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The preferential option for the poor

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Frank Brennan launches The Preferential Option for the Poor: A Short History and a Reading Based on the Thought of Bernard Lonergan, by Rohan Michael Curnow. Catholic Institute of Sydney, 11 July 2014.  

One of the blessings of the modern Catholic Church is that there is a bevy of lay people who are now highly trained in theology. Tonight's author is one of them. Rohan Michael Curnow obtained his PhD in theology mentored by luminaries like Robert Doran at Marquette University. This book lovingly dedicated to his mother and deceased father is a reworking of his thesis. As such it displays all the rigour of a thesis replete with extensive footnotes and a useful bibliography. It is heartening to see Rohan paying tribute to other Australian lay theologians including Raymond Canning, Neil Ormerod and Patrick McArdle. He received generous assistance from Fr Brendan Quirk and the parishioners at Rockdale parish.

Rohan thoroughly traces the development of the notion of the 'preferential option for the poor' commencing with the 'Group of the Church of the Poor' who convened at Vatican II, being mainly Francophones and bishops from Latin America. No Australian bishop was involved as far as the records show. Gustavo Gutierrez when later writing about the Church of the Poor reflected on the sessions in the Aula at Vatican II:

In the process of Vatican II, the issue of poverty attained only a tiny presence ... It is easy to understand (painful but easy): the majority of bishops and experts came from important countries, rich countries that had entered the modern world, they were citizens of the modern world. Poverty, in spite of the empathy and profundity of many who attended the Council, remained a distant question.

The Latin American bishops represented 40 per cent of the world's Catholics but were only 22 per cent of the representation in the Aula.

Having studied at Marquette and having come under the spell of the Lonergonian Peter Beer here in Australia, Rohan is no stranger to Jesuits. He notes that after Vatican II, the Latin American bishops at Medellin were very bold in proclaiming a gospel for the poor. The Belgian Jesuit Roger Vekemans was horrified returning to Europe from Chile and mobilizing theological thinkers against the emerging liberation theology. It is heartening to note that Rohan has been inspired more recently by the present Superior General of the Jesuits Adolfo Nicolas who has urged that Liberation Theology be assisted in a process of maturation by engaging liberation thought in a process of constructive dialogue.

Rohan provides a detailed and accurate analysis and history of the word games that have gone on between the Vatican and the Latin American bishops and theologians wrestling with the concept of the preferential option for the poor. At Puebla (CELAM III, 1979), the bishops took up the call from Medellin (CELAM II, 1968) and affirmed 'the need for conversion on the part of the whole Church to a preferential option for the poor, an option aimed at their integral liberation'. The CDF at one stage insisted that the bishops at Puebla spoke of a preferential option for the poor AND for the young. Initially John Paul II was wary of the term. It does not appear in Laborem Exercens, but it does then appear in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus. Rohan is then very fair to Benedict saying that he continued 'in the tradition of John Paul II, without representing either a development or repudiation of that tradition'.

For the contemporary reader living during the papacy of Pope Francis who was the bishop elected to chair the drafting committee at CELAM V at Aparecida in 2007, there will be much interest in Rohan's observations about that meeting's refinements on the preferential option for the poor. There had not been a meeting of CELAM (the Latin American Episcopal Conference) since Santo Domingo in 1992 (CELAM IV) which Rohan rightly observes had fallen more into line with the Vatican approach which tended to confine the option for the poor to ethical Christian activity. Rohan says, 'Aparecida by contrast appears to be more overtly in alignment with the stance reached (earlier) at Puebla: conversion, hermeneutics and praxis'. Rohan says that 'if Santo Domingo represented a shaky step forward, Aparecida appeared to be surefooted once more.' The bishops tweaked the option to be a 'preferential and evangelical option'.

Of course, the reader, unlike the author, now has the advantage of being able to read Francis's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium to get Aparecida's papal distillation. In that exhortation, Francis twice uses the term 'preferential option for the poor'. Quoting Aquinas, Francis says, 'The poor person, when loved, 'is esteemed as of great value', and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one's own personal or political interest. Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation.'

Francis then directly quotes John Paul II saying, 'Only this will ensure that in every Christian community the poor feel at home. Would not this approach be the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the kingdom?' Without the preferential option for the poor, 'the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today's society of mass communications'.

Taking up the evangelical part of the option, Francis writes:

Since this Exhortation is addressed to members of the Catholic Church, I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.

Early in the exhortation, he says, 'The Gospel offers us the chance to live life on a higher plane, but with no less intensity'. He then quotes Aparecida directly (ie presumably himself) saying: 'Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others'. He goes on to say, 'When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization, she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfillment.' He then again quotes Aparecida: For 'here we discover a profound law of reality: that life is attained and matures in the measure that it is offered up in order to give life to others. This is certainly what mission means'.

Francis insists that 'missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church's activity'. Once again he quotes Aparecida to the effect that we 'cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings'; we need to move 'from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry'. He quotes Aparecida several more times in the context of popular piety and missionary activity. Francis's synthesis would be music to Rohan's ears.

The major part of Rohan's book is dedicated to the task of rendering a reading of the preferential option for the poor based on the thought of Bernard Lonergan who provides us with insights into experiencing, understanding, judging and deciding, and of Rohan's supervisor Robert Doran who introduces the notion of 'psychic conversion' which 'speaks to the issue of the universal victimhood of humanity, whether one's psyche is the victim of misused freedom or of history'. Psychic conversion augments Lonergan's categories of religious conversion, moral conversion, and intellectual conversion. Rohan reminds us of Lonergan's famous formulation that 'objectivity is simply the consequence of authentic subjectivity, of genuine attention, genuine intelligence, genuine reasonableness, genuine responsibility'. Rohan states that 'the subject is both empowered and made responsible by this fact'. Rohan with theological argumentation that I do not pretend to master or question is confident that Lonergan's foundations augmented by Doran's comprehensive theory of history 'not only provides a sophisticated transcendental grounding of the Option for the poor, but that it does so in a manner that meets the concerns of many liberation theologians'. This can be only good news for all of us. There are not two histories — the sacred and profane. As Gutierrez says, 'Rather, there is only one human destiny, irreversibly assumed by Christ, the Lord of history'. By focusing on the reign of God rather than resurrection, we can avoid many pitfalls. The reign of God 'is communal; it insists on praxis; and it is centred on Christ's mission. Moreover the reign of God derives its evangelical content from the fact of the Resurrection'. 

Rohan becomes almost poetic when describing Sobrino's phenomenology of the more in bread. Let me quote him:

Bread whilst initially a vital good, becomes a social good when it encourages a spirit of community and activity and toil. Moreover, it emerges as a cultural good — including soteriological culture — when it becomes a sacramental in the festival of maize where poetry and singing occur as bread opens out to art and culture. Furthermore, it becomes a personal good when it needs to be shared with the group and within the group. The material life is indeed the germ of a fuller life, and this is precisely why Liberation Theology speaks of integral liberation: social, cultural, and spiritual liberation are only possible if life exists.

He then goes on to describe the Global Food Crisis and the fact that 13 per cent of the world's population are being denied bread and thus being denied the 'more' that is in the bread. I am reminded of the recent communiqué from the C20 in preparation for the forthcoming G20 summit in Brisbane. I have been serving as a member of the steering committee of the C20. The representatives of civil society have said:

Resource security remains a critical issue for the international community as the world's population grows. Demographic changes mean expanding middle classes will consume and demand increasing access to goods and services, placing pressure on existing, scarce and non-renewable resources.

Food security and in particular lack of access to food is a significant issue for the global community and particularly for developing nations, impacting negatively on their economic growth and resilience. We encourage G20 leaders to re-balance investments in agriculture so as to support sustainable small-scale farming as a way of boosting employment and food security for the poorest and most marginal by improving access to community savings schemes, market price information, business education and access to finance, as well as removing biofuel subsidies, establishing capped and well-governed water markets, limiting the usage of human-edible food for animal feed and ensuring transparency in the negotiation of trade agreements.

Rohan tells us that 'humans do not build the Kingdom. But a redeemed humanity does build FOR the Kingdom in anticipation of the new Heaven and the new Earth.' I presume Rohan is well pleased that the principal author of Aparecida now writing as our pope has said:

I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church's pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.

I commend Rohan for providing us with a foundational text which allows us the confidence that the preferential option for the poor is no longer an option susceptible to bifurcated interpretation. This option is constitutive for the Church which is to be poor and for the poor. Even if much of liberation theology does become passé or just one stream of many in the theological Catholic ocean, the preferential option for the poor remains as Rohan says, 'in its explicit formulation, the gift of Liberation Theology and the Latin American Church to the Universal Church'. It is presently embodied in the one who holds the Petrine Office, thus making this book all the more relevant. So please buy it, read it, and put it into action. In the words of the scripture scholar N T Wright who is often and fondly quoted by Rohan: 'The Church that is renewed by the message of Jesus' resurrection must be the Church that goes to work in the world of space, time, and matter and claims it in advance as the place of God's Kingdom, of Jesus' Lordship, of the power of the Spirit.' This is our task; it is our calling; it is our identity.

Rohan promises that his next book will have shorter acknowledgements. We look forward to the ongoing contribution from those lay theologians who have the ability, time and space to write so that we might all benefit from that faith that seeks understanding and from the critical reflection on praxis. I pronounce the concept, 'The Preferential Option for the Poor' a received teaching of the Catholic Church and I pronounce launched Rohan Curnow's book of the same name.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. He is currently in the USA taking up the Gasson Chair at Boston College.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Pope Francis, Rohan Michael Curnow, Preferential Option for the Poor



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Existing comments

“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. 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. It can get along without them today. 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 | 08 February 2015  

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