New Oxford Review – May 2014
Any Catholic who has been paying attention over the past forty years has heard of the “preferential option for poor sinners.” Well, almost. That last word was never a part of the original slogan. Therein lies a story. In the raucous wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) a significant number of the theological bien pensant executed a doctrinal coup d’état. Under the banner of aggiornamento, they masterminded a tectonic shift in the raison d ‘être of the Catholic Church. No longer was the Church’s mission “saving souls”; respectable Catholics now spoke of “social justice.” In fact, from the 1960’s to this very day, a Catholic would be hard put to find mention of “saving souls” in any sermon or any part of the voluminous mainstream literature (used in colleges, universities, seminaries, and various houses of formation) accumulated since Vatican II. So thorough was the revolution that the mere mention of the phrase “saving souls” today in well-heeled circles is met with arched eyebrows or condescending smirks.
Almost overnight it was made to appear as though the plight of the poor had never been the Catholic Church’s concern. Against the Church’s alleged callous indifference rose bands of “enlightened” priests and nuns who would show her a thing or two. This fifth column would spare no shock in proving their point; in fact, shock became a potent weapon in their arsenal. Breaking with the past was their driving passion, especially the perceived despicable past of the Church prior to 1965. They exhibited the utopian furor of the Jacobins and Maoists in pursuing their cause. Destruction was necessary to soften the soil for the “social justice” they would usher in upon the face of the earth.
In the twinkle of an eye, Catholics noticed the difference: St. Vincent de Paul societies were replaced by “social justice” committees; Lenten mite boxes, touchingly depicting the Suffering Savior of Gethsemane, were tossed in favor of Rice Bowl boxes; St. Nicholas drives at Christmastime gave way to Giving Trees. Add to this something even more troubling: The precious (and sometimes artistically priceless) liturgical accoutrements used for Holy Mass and the sacraments were tagged as signs of the oppression of the poor. With the fanaticism of Bolsheviks, organized bands of Catholic iconoclasts ransacked sacristy after sacristy for every sacred vessel and vestment they could find. Everything was either sold or discarded, lest their contagion infect the New Catholics aborning.
Similar frenzies were unleased upon the beloved interiors of churches across the globe. All this was done, ostensibly, so that the poor could be served. One could not be accused of melodrama for calling to mind Robespierre who, in the midst of the Reign of Terror, calmly remarked, “Heads must roll, so that men could be free.”
Scores of ancient religious orders toppled like dominoes before the force of this antinomian juggernaut. Telltale signs of these heady rebel groups can still be seen in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is currently waging war against the Vatican with its brassy refusal to redress its secularist agenda, much of which flouts key elements of Catholic teachings. Though now greatly spent by age, one can still spot the revolutionary spark that created the fires that consumed the old Catholic culture. That spark still flickers in the many religious orders that traded “savings souls” for “creating a just society.”
Thanks to the movement’s feral intensity, today’s Catholics are forced to walk among the scarred remains of a once glorious Catholic Church. Of course, a faithful remnant remains, but they are relegated to roaming a spiritual landscape resembling Berlin after World War II. Only Shakespeare adequately expresses the tragedy of this cataclysm: “Those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where the sweet birds sang” (Sonnet 73).
Emergent from this troubled period was the slogan “preferential option for the poor.” One searches in vain for this new concept in the Church’s treasury of dogma or piety, or in her long and soaring history. Instead of this novel and tendentious category, what one does find is the Law of Charity, which binds each and every Catholic to care for any in need. Our Lord is clear, “Whatever you did for one of the least of my brethren, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40). From this divine commission the Church promulgated the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Legions of saints, over thousands of years, committed themselves to the selfless care of the poor, leaving the world stammering before their heroic generosity. In every Catholic church the faithful were confronted by the poor box, begging for their supererogation. It could safely be said that the Catholic Church invented active care for the poor. After all, our salvation depends upon it (cf. Mt. 25:31-46).
Attention to those in need is part of the Church’s supernatural DNA. No Catholic will find a home in Heaven unless he faces Christ the Judge marked with a love for those who cry out in need. But these obligations of charity are always discharged within an exquisite order, principally stamped by humility. Order means that everything and every action has its place situated in a carefully ranked hierarchy. That ranking comes from both a natural and supernatural reckoning. Each element not only has its place, but its very place is indispensable to the beauty of the whole. Think of any masterpiece of music or painting: So many elements conspire to create the spectacle of beauty. Each element is crucial; but it is crucial precisely in the place it occupies, no matter how small. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that the three essential properties of beauty are integritas, proportio, and claritas (integrity, proportion, and radiance). This is order. To be clear, it pertains not only to art but to our sanctification.
The Church’s teaching possesses order because Our Lord’s did. Take, for example, the woman’s anointing of Our Lord with precious perfume (Mt. 26:6-13). As the disciples reprove the “waste” as better used for the poor, they receive Our Lord’s reprimand, “Why do you trouble this woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For the poor you always have with you.” His divine teaching bespeaks a marvelous order: While the plight of the poor demands relief, it does not obscure or preempt other, more important obligations. When, however, “the poor” become an idée fixe, they mutate into a political category that usurps the place of God. This is the problem with any ideology or heresy: It forgets its place in the natural and supernatural order of things. Rather than liberate the human person, it smothers him. This is the urgent point of St. Paul, “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but justice, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17).
In the very prayer that falls from the lips of our Savior, we find again this luminous order. First, He teaches us to pray “thy will be done,” and only then we beg “give us this day our daily bread.” Ecclesiastes too memorably enjoins this sacred order:
All things have their season, and in their
Time all things pass under heaven.
A time to be born, and a time to die.
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…
A time to love, and a time to hate. (3:1-2, 8)
Msgr. John Ryan, the indefatigable champion of the downtrodden, presciently lectured in 1920 to the New York School of Social Work:
There is grave danger that assistance to the neighbor for his own sake alone will be converted into the service of society as a whole, and the ignoring of the intrinsic worth of the individual… [Supernatural charity] is a much more effective motive than love of the neighbor for his own sake or for the sake of society; for the human being in distress assumes a much greater value when he is thought of in relation to God.
Bl. Antoine-Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853), founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, warned sharply: “[The goal of the Society] was not to help the poor. This was only a means. Our object was by the practice of Charity to strengthen ourselves in the Faith, and to win others for it… Personal perfection and not the eradication of poverty per se is the primary goal of the Society.”
What could be chaotic is made harmonic with the impress of order. No Catholic stands exempt from the eleemosynary injunctions of holy charity, a natural and divine order must be obeyed. Each Catholic discharge the duty of charity according to his state, means, and prudently available opportunity – all beneath the hidden cloak of humility, which alone clothes it with merit.
The “preferential option for the poor” ignores this rich and textured Catholic teaching, thus degenerating into a caricature of charity. It was coined in the desiccated university lecture halls of Western Europe (along with its umbrella term of “liberation theology”) and soon migrated across continents. It found its most congenial home in South America, where it became a battle cry for priests and bishops. Decades passed and the “preferential option for the poor” gnawed away at the once robust foundations of South American Catholicism.
Eventually, “liberation theology” was roundly condemned by the Magisterium of Pope John Paul II, and executed by his deputy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. It did not, however, disappear entirely. It mutated into a more benign form, but a form still bearing the theological genes of the “preferential option for the poor.” Even those clerics who obeyed the Church and rejected this reprobate ideology still retained its spirit. To them, all the Church’s exterior forms of piety and office became an embarrassment. Clerical attire became an obstacle to solidarity with the poor, and the Church’s entire traditional ensemble of redemption became for them an albatross.
Thus is the pedigree of the “preferential option for the poor.” Truth be told, it is still alive and well, and has now burrowed into the theological cells of a formidable cross section of the Catholic intelligentsia. It sees the poor through the ideological lens that not only makes the true poor invisible but also hides their intrinsic human dignity. They are no longer men, like all other men; they are the poor. No longer do they possess the dignity of high aspiration; they are relegated to being a permanent underclass feeding off the largesse of their “betters.” Rather than the Church’s rousing summons to strive mightily to be more, the ideologues cleverly teach them how to take more. They are thus deafened to the ancient Roman adage, confirming the timeless divine lessons: ad astra, per aspera (reaching the heights always entails struggling mightily).
In the ideologues’ creed, the poor are to be pitied, never exhorted. They stagnate beneath the disguised soft discrimination of low expectations. They are thus forbidden from thirsting for truth and beauty, which is the patrimony and comfort of all men. The ideologues who promote the “preferential option for the poor” insist that all the poor must ever see is their misfortune. Misfortune defines them. Their lack of what others have becomes their identity. Their humanity is eviscerated as ideologues entomb them perpetually as the poor.
This is a tragedy of immeasurable proportions. The Church, in all her interior and exterior beauty, is a treasure from which they are banned. If the ideologues truly looked at the poor, they would not see poor men, but simply men. They would not see the poor, but poor sinners, no different than the rest of the human race, all in need of the same merciful Christ. All that these poor sinners desire are the sweet beauties only the Catholic Church can supply. For the poor are like the rest of us, the same as us, not a class apart. Our Lord does not see rich and poor, privileged and unfortunate, low class and high. He sees only fallen men and women whom He loves. Christ’s only preference is for poor sinners. Who would dare improve on that?
Reprinted with permission from NEW OXFORD REVIEW, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.; www.newoxfordreview.org.