Thirty years ago, on November 14, 1986, the U. S. Catholic Bishops released one of their most prophetic documents, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.
It would be good for the bishops and all followers of Christ to read it again – or for the first time. It is available here. There are parts that reflect the reality of the 1980s but there is much in its theology and spirituality, as well in its elaboration of Catholic Social Teaching which holds true.
I would suggest that one of the most important paragraphs of this document is found in the section on “Poverty, Riches, and the Challenges of Discipleship.” Paragraph 52 reads:
Such perspectives provide a basis for what is called the “preferential option for the poor.” Though in the Gospels and in the New Testament as a whole the offer of salvation is extended to all peoples, Jesus takes the side of those most in need, physically and spiritually. The example of Jesus poses a number of challenges to the contemporary Church. It imposes a prophetic mandate to speak for those who have no one to speak for them, to be a defender of the defenseless, who in biblical terms are the poor. It also demands a compassionate vision which enables the Church to see things from the side of the poor and powerless, and to assess lifestyles, policies, and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor. It summons the Church also to be an instrument in assisting people to experience the liberating power of God in their own lives so that they may respond to the Gospel in freedom and dignity. Finally, and most radically, it calls for an emptying of self, both individually and corporately, that allows the Church to experience the power of God in the midst of poverty and powerlessness.
The option for the poor is rooted not in politics or economics but in Jesus, God made human among the poor. This option challenges the church to speak prophetically, to provide a vision of compassion, to speak from the side of the poor, to help people experience the liberating power of God in all aspects of their lives.
These are still challenges for us – not just for the institutional church, but for all members of the People of God.
Are we prophets on the side of the poor, offering hope and assisting liberation for all forms of slavery?
But, more than this, are we willing to empty ourselves of power and wealth, leaving these to the side, not letting them control us and our choices?
The bishops based their option of the poor on the emptying of Christ (Philippians 2).
But are we all too easily swayed by wealth and power, not wanting to appear weak?
Have we forgotten the call of Pope Saint John XXIII to be a “church of the poor” and the call of Pope Francis to be a “poor church” and a “church for the poor”?
Have we closed our ears to the call Pope Francis made to the Popular Movements a few weeks ago to show a real austerity in the way we live and work?
Can we take up again the preferential option for the poor by emptying ourselves – as Jesus did?