The Preferential option for the Poor and Vulnerable is one element of Catholic Social Teaching. There are many ways to do good but we are never permitted to do evil. Helping the poor is a “good” and Catholics of various points of view on how to bring justice to the poor can freely choose prudentially whether this should be achieved best primarily via the private sector, via the federal government, via state and local governments or via a combination of government assistance and the private sector working in concert together, and to what degree the Federal government is involved with helping the poor and vulnerable.
It is important that Catholics help the poor and vulnerable. This can be done by volunteering, donating money, teaching new skills, or through government assistance.
Pope Benedict, with this statement in Caritas in Veritate, makes it clear that Catholics are able to use prudential judgment when helping the poor and vulnerable:
“The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.” She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation. Without truth, it is easy to fall into an empiricist and sceptical view of life, incapable of rising to the level of praxis because of a lack of interest in grasping the values — sometimes even the meanings — with which to judge and direct it. Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development. For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested. This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations.”
Pope Benedict points out the growing gap between the poor and rich. Is it possible to make the world better overall by simply redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor or are there better ways to help the poor achieve economic independence? Pope Benedict points out that some groups in poorer communities “enjoy a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation.” I am unsure as to whether the Pontiff is asserting that the consumerist nature of our society is engulfing some in the poorer communities or that some of the poor are allowing the consumerist nature of our society to influence their decisions to the detriment of certain necessities.
I find it both interesting and puzzling how Blessed John Paul II refers to the “preferential option for the poor” as “…. the so-called “preferential option for the poor”, an option which I defined as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity” when referring to the Church’s continued dedication and concern for the poor.
In Centesimus Annus Pope John Paul II proposes an alternative economic system which counters “upholding the absolute predominance of capital”, not a socialist system but one “which in fact turns out to be State capitalism, but rather a society of free work, of enterprise and of participation which protects the basic needs of society. “The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well.” But Pope JPII points out that profit is not the only factor in running a just business, and that there are other human and moral factors to be considered as well.
Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum points out that the government has a role to play in caring for the poor – deserving of special consideration – since they have no or few resources to fall back on, unlike the rich do, and they depend upon assistance from the State. One question is how much of a role should the State have in assisting the poor? And does the State create an environment of dependency?
In Rerum Novarum Leo XIII goes on to say that the imposing of taxes should be “fair’ and moderate, not excessive or progressive.
Pope Leo XIII states:
“The foremost duty, therefore, of the rulers of the State should be to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, shall be such as of themselves to realize public well-being and private prosperity. This is the proper scope of wise statesmanship and is the work of the rulers. Now a State chiefly prospers and thrives through moral rule, well-regulated family life, respect for religion and justice, the moderation and fair imposing of public taxes, the progress of the arts and of trade, the abundant yield of the land-through everything, in fact, which makes the citizens better and happier.”
He points out the slave-like wage labor conditions of the poor workers which were present during the late 19th century. In a statement below he also points out what today’s progressives have in common with the socialists of his time and how they created an environment which capitalized on the poor’s envy of the rich just like progressives capitalize when using class warfare rhetoric today.
“To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community…..Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”
Pope Leo XIII asked this question – How must one’s possessions be used? The Church answers using the wise words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world… to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’”(12) True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.”(14) It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law. But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving – ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive”;(15) and who will count a kindness done or refused to the poor as done or refused to Himself – “As long as you did it to one of My least brethren you did it to Me.”(16)
Pope Leo XIII emphasizes that Jesus calls the poor “blessed” and that they share a closeness to Christ that the rich do not and “this is enforced by what we see in Christ Himself, who, ‘whereas He was rich, for our sakes became poor’;(18) and who, being the Son of God, and God Himself, chose to seem and to be considered the son of a carpenter – nay, did not disdain to spend a great part of His life as a carpenter Himself. ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?’”(19)
He notes “that the true worth and nobility of man lie in his moral qualities, that is, in virtue” as opposed to how much money a worker earns.
Pope Leo XIII emphasizes “[The Church's] desire is that the poor, for example, should rise above poverty and wretchedness, and better their condition in life; and for this she makes a strong endeavor.”
The Church has consistently emphasized throughout Tradition the importance of the lay faithful to have special considerations for the poor and vulnerable through private charity and has also emphasized State intervention as a necessity in some situations in order to ensure the dignity of the human person.