“preferential Option for the Poor” in Catholic Social Thought From John XXIII to John Paul II

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The stance towards the poor in Catholic social teaching found new impetus with Pope John XXIII. His encyclicals emphasized the Church's role of engagement with the world. Progress originated in Latin America. Vatican II continued this advancement. The theme of “development” characterized Pope Paul VI's Populorum Progressio, the Synod document Justitia in Mundo and the apostolic exhortation, Octagesima Adveniens. In Latin America, Juan Luis Segundo, S.J. and Gustavo Gutierrez pioneered the movement of liberation theology.

In 1967, Gutierrez coined the term, the "preferential option for the poor." The concept appeared at the Latin American Bishops' Conference at Medellin and found expression at Puebla. Aspects of Marxist terminology and methodology utilized by its postulators caused it to be viewed as reprobate by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and by Pope John Paul II. Eventually, the idea was later refined and incorporated into papal and episcopal documents. It now serves as a cornerstone of official Catholic Social Teaching, reflected in documents of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and in the later allocutions and writings of Pope John Paul II such as Centesimus Annus, Pastores Gregis, Tertio Millennio Adveniente and Ecclesia in America.


“In this study, the Reverend Gerald Twomey, Ph.D., traces the development of this revolutionary slogan of the "preferential option for the poor" --in the South American context it can be called nothing else-- to its present place as an undisputed component of Catholic Social Teaching … Many of those who proclaim the option for the poor-- especially in the North American context-- don't seem to realize that attempts to reform the civic cultures (where one even exists) and the economic structures of a country are essential before one can expect any progress to be made against poverty. If the Catholic Church is to make any contribution toward these goals it will need cadres of trained economists and sociologists who can detail the concrete changes that are required. Such men and women must be committed to the poor, but they must also be skilled in knowing what they are talking about. Enthusiasm and commitment are no substitutes for professional skill. Zeal and a confidence in one's virtue are not enough to change society. Unfortunately, Catholic social theorists have not only failed, as Dr. Twomey makes clear in this study, to present their teaching in terms that ordinary folk can understand. But they have also failed to articulate the means and the methods of social reform which will convert those theories into practical programs with some prospects for success. None of these observations should detract from the importance of Dr. Twomey's study. Rather, they expressed the hope of an intransigent empiricist and social scientist that when Dr. Twomey writes his next book on the option for the poor, he will be able to cite the work of Catholic scholars and activists who have been able to apply that critical option into concrete and practical programs. It is, I believe, time for the Church to realize that that the abstract --and frequently idealized-- paradigms of Eurocentric theology (even if spoken with an Hispanic accent) represent only half of the struggle to help and empower the poor,-- and perhaps the easier half. If the Church really wishes to commit itself to be on the side of the poor, it must do much more than proclaim this fact. Unfortunately, Catholicism has yet to learn how to do that sort of thing. Now that the option has become a solid and permanent part of the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, it is time to challenge the Church with the question: "What are you going to do next?" Just talk about it? I'm afraid that won't do.” – (from the Foreword) Reverend Andrew M. Greeley, Ph.D., The University of Chicago and The University of Arizona

“Dr. Gerald Twomey provides a much needed and long-awaited narrative and explanatory account of the development of the concept, “preferential option for the poor.” By combing hundreds of magisterial and theological texts that bring it to its maturity, Dr. Twomey gives the option its history and context. He offers not simply a conceptual history, however; following the best instincts of theology, he argues for the change that can be achieved when the option actually empowers the oppressed. This is a concept with critical leverage and social relevance. Hardly dispassionate, Dr. Twomey champions not only the option’s legitimacy in the face of occasional resistance, but also its advocates, most especially Gustavo Gutiérrez and John XXIII. Finally, by thoroughly studying the pontificate of John Paul II, Dr. Twomey establishes the preferential option’s unequivocal orthodoxy. Writing with evident attachment to his project Dr. Twomey makes his argument and his prose all the more engaging.” – James F. Keenan, S.J., Gasson Chair, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

"This outstanding and meticulously researched study tells a fascinating story—about how a phrase coined by prophetic theologians and bishops in Latin America came to serve as a central tenet of Catholic social teaching. “The preferential option for the poor” emerged out of the radical renewal of the Latin American church between the historic meetings of the bishops at Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979). As a slogan associated with liberation theology, it was widely challenged by conservative forces as a short-hand call for revolution. And yet gradually it won the day, serving instead as a short-hand expression of the basic social message of the gospel. Dr. Twomey provides an exhaustive account of the emergence of this term, not only through the words of its Latin American proponents, but showing its deep roots in the teaching of Pope John XXIII and its even more surprising adoption by Pope John Paul II. His book deserves close study by anyone seeking to understand the meaning of Catholic social teaching and its relevance to the world today." -Robert Ellsberg, Editor-in-Chief, Orbis Books

Table of Contents

1. Pope John XXllI and the "Church of the Poor"
2. Vatican II, Pope Paul VI and Populorum Progressio
3. The Birth of Liberation Theology and Medellin
4. The Breakthrough at Puebla and Beyond
5. Pope John Paul II and the "New Evangelization"
6. Beyond the New Millennium

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