R.R. Reno at First Things has written a moving meditation on the preferential option for the poor:

“In the Gospel of Matthew we find Jesus warning us about how our lives will be judged. His words are pointed. We are to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. For what we do to the poor and the destitute—“the least of these my brethren,” says Jesus—we do to the Lord himself.

It’s a sobering warning, and I fear that I’m typical. For the most part I think about myself: my needs, my interests, my desires. And when I break out of my cocoon of self-interest, it’s usually because I’m thinking about my family or my friends, which is still a kind of self-interest. The poor? Sure, I feel a sense of responsibility, but they’re remote and more hypothetical than real: objects of a thin, distant moral concern that tends to be overwhelmed by the immediate demands of my life. As I said, I’m afraid I’m typical.”

Reno points out something very interesting about the language used to describe our relationship to the poor:

“In Octogesima Adveniens (1971), an encyclical marking the eightieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s seminal treatment of modern social issues, Rerum Novarum, Paul VI evoked the fundamental importance of a transformative spirit of self-sacrificial love. “In teaching us charity,” he wrote, “the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the most fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods generously at the service of others.”

“Preferential respect” became the handier slogan “preferential option,” a formulation that first emerged from liberation theologies in South America but has percolated into a great deal of Catholic pronouncement on social ethics in recent decades. It captures a fundamental Christian imperative. When we think about politics and culture, our first question should be: “What are the needs of the poor?””

The late Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J. coined the phrase, ‘preferential option for the poor’ a few years prior to Pope Paul VI’s use of ‘preferential respect’ in his encyclical and both phrases bring out a different dimension of what the Christian’s relationship with the poor should be.

The language of Arrupe follows the Ignatian tradition in its emphasis on choice. It is a preferential option, a decision to be made, and a commitment to be lived. The language of Pope Paul VI is more ontological, a respect to be given to the poor as poor, possessing a dignity that also demands ones own renunciation of rights and claims before them.

When meditating on the preferential option, a relationship of action and choice, Reno is right to recall the words of Jesus when he speaks of the judgment, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

When I think of Pope Paul VI’s language of respect my thoughts go to these words of Christ, “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.”

The poor must never be reduced to a project or duty and they must never be ignored while simultaneously held in our esteem. They are our neighbors and all that that entails.