The Poor And The Marginalized In Catholic Social Teaching

By Fr. Leslie Lett

In this presentation I wish to look at the poor and marginalized in Catholic Social Teaching (CST) of the past one hundred years, that is from Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’, issued in 1891, to the various encyclicals of the present Pope John Paul II.

In Rerum Novarum, the pope made a strong protest against the awful exploitation of poor workers and called for employers to respect workers and not to view them as commodities in the labour market. Leo XIII also called for a broadening of the pattern of ownership to include workers, and for the formation of Workers’ Associations (Unions) to defend the interest of the workers.

This concern for the exploited has remained a constant element in C.S.T. but it wasn’t until some 20 years ago that this concern could be called an “option for the poor,’’ as this term has come to be understood.

The Church often saw the poor as an inevitable socio-economic class in society. In 1903 Plus X made it clear that:

          “…it is in accordance with the pattern established by God that human society should have rulers and subjects, employers and employees, rich and poor, wise and ignorant, nobles and common people.” (1)

Defending the poor and marginalized was more a matter of charity than of justice. Pius X warned:

“Beware of using language which may inspire the masses with hatred of the upper classes of society. Let them not talk of claims and of justice when it is a question of mere charity.” (2)

Both Rerum Novarum and Pius Xl’s Quadragessimo Anno (1931) stated that people were obliged to help the poor out of their “superfluous goods,’’ it was not until Gaudium et Spes in 1965 that C.S.T.  states very clearly that it is all a matter of justice, based on the Biblical truth of the inherent dignity and sanctity of each person and of the “universal destination of all the world’s goods.”

“God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples… The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods…Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him.’’ (3)

Clearly, we must appreciate the organic nature of C.S.T., and how it develops over time in the same way as Newman’s thesis on the development of doctrine. Over the 100 years of C.S.T. a deep concern for the poor developed into a “preferential option for the poor.’’ (4)

From the very beginning of C.S.T. the Church has always expressed fear of class struggle, of social unrest and revolution, and of too much government intervention in economic matters. This led to the promotion of a “spirituality of stability.” However, in Quadragessimo Anno we see the very tentative beginnings of a “spirituality of justice.”

“…there are men who, although professing to be Catholic, are almost completely unmindful of that Sublime law of justice and charity that binds us not only to render to everyone what is his but to succor brothers in need as Christ the Lord Himself….. Even more, there are men who abuse religion itself, and under its name try to hide their unjust actions in order to protect themselves from the manifestly just demands of the workers.” (5)

Of course, spirituality is important to all theology and certainly to the Church’s social teaching. We are reminded here of Paulo Fiere’s view of education, which is applicable to spirituality/religion, that it is either for domination, domestication or liberation. (6)

Pius XI criticized both the “free competition” of liberal capitalism (which leads to the economic domination of the few and the pauperization and marginalization of the many) and the violent class struggle and materialism of socialism, and promoted trade unions as the defenders and champions of the poor and marginalized. (7)

The next major step in C.S.T towards an “option for the poor” came in 1961, with John XXIII’s “Mater et Magistra.” In this encyclical John XXIII made three very important points:

That poverty is caused, first of all, by underdevelopment. He therefore called for poor and marginalized nations and persons to be brought into the mainstream of economic development, and for workers to be allowed to participate in the business of the company for which they work. (8)

That poverty is caused, secondly, by the unjust distribution of goods and services;

“…the economic prosperity of a nation is not so much its total assets in terms of wealth and poverty, as the equitable diversion and distribution of its wealth. This is what guarantees the personal development of the members of society, which is the true goal of a nation’s economy.” (9)

This quite clearly points to the poor as victims of structural injustice.

That to respond to poverty there must be a measure of to what he terms “socialization.” (10)

Pope John XXIII acknowledged and was optimistic about the highly complex and interdependent relationships which are to found in modern industrial society and which have resulted in many aspects of daily life which used to be seen as personal, being organized and regulated on a larger scale, so that individuals have to move beyond family to rely on large institutions, e.g. unions, insurance schemes etc. Even through John XXIII affirmed the permanent validity of the principle of subsidiary (MM, 117) he welcomed the need for greater State intervention and control in the areas of agriculture, education, health care, etc. for which they worked, and he even supported the compulsory acquisition of land to distribute to the landless poor.

All this quite clearly put the weight of the Church on the side of the poor and marginalized and removed it from the natural ally of the rich and powerful. During the pontificate of John XXIII, the Church therefore gained new friends and new enemies, because what is good to the poor is often seen by the powerful as bad for themselves. Four years after “Mater et Magistra”, the bishops would say that the Church

“…does not place her trust in the privileges offered by civil authority. She will even give up the exercise of certain rights which have been legitimately acquired, if it becomes clear that their use will cast doubt on the sincerity of her wins or that new ways of life demanded new methods.’’ (11)

After Mater et Magistra, C.S.T. moved quite rapidly to embrace the option for the poor, along with an appropriate spirituality. Gaudium et Spes called for Christians to “fight for justice and charity” and to live lives “permeated with the spirit of the Beatitudes, especially with the spirit of poverty.” (12)

Here we have the beginnings of non-fatalistic spirituality of poverty which puts the Church in solidarity with the poor in the struggle for justice.

In 1967, Paul VI issued his encyclical “Populorum Progressio” in which he expressed his concern with the disparity in power between the rich and the poor. For him, the biggest problem faced by the poor was their lack of power, the power of self –determination and the power to change their situation. (13)

Surely this emphasis on power and the need to empower the poor was an important development in C.ST. The Pope warned that if the powerful failed to make an adequate response to powerlessness they will not only destroy themselves but call down the judgment of God and feel the wrath of the poor. It is no wonder that for Paul VI development (economic, social and spiritual) meant peace, both on the national and international levels. (14)

It could be said that Mater et Magistra, Gaudium et Spes, and Populorum Progression, laid the foundation for what took place when the Latin American Bishops met in Medellin in 1968. There the Bishops called for:

  1. A poor church- a Church that is itself bound to poverty as a lifestyle of commitment and so capable of prophetically denouncing the material poverty caused by injustice and sin.
  2. A Church in solidarity with the poor that makes the option for the poor and accepts its conscientizing role to enable the poor to become conscious agents of their own integral development.
  3. Their understanding of “integral development” to be more accurately called “human liberation.”

Over the years much of Medellin has passed into C.S.T. In 1971, in “Octagessima Adveniens,” Paul VI spoke of the need for a form of democracy that allowed for a greater participation of the poor in the mainstream of life. (15)  He also called both for a “preferential respect’’ for the poor and for those who have to place their goods at the service of the poor.(16) In this apostolic letter, Paul VI expanded the definition of the poor to include the “new poor,” i.e. the handicapped, the maladjusted, the aged and those on the fringe of society.

Also in 1971 the third Synod of Bishops met in Rome and issued the document “Justice in the World” in which it spoke in defence of marginalized persons, the ill-fed, the inhumanly housed, the illiterate and those deprived of political power as well as of the means of acquiring responsibility and moral dignity.

Justice in the World made four other points of great relevance to this paper:

  1. It reiterated Paul VI’s position in Populorum Progressio that the real problem of poverty is being deprived of political power to change the situation in which the poor find themselves. And it linked development and liberation (16)
  2. It asserted that God wants the liberation of the poor.

“the Church calls on all, especially the poor, the oppressed and afflicted, to   co-operate with God to bring about liberation from every sin and to build a world which reaches the fullness of creation.” (17)

  1. In calling for the Church to make an option for the poor and for it to be in solidarity with poor, it pointed to the need for the Church to examine its lifestyle and use of possessions (18)
  2. It linked poverty with the biblical understanding of justice and asserted that the mission of the Church to spread the Gospel involved proclaiming justice and human liberation. (19)

Much of all this was carried over into Paul VI’s “Evangelii Nuntiandi,” issued in 1975, after the Fourth Synod of Bishops in Rome. In this document, Paul VI dealt with the relationship of salvation to liberation, while insisting on the spiritual dimension of liberation (20), and stated that the Church cannot accept violent as a way to bring about change (21), and he called for the “culture of the poor” to be examined so that we may better understand why the Bible presents the poor as being a privileged class, special to God.

John Paul II began his Pontificate by attending the third meeting of the Latin American Bishops at Puebla 1979. The Puebla document reasserted and developed much of what was stated at Medellin, especially in the chapter entitled “A Preferential Option for the poor” (#1134-1165):

1. “We affirm the need for conversion on the part of the whole Church to a preferential option for the poor, an option aimed at their integral liberation.

2. “We will make every effort to understand and denounce the mechanisms that generate Poverty.” i.e. the need to understand the roots of poverty and not just the symptoms.

3. “The witness of a Poor Church can evangelize the rich whose hearts are attached to wealth, thus converting and freeing them from this bondage and their own egoism.”

While at Puebla John Paul gave addresses to shanty dwellers and I wish to highlight two statements he made to them.

“I feel solidarity with you because, being poor, you are entitled to my particular concern. I tell you the reason at once: The Pope loves you because you are God’s favourites.”

And again:

“God grant that there are many of us to offer you unselfish co-operation in order that you may free yourselves from everything that in a certain way enslaves you, but with full respect for what you are and for your right to be authors of your human development.”(22)

In his First encyclical in 1979, “Redemptor Hominis”, John Paul II called the Church to be in solidarity with the poor and marginalized, because:

“The Church is firmly committed to this cause, for she considers it her          mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ, so that she can truly be the Church of the poor.” (23)

Then in 1981, John Paul issued his encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” in which he introduced the concept of “indirect employer” to show how we are all caught up in the oppressive structures of sin, poverty and powerlessness, and therefore we all have a duty to work to change these unjust structures of society. He also developed the theme of solidarity; the need for solidarity among the poor themselves, and of the Church with the poor, and the need for human solidarity which requires confronting the unjust structures which destroy solidarity. Clearly this means that John Paul II recognised the inevitability of confrontation in certain situation and does not see it as a fundamental contradiction of solidarity.(24)  Very often it is the case that unity comes largely through confronting those who try to maintain unjust and divisive structures. However, the Pope insisted that the struggle of the poor, and of the Church in solidarity with them, is for justice and not against people, it is not a class struggle.

I wish to end with the Holy Father’s words in this December 30, 1987 encyclical – “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:”

“Positive signs in the contemporary world are the growing awareness of the solidarity of the poor among themselves, their efforts to support one another and their public demonstrations on the social scene which, without recourse to violence, present their own needs and rights in the face of the inefficiency or corruption of the public authorities. By virtue of her own evangelical duty, the Church feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern justice for their requests and to help satisfy them, without losing sight of other groups in the context of the common good.”(25)