August 4, 2006

Faith, Hope and Charity / David Siler

Church teaches preferential option for
the poor and vulnerable

The fourth principle of Catholic social teaching comes to us primarily from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25.

In verses 31-46, we read the well-known story of the separation of the sheep and goats, where we learn that whatever we do to or for those considered by society as the “least among us,” we do to or for Jesus.

In all the Gospel stories, Jesus identifies himself again and again with the lepers, the orphaned, the widowed, the stranger, the lost, the lonely and all those rejected by society. He tells us that when we reach out to these vulnerable people in love and compassion, we are sharing the very essence of who God is: love.

This principle is summarized by the statement that we are to have a “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” and would tell us that a basic moral test of a society is how our most vulnerable members are faring. How are we doing?

A couple of years ago when we hosted a group of visitors from our sister archdiocese in Camaguey, Cuba, I was struck by a question posed to me by my peer who administers Catholic Charities in Camaguey.

Through a translator, he struggled to ask me the question, “In a country obviously so wealthy, why do you have any poor people?”

Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, recently returned from a trip to the Vatican, where he met with his peers from throughout the world who oversee their country’s charitable efforts administered in the name of the Church.

Father Snyder tells the story that he was told several times that he must feel lucky overseeing charity in the U.S. since we do not really have any poor people.

If only this were true. Currently in the United States, 34 million people live below the official poverty line of $17,960 for a family of four. More than half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day, and more than 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day.

It certainly could be true if we all took to heart the words of Jesus and made sure that everyone had enough to eat, enough to drink, a visit when lonely, a visit when imprisoned or sick, a welcome when a stranger, etc. Our country, and indeed the world, has more than enough resources for no one to go without the most basic human needs.

This principle of Catholic social teaching tells us that we are to have a “preference” for the poor. Why would the Church tell us to “prefer” the poor? I would submit that it is because when we serve the needs of the most vulnerable, we bring them hope. And hope shines a light into the soul, making room for God to make a home and dwell there.

Jesus, our leader, certainly demonstrated a preference for the poor. Let’s play follow the leader.

(David Siler is executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries.)


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