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25 August 2011

Reno on the Preferential Option

One of the dear brothers in my house always passes along The New Yorker to me when he is finished with it each week; one of the dear brothers from across the street passes along First Things to me on a monthly basis when he is finished with it.  Generally, I move through each issue and tear out the articles which interest me and get to them as time allows.  Thus, it was only this morning that I found out RR Reno (of Radical Orthodoxy fame) is the new Editor of First Things.  His first "Public Square" offering (in the June/July issue) focused upon the preferential option for the poor.

The article in its entirety can be accessed for free by clicking here.

Reno begins his argument by framing the classic Catholic perspective on poverty and the preferential option for the poor.  To make his point, Reno references Servant of God Pope Paul VI and his foray into the world of the preferential option for the poor.

That’s why the modern Catholic tradition of social ethics has consistently insisted that the needs of the poor must take priority. 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.” 

Reno subsequently summarizes and endorses a classic argument on the cause of poverty.  Reno, as do many others of his general ideological stance, suggests that poverty is first and foremost an issue of morality.  A snippet to illustrate his point:

Preferential option for the poor. A Christian who hopes to follow the teachings of Jesus needs to reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: Its deepest and most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; the most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic. Many people living at the bottom of American society have cell phones, flat-screen TVs, and some of the other goodies of consumer culture. But their lives are a mess.

I bring all this up because of my recent experiences in Central America.  I tend to agree with Reno to a certain extent.  The severe deprivations of a culture likely beget or worsen conditions of poverty.

But.  But.  I am always hesitant to view such diagnoses of poverty as locked, stocked and irrefutable.  Part of the overall weakness of the Radical Orthodoxy movement -- and more specifically in this case, Reno's perspective on the preferential option for the poor -- is that it all too often operates out of a position lacking empirical experience.  Just as the post-modern project attempts to pull apart epistemology, so critics of post-modernism discount the value of actually "knowing" about what one is talking about.  Call it an even playing field for proponents and critics alike.

My simple, barely reflective take is this: both the cultural and material deprivations which cause poverty seem to be deeply intertwined and thus suggesting one to be greater or prior to the other is a losing proposition.

With enough nuance, however, the problem of poverty can be attacked from both directions: materially and culturally.  Therein lies the most heartening part of Reno's column.  He refers to discussions he has with his friends of opposing perspectives.  If these conversations do actually take place -- and I have no reason to doubt they do -- then they are the first step in living a preferential option for the poor.

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