1.3.6 The preferential option for the poor

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Unit 1 Contents


Justice requires that the suffering that poverty causes is taken into special account, in all kinds of human activities, including as governments make laws.  Pope John Paul II described the ‘preferential option for the poor’ as,

special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities… (Solicitudo Rei Socialis, #42; italics in original)

This ‘primacy’ arises from recognition of the human dignity of people who are poor, and of the affronts to their dignity which poverty causes – physical suffering, stifling of potential, exclusion. Seen in this way, the aim of the ‘preferential option for the poor’ is straightforward: to systematize ways of assisting people both to get out of poverty and to avoid falling into it.

The ‘preferential option for the poor’ became an explicit part of CST in the 1980s, although the idea it expresses has always been present in Christianity and goes back to the Scriptures, not least to the practice of Jesus himself.  We shall look at some of its roots in the Bible in the Unit 2.

On the last two screens we noted the strong affirmation of human rights in CST.  In Pacem in Terris, there is equal emphasis on ‘freedom rights’ (see 1.3.5) and ‘benefit rights’.  The latter are rights to have access to enough of the basic economic and social goods that people need if they are going to have the chance of living in a properly human way – things like food, water, housing, healthcare, and opportunity to work.  (See Pacem in Terris, ##11, 18-22; for further explanation of ‘benefit rights’ see Module A, Unit 7, esp. 7.1.3.)

The ‘preferential option for the poor’ can be seen as placing a special responsibility on those who have the power to secure people’s benefit rights to ‘go the extra mile’ in order to make sure that happens.  This means mainly employers and governments.  That is necessary because structures of injustice which make it extremely difficult for people to get out of poverty can be deeply embedded in economic practices.

Here is an example in international trade.  The European Union (EU), which is a highly affluent group of countries overall,  supports its own farmers through a policy of subsidies for producing some agricultural goods.  In other words, farmers receive money from the EU for what they produce, in addition to their income from selling the products.  A main aim of this policy is to maintain farmers’ incomes because otherwise, supporters of the policy argue, many of them would not be able to make an adequate living. However 20% of farmers receive 80% of the aid, and that 20% is mainly wealthier farmers with more land.1

Such subsidies mean that farmers can produce food more cheaply than they otherwise could.  This benefits consumers in the EU, as food prices are lower than they would otherwise be.2

But such subsidies also make it much more difficult for farmers in poor countries to export to the EU, because it is hard for them to produce goods at the low prices that prevail in the EU. Therefore the EU’s policy of subsidizing its own farmers is to the detriment of much poorer farmers in developing countries.  The EU’s agricultural subsidies policy was first introduced 50 years ago, in 1962, and has proved very hard to reform.  It has become a ‘structure’ that is firmly in place, even though reform is slowly taking place.  It can be seen as representing the opposite of the ‘preferential option for the poor’, because this ‘structure’ makes it much harder for really poor farmers in non-EU countries to benefit from the very large European market.

On the other hand, another part of EU trade policy can be seen as putting the ‘preferential option for the poor’ into practice.  This is the ‘Everything But Arms’ policy.  Under this, the 48 Least-Developed Countries in the world, as defined by the United Nations, can sell all goods they produce, except for arms and armaments, in EU countries without having to pay any import taxes.  This is not just agricultural produce but also manufactured goods.  This policy means that EU markets are as open as they could be to products (except armaments) from the world’s poorest countries.3

As these examples to do with trade policy suggest, the ‘preferential option for the poor’ is very significant in what CST says about international development issues.  Unit 6 in this module will focus on this subject.

The ‘preferential option for poor’ is applicable both at the level of public policy and in our own personal lives.  Whether we are poor, comfortable or wealthy ourselves, it is challenging because it asks us to be committed to showing a kind of ‘bias to the poor’ in the way we live.  This might be by going out of our way to be hospitable or generous to those who are poor or are on the margins of society – rather than ignoring them, keeping them at arm’s length, or just leaving them behind if we become better off.

I am writing a few weeks after the election of Pope Francis.  Many people have commented on the ways in which he has put this principle into practice, both as Archbishop of Buenos Aries and at the start of his Papacy.  For example: he has chosen, both in Argentina and now in Rome to live in modest accommodation, not a bishop’s palace; in Buenos Aries he often travelled by bus, not in the special car available to him as an archbishop; and he has made a point on Maundy Thursday each year of washing the feet of poor and suffering people, such as AIDS patients and prisoners.



Can you think of other examples of what the ‘preferential option for the poor’ might mean in practice:

(a)    in public policy

(b)   in personal life?


It is important to recognize that it is not only the principle of human dignity that gives the basis for this ‘special primacy’ of the poor. Commitment to the common good does too – because the common good itself requires the inclusion of every person.  Everyone loses out if some people are prevented by poverty from employing their gifts and abilities to participate in generating the common good.  Such exclusion means the common good for all of us is severely impaired: no-one can truly enjoy human wellbeing.

The Compendium introduces the ‘preferential option for the poor’ in the context of another really important principle of CST.  The label of this is a mouthful: ‘the universal destination of material goods’. This is CST’s most fundamental principle for economic life.

It is easier to understand this than the label might make you think.  The term ‘universal destination’ basically refers to the common good.  What the principle means, therefore, is that all material goods, including when owned as private property (such as my house or car, or your family business), must be used in a way which contributes ultimately to the common good, not just the owner’s private interests.  In other words, we are basically the stewards of whatever material goods we own and we must seek to use them in ways that will in the long run benefit others, and thereby contribute to the common good.

This is one of the CST principles that the twin VPlater module gives the opportunity to study more fully than this module does – see especially Module A, Unit 5.  But you need to be aware of it for this module too.  Therefore the next reading is about both this and the ‘preferential option for the poor’.


Reading (7pp)

Compendium, ##171-184 (Chap 4, sec. III)



End of 1.3.6

Go to 1.3.7 The principle of subsidiarity

Module B outline

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  1. See ‘CAP – basic facts’, at the European Commissions’s website: http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/faq/index_en.htm#2, accessed 5 April 2013. 

  2. The Common Agricultural Policy’s “main objectives are to ensure a fair standard of living for farmers and to provide a stable and safe food supply at affordable prices for consumers”, ‘CAP – basic facts’, cited above. 

  3. See ‘Everything But Arms’ at the European Commission’s website:  http://ec.europa.eu/trade/wider-agenda/development/generalised-system-of-preferences/everything-but-arms/, accessed 5 Apr. 2013.  In comparison with zero tariffs for the 48 Least Developed Countries, overall EU tariffs on agricultural products from all countries average 18%, according to Reform the CAP:  http://www.reformthecap.eu/issues/policy-instruments/tariffs, accessed 15 March 2013.