'The Needs of the Poor Take Priority Over the Desires of the Rich'

By Fernando Laguarda 1-27-2009

As a Catholic, I have been taught about the importance of the poor in the gospel and the social teaching of the church. As we contemplate the New Year, the inauguration of a new government into office, and our own plans and challenges, I would like to suggest that we incorporate the poor especially into our own thinking and the decisions we make for ourselves and our public policy. What do I mean by that? I am not trying to suggest I am an expert on poverty or that I couldn't be a more generous person. What I mean is that I would like to suggest that those of us who don't regularly think about the poor should do so more often.

Why is that? First, the Bible tells me that when he was alive, Jesus focused his ministry especially on the needs of the poor. He didn't talk about the needs of the soccer moms (or dads) or the middle class or the Joe the Plumbers of his time. He talked about money a lot -- but always in the context of his love for the poor. And the reason is plain. The Bible tells us that when Jesus comes in judgment, he is going to ask me and you and everyone who claims to be his follower what each of us has done to help the poor (Matthew 25:31-46). Each of us is going to be asked directly what we have done. We aren't going to be able to change the topic. So it's clear on a personal level: What we do to help the poor matters.

Second, on a public policy level, there's clearly no single "right" answer on how to help the poor. Many people of faith have different ideas about what works and what doesn't work. But the first question tells us that those ideas need to be discussed and put into practice. Maybe we need to do different things over time. But we're not allowed to give up. And importantly, we're not allowed to ignore the issue. In other words, alleviating poverty may or may not be politically important or expedient or "acceptable" all the time, but it is important and necessary and a priority to Christians, and especially to Catholics -- all the time. That's a challenge, but the church is very clear on that point. The bishops explain that "[t]he way society responds to the needs of the poor through its public policies is the litmus test of its justice or injustice" (Economic Justice for All, 1986, para. 123). That's pretty clear, and it's a pretty big deal.

In all we do then, personally and politically, the poor have the most urgent moral claim on our conscience. My prayer for myself, and for all of us as we discuss and debate and talk about public policy, is that we examine our choices and priorities in terms of how we can help the poor. We don't have to ignore the middle class, and we don't have to stop taking care of ourselves. But Jesus asks for more. And the church teaches us that we need to do more. As Pope John Paul II reminded us, "The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich" (Economic Justice, para. 94). The church's preferential option for the poor must be our option, and it must be central to our efforts to achieve the common good.

Fernando Laguarda is an attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C., who started his career as a bilingual social worker in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is a member of the National Advisory Board of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and a board member (and former board chair) of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

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