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Alexander Foitzik

Option for the Poor


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 7/2007, P. 325-327
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Of what importance would probably be the "Option for the Poor" in the consultations of the Latin American episcopacy that had assembled in the second half of May in the Brazilian Saint Mary shrine Aparecida? How much room would it in the end get in the final document of the Fifth General Assembly of the Latin American bishops? How can this "Option for the Poor" be spelled out in view of the current challenges of the social and political situation of Latin America? Thus the in Aparecida in large numbers accredited journalists from all over the world time and again asked the bishops. And also here many people interested in what happens in the world church with rapt attention waited: How will the heritage of the Second and Third General Assembly in Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979), now, twenty respectively thirty years later be treated?

What will become of the "Option for the Poor", that formula for the impressive conversion of the Latin American church, of its - as it was called at that time - "Incarnation" into the Latin American reality with all the misery, injustice, repression under which the large majority of the population had to suffer. Will the bishops also at the beginning of 21st century stand by the basic decision to concede a preferential place to the poor in the church and the church work?

"Latin American bishops have impressively confirmed the 'option for the poor'", the first reports finally said from the Brazilian place of pilgrimage even before the conclusion of the general assembly. The Austria-Brazilian "Indian bishop" Erwin Kräutler, bishop in the Amazon region of Xingú, for example was satisfied with his brothers in office. Also Auxiliary Bishop Franz Grave, responsible for the Latin America welfare organization Adveniat, who was a visitor to Aparecida, sees the option for the poor clearly strengthened by the assembly, particularly because the Latin American bishops emphasized the rights of the Indian and Afro-American peoples.


Option for the Poor and Evangelization are closely connected

So Claudio Hummes, who originates from Brazil and is prefect of the Vatican Clergy Congregation, had referred the "Option for the Poor" to the central topic of Aparecida: the new evangelization of the up to now so automatically apostrophized as "Catholic" subcontinent. Mission and Option for the Poor were closely connected, explained the cardinal of the Roman Curia in his call for new missionary zest on all levels of the church.

Also the Pope had already in his speech at the opening of the general assembly expressly talked about the "Option for the Poor" and had given christo-logical reasons for it: The meeting with God is in itself and as such a meeting with the brothers; an act of composure, union, responsibility for the other and for the others. "In this sense the 'Option for the Poor' is implicitly already contained in the christo-logical faith in this God, who became poor for us to enrich us with his poverty." With the Pope's speech in Aparecida, the "Option for the Poor" had for good been included into the official theology the German-Brazilian theologian Paulo Suess was pleased.



Benedict XVI connected his declaration of loyalty to the option for the poor with a reminder, a motive already known from his encyclical "Deus caritas est": "The political work is not in the church's direct competence", he now anew underlined. If the church began to change directly into a political subject then it did by this not more but less for the poor and for justice. It lost its independence and its moral authority, if it identified with a single political way and with opinions that could be argued about. The church is the attorney of justice and of the poor, just because it does neither identify with politicians nor with the interests of parties.


It is about a Fundamental Change of Perspective

Even though the "Option for the Poor" resulted and is to be understood also from the continuing struggle of the Latin American church with its political, social and economic reality - it is long since no longer its "speciality", not only its central pastoral criterion. Meddelín's task after all was first to translate the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, primarily of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church into the situation of the Latin American countries.

The Option for the Poor runs already through the Bible, from the Prophet Amos up to the compassionate Samaritan; it is fundamental for the church's mission. In his encyclical "Sollicitudo rei socialis" from 1987 John Paul II took up the "Option for the Poor" and embodied it in the social-ethical tradition of the church as well as established that this option must not be limited to the individual assistance for the poor, but that it is just as necessary to change those structures that have a negative effect on the poor.

The "Option for the Poor" is also found in the US-American bishops' so much discussed pastoral letter on economy. Also the ten years ago published common word of the two large churches on the economic and social situation in Germany as a matter of course took up the "Option for the Poor" as justice criterion, apart from solidarity, subsidiarity and lasting effect: "That is why in the perspective of Christian ethics all actions and decisions in society, politics and economy must be judged by the question in what way they concern the poor, are useful for them, and enable them to act on their own responsibility" (No. 107).

If one takes the much evoked "Learning Community World Church" seriously, the plenary assembly of the Latin American bishops may be absolutely taken as an opportunity to ask what it is with us about the "option for the poor". Particularly since today this topic can clearly be discussed more calmly than at times when it was about the appropriate social theories to translate Jesus' practice of sharing, solidarity and criticism of rule into today's conditions.

There are of course large differences between the social and church situation in Latin America and in Germany. But both local churches are faced with the task of a far-reaching pastoral re-orientation: In the case of Latin America for example the rapid growing of the Pentecostal Churches is a challenge. In Germany the threefold lack of priests, faithful and money forces to far-reaching personnel and organizational restructuring in almost all dioceses, which strictly speaking make an argument about goal and forms of pastoral work absolutely necessary.

But who then are those poor people who - according to Jesus' word - will always be with us? And how sensible is it to speak of poor people? Not least in the discussion about the different poverty reports in Germany one tried time and again to play Germany's "relatively" poor off against the "absolutely" poor of the Third World; and just church groups and organizations had to face the reproach of belittling the situation of "real" poverty elsewhere by their engagement for the local poor.

Is it therefore about people with precarious livings, people shaken off in the race for profit and the losers of modernization? Is it about the new lower class in Germany, the hopeless living conditions of which dominated the headlines about half a year ago? Is it about those who have given up all hope ever to be able somehow to change their economic and social situation neither for themselves nor for their children, those who simply have lost the control of their own life? In the context of the recent reform of its statutes and organization the German Caritasverband has named the "lower third" of society as those for whom one wanted to take care in the future. Just the charitable associations then justify their attachment to the church with taking on the case of the poor. And just the Caritas had up to now time and again to face the reproach to protect those who defend the actual possession and those who slow down the inevitable reform processes, and to promote with their service also 'hammock mentalities' and social abuse. But equally it had also to protest against attempts to be politically monopolized.



How much is also the church challenged when the Federal Government's report on poverty and wealth documents an increasing gulf between rich and poor also in Germany? How can the "option for the poor" be positioned within the social-political argument about the different conceptions of justice, when "justice of distribution" stands against "justice of participation" and "justice of opportunity" against "justice of qualification"?

Could not in Germany too in connection with the "Option for the Poor" the inflationary appeals for re-evangelization as regards content more clearly and unmistakably be filled? After all it is not about the restoration of old conceptions of the church, not about mere recruitment but about our mission, so that all, also the excluded, losers and marginalized have "life in abundance".

"In our latitudes the church is usually too much oriented towards the middle class, its awareness of life and its needs", the Limburg bishop Franz Kamphaus reminded on the occasion of his parting. "Evangelizare pauperibus" - "preaching the gospel to the poor" - read his episcopal motto. Some parts of the population were in fact excommunicated, excluded from the church and social communication. Poor people like the Hartz IV recipients were at most a case for the Caritas. And who would deny that the care for the socially disadvantaged people was frequently left to the charitable associations alone? Anyway, laymen cannot meet their professional standards, their expertise. Do we then have in the end to fundamentally wonder whether we at all know, see and hear the poor and their reality - as this the Latin American bishops once did in Medellín?


Chorale and the Cry of the Poor

In the introduction to the Common Word on Economic and Social Problems were remarkable sentences about it: During the process of consultation that preceded the actual writing of the Common Word the churches had above all learned one thing: "There is a high sensitivity for its service for the society and an abundance of impressing activities within the church, but there are also many parishes and Christians who are in an alarming way self-related and give too little attention to the events in the society" (No. 46). That the standing up for solidarity and justice belonged indispensably to the preaching of the gospel, and in the service not only the chorale but also the cry of the poor must get its place, that mysticism i.e. God experience, and politics i.e. service for the society belong together, all this became emphatically apparent in the consultation process.

In the official press report to the spring plenary assembly of the German Bishops' Conference in 1997 the self-criticism was - in view of the Common Word on Economic and Social Problems - even more sharply formulated: "It is about a kind of new conversion of our parishes and ourselves to charitable service."

But how far have we got with this process of conversion? Maliciously one could say well, some obstacles got into the way of church in the last years. Who then would have reckoned already ten years ago with this financial crisis? Now it is essential first to order one's own house: pastoral restructuring, concentration on the core business, which parish still keeps its own minister, where do the services in the pastoral unit XY take place?

Where there are today arguments and discussions about the right celebration of the liturgy, it is about the beauty of the service, missing aesthetic feeling and rampant lack of style, shameless fondness of experimenting. At present the concern about the chorale appears to be more developed than the attention for the cry of the poor (see this booklet, 362 ff.).

Nevertheless it would not be fair to dioceses and parishes, if one left it at such a negative balance. So one tried for instance in most dioceses in view of the poor in the South to spare the "World Church Pots" despite all the economy measures, and the faithful donors still put enormous sums at the disposal of the church works for the service to the poor. Still many voluntary helpers are engaged in their parishes just in the field of charitable services, in visiting services, hospice groups, and pastoral advice service by phone. Time and again surveys confirm that where in society the church has still high reputation or confidence this is substantiated with its social commitment and presence; thus usually also the church Caritas ranks clearly before the church as a whole. This image will certainly not be completely undeserved. For a considerable part of the church taxpayers above all the social commitment of the church justifies the contribution.

Often even more highly appreciated from outside than in its own ranks just church groups take care of young and old migrants. But also the bishops engage for instance in taking on the cases of the so-called illegals in the country, and so also stand up for the dignity of those who are in a way without rights. It could be continued with the many church initiatives for the unemployed, the commitment in the youth service. So despite the ordered "Downsizings" some dioceses have e.g. deliberately decided for the maintenance of their day homes for children.

Some of those activities are of course linked into public, state structures; they are refinanced by public money and with high bureaucratic expenditure. Much happens also as a matter of course and without reflection, because it was always like that, because the church just does such things. A new agreement on "the option of the church in Germany for the poor" would not only create clarity and transparency both inward and outward. It could probably also for some people at least become the experience of a conversion, and absolutely also display a modest missionary effect.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiracy for-with-of the Poor'