Business and the option for the poor
SAM GREGG writes that lifting people out of poverty — and not just material poverty but also moral and spiritual poverty — does not necessarily mean that the most effective action is to implement yet another welfare program. There is no reason to assume that the preferential option for the poor is somehow a preferential option for big government . . .
by Samuel Gregg
Like the term “social justice,” the phrase “preferential option for the poor” is part of the Catholic lexicon. Some use the phrase to insist on interventionist economic policies. Catholic social teaching, however, leads to more nuanced conclusions — economically and theologically.
The term “option for the poor” gained traction in Catholic thought in the late 1960s and ’70s. The term had influenced various forms of liberation theology throughout that period, but such claims tend to downplay the fact that the Church has always maintained a special outreach to the poor.
Old Testament prophets spoke clearly against the oppression of the poor, not to mention Christ’s statements that he himself may be recognized in the poor and in those who suffer persecution. Moreover, love for the poor and marginalized was put into practice from the Church’s genesis. In the Roman Empire, for example, the pagan Greeks and Romans were astonished at Catholics’ willingness to aid the sick and disabled, the elderly and abandoned whether they were Christians or not.
The Catholic understanding of poverty, however, doesn’t make the mistake of imagining that poverty can be reduced to issues of material deprivation. In the 1980s, in the midst of the Church’s sharpest critique of liberation theology influenced by Marxism, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) reminded Catholics that poverty had a rather more expansive meaning in Christian belief, thought and action.
From Christianity’s standpoint, everyone is poor inasmuch that all of us are deeply inadequate in the face of God’s justice and mercy. Why else would Christ need to come into the world to save us from our sins and flaws? Indeed the Christian embrace of poverty involves everyone exercising detachment from material wealth: “It is this sort of poverty, made up of detachment, trust in God, sobriety and a readiness to share, that Jesus declared blessed” (Libertatis Conscientia, #67)
What does living out the option for the poor mean in practice? We must engage in works of charity — those activities that often address specific dimensions of poverty in ways that no state program ever could. And this means giving of our time, energy, and human and monetary capital in ways that bring Christ’s light into some of the darkest places on earth.
Yet this does not mean that Catholics are required to give something to everything, or even that Catholics must give away everything they own. As Fr. James Schall, SJ, writes, “If we take all the existing world wealth and simply distribute it, what would happen? It would quickly disappear; all would be poor.” Put another way, living out the option for the poor may well involve those people with a talent for creating wealth doing precisely that.
The option for the poor, however, does not rule out any form of government assistance to those in need. Yet lifting people out of poverty — and not just material poverty but also moral and spiritual poverty — does not necessarily mean that the most effective action is to implement yet another welfare program. There is no reason to assume that the preferential option for the poor is somehow a preferential option for big government. Often, being an entrepreneur and starting a business which brings jobs, wages, and opportunities to places where they did not hitherto exist is a greater exercise of love for the poor (and usually far more economically effective) than another government welfare initiative.
The Catholic understanding of the option for the poor also means recognizing that those who suffer from material deprivation are human beings graced with reason and free will. Hence, like everyone else, they are also capable of engaging in some form of integral human flourishing. Sometimes a welfare program or new regulation is not the best way to help them — especially when such measures actually impede or discourage people from using their initiative and/or choosing to work.
Though we rarely think about it this way, deregulation is often a concrete way to promote the option for the poor. Living out the option for those in need could be manifested, for example, in working to remove tariffs that block the poor from global markets, or which encourage people to stay in U.S. industries that are becoming uncompetitive in a global economy. It might also involve making the process of creating a business faster, or providing more transparent, less bureaucratically burdensome ways for people to migrate to countries where there are more opportunities.
There are many ways of living out the option for the poor, whatever our vocation in life. With some of the creativity that’s essential for success of business, Catholics can indeed help bring liberty to many of those burdened by poverty.