middle-class are welcome too. BUT THE POOR COME FIRST.

William Horan | 25 March 2015  

Rohan certainly makes a potentially hard-to-grasp concept accessible to a broad audience and demonstrates why it is important for scholars to have the time, space and freedom to think, write and debate. Such clarity of thought is a result of persistent intellectual labour. Rohan's students are fortunate to attend his lectures. Thanks for the video.

Fiona Egan | 27 March 2015