Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Preferential Option for the Rich

Here is yet another great post from Catholic Moral Theology. Charles Camosy points out the apparently missing preferential option for the rich from Catholic Social Teaching which has in many places written about the preferential option for the poor. CST has, I think, danced around the 'preferential option for the rich' but certainly hasn't explicitly named any such principle as it has the preferential option for the poor. For example one can find this passage in Populorum Progressio:
We must repeat that the superfluous goods of wealthier nations ought to be placed at the disposal of poorer nations. The rule, by virtue of which in times past those nearest us were to be helped in time of need, applies today to all the needy throughout the world. And the prospering peoples will be the first to benefit from this. Continuing avarice on their part will arouse the judgment of God and the wrath of the poor, with consequences no one can foresee. If prosperous nations continue to be jealous of their own advantage alone, they will jeopardize their highest values, sacrificing the pursuit of excellence to the acquisition of possessions. We might well apply to them the parable of the rich man. His fields yielded an abundant harvest and he did not know where to store it: "But God said to him, 'Fool, this very night your soul will be demanded from you . . .' "
I agree with Charles, that there should indeed be an explicit preferential option for the rich, particularly in our wealthy society. We should at once emphasize not only the need to help those who suffer from materially poverty, but all forms of poverty, including the poverty in virtue and faith that materialism or consumerism causes as Pope John Paul II makes clear in Centesimus Annus:
Today more than ever, the Church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency. This awareness is also a source of her preferential option for the poor, which is never exclusive or discriminatory towards other groups. This option is not limited to material poverty, since it is well known that there are many other forms of poverty, especially in modern society—not only economic but cultural and spiritual poverty as well. The Church's love for the poor, which is essential for her and a part of her constant tradition, impels her to give attention to a world in which poverty is threatening to assume massive proportions in spite of technological and economic progress.

In the countries of the West, different forms of poverty are being experienced by groups which live on the margins of society, by the elderly and the sick, by the victims of consumerism, and even more immediately by so many refugees and migrants. In the developing countries, tragic crises loom on the horizon unless internationally coordinated measures are taken before it is too late.

Charles's full post can be read here: Should We Have a Preferential Option for the Rich?

Highlights (my emphasis added):
No, no. I’m not referring to a cleverly-worded smack down of Republican tax-plans. I’m talking about turning the preferential option on its head–at least as it is traditionally understood.

Why do Christians have a preferential option specifically for the poor? At least one reason is the fact that sin–social and otherwise–often conspires in a particularly powerful way against the poor such that they cannot flourish and participate in society, and even such that they cannot get their basic needs (like food, education, health care, etc.) met. We must therefore follow the example of Jesus, who gave special attention to the plight of the poor, in an attempt to push back against the forces which conspire against their flourishing.

But in doing so we should not fail to consider another group to which Jesus paid special attention: the rich. Indeed, his concern for the poor was often connected to a concern for the rich–though his words for the latter certainly had a different tone when compared to those directed at the former. Indeed, though Jesus rarely speaks of Hell, when he does so it is often connected to a rich person’s failure of one’s duties to the poor.

The early Christian community took this message very seriously, and as a result one could argue that the Church had skepticism even with regard to money-making itself. Pope St. Gregory the Great claimed that it stained one’s soul and Pope St. Leo the Great claimed that it was difficult to avoid sin when buying and selling. The usurious lending of money at interest was even punishable by excommunication and denial of a Christian burial.

This is not about politics: Jesus and the Church didn’t make a distinction between those who are “rich like George Clooney” and those who are “rich like Mitt Romney.” All the rich, especially insofar as their being rich indicates a failure to use one’s wealth to aid the poor, find their salvation seriously imperiled.

Why don’t we take the vulnerable position of the rich more seriously? In short, why don’t we have a preferential option for the rich? We should, of course, be concerned with the flourishing of the poor. But flourishing in this life is only of proximate value, isn’t it? Our ultimate goal is salvation and ultimate union with God. And many of the rich among us–and many of us (who are surely rich by any reasonable standard), period–have put our salvation in serious danger. We abandon the poor in buying luxuries we don’t need. We abandon them in supporting usurious policies. We haplessly attempt to serve two masters…despite our true Master telling us that this is impossible.

It is important, even essential, to have a preferential option for the poor. But isn’t this often connected with having a preferential option for the rich–many of whom, if we take Jesus seriously, imperil their own salvation?

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