Opting for the Poor

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 39, Advent 2006

by Pauline O’Regan

It would be a mistake to suggest that the ‘option for the poor’ is a new development in the church. The life of the early church, the teachings of the Fathers, the evidence of the Middle Ages, and in the 19th century, the founding of so many Religious Orders, specifically to work amongst the poor, all testify to the continuity of a clear tradition in this manner. In 1547, for instance, Polanco, writing under the guidance of Saint Ignatius, as quoted in the interim documents of the Society of Jesus, has this to say: ‘So great are the poor in the sight of God, that it was especially for them that Jesus Christ was sent into the world… Our Lord so preferred the poor to the rich, that he chose the entire college of his apostles from among the poor, to live and associate with them… Friendship with the poor makes us friends of the Eternal King.’

The call of the Gospel now became, not just a matter of service of the poor, but a responsibility on Christians to challenge those unjust and evil structures that kept some people permanently demeaned and oppressed in order that the greed of others might be satisfied and their wealth and privilege maintained.

Sure, we know the church did not always remember its commitment to the poor, but it never quite forgot it either. Then, in the 1890s, it formulated a social teaching which had at its heart the protection of the marginalised and the poor. It was the European poor it had mostly in mind, the victims of nearly a century of industrial revolution. It could scarcely be considered to be in the vanguard of their defence, but when it did speak, it spoke clearly. In that era, the virtue that the church saw as being at the heard of this service to the poor, was the virtue of charity. The system as such was not questioned, but the rich were called on to treat their workers well and to be generous to the less-privileged.

In the 1960s, however, a new perception of the church’s mission developed – a perception that very significantly went beyond the concept of charity, into the area of justice. The call of the Gospel now became, not just a matter of service of the poor, but a responsibility on Christians to challenge those unjust and evil structures that kept some people permanently demeaned and oppressed in order that the greed of others might be satisfied and their wealth and privilege maintained. This new theology was world-wide, but it was particularly in the liberation theology of Latin America that it found its most powerful impetus. The focus moved from the European worker to the Latin American peasant, forced in thousands to become unwilling migrants to the squalor of shanty towns. The new theology asked the question: how is it possible to preach the Gospel in the context of gross, institutionalised injustice to millions of God’s children? We know that every part of the church was influenced by this theology.

The new theology asked the question: how is it possible to preach the Gospel in the context of gross, institutionalised injustice to millions of God’s children?

By the time of the 1971 Synod, the bishops were telling the church that evangelisation, to be authentic, had to contain work for social justice as ‘a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel.’

No matter what our problems with the church might be, we all know that it is a necessary institution for the proclamation of the Gospel. Historically, the Jesus movement became church. Communities of faith resulted from the proclamation of the Gospel, and these communities in their turn, handed on that proclamation to others. To survive, those communities needed a structure. Of course, at any given point of history the structure of the church may be in need of urgent reform. But the point is that, reformed or not, there still has to be a structure – the community needs it in order to give continuity to its mission of passing on the Gospel. So we have gospel, and we have church, both inextricably woven together. We can’t say, gospel yes, church, no. And even more incredibly, we can’t say church, yes, gospel, no. But history shows, and our own experience painfully demonstrates, that there can be, and often is, a real tension between the two: Gospel and church.

People of the Gospel will always be disappointed to some degree with the church. The Gospel in a real sense is God and we can never do full justice to God. There will always be something or someone calling us forward into ever stronger solidarity with God and with others.

The reality seems to be that the church can never do full justice to the Gospel – there’s simply more to the Gospel than any human society, any community, any church can ever cope with at any given time. People of the Gospel will always be disappointed to some degree with the church. The Gospel in a real sense is God and we can never do full justice to God. There will always be something or someone calling us forward into ever stronger solidarity with God and with others. It’s imperative that we work for the best possible structures in the church, but we have to realise, I think, that even with the best structures, the church will still fall short of bringing the fullness of the Gospel to the world. Of course, the church’s mission is to do that – to bring the fullness of the Gospel to the world, but at any given time there will always be some aspects of the Word of God that we are failing to discern, that are in the shadow, as it were. And because of that, we are often blinded to where injustice and oppression exist in our contemporary world, sometimes under our very noses. As one injustice is righted, another arises, born of a new environment; as one system is purified, another is corrupted; as one people is set free, another is enslaved in one way or another. It’s to the Gospel, not the church, that we must always look as our surest guide on how to counter each new injustice. And the church has to be constantly challenged and called forth to come more fully into line with the Gospel.

Do not depend on the hope of the results when you are doing the sort of work you have taken on. Essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that you work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets more real. In the end it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything. Thomas Merton

Sr Pauline O’Regan is a Sister of Mercy.This article first appeared in our Spring 1996 first edition of The Common Good.

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