The Preferential Option for the Poor Sinner

Any alert Catholic paying attention over the past 60 years well knows the familiar slogan of this article’s title. Well, almost. That last word in the title was never an original part of the slogan. Therein lies a story—and a lesson.

In the raucous wake of the ending of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) a significant number of the theological bien pensant executed a doctrinal coup d’état. Under the banner of aggiornamento, they masterminded a tectonic shift in the raison d’être of the Roman Catholic Church. No longer was the Church’s mission “saving souls”; respectable Catholics now spoke of “social justice.”

In fact, from the ’60s to this very day, a Catholic would be hard put to find mention of “saving souls” in any sermon or part of the voluminous Catholic mainstream academic literature (used in Catholic colleges, universities, seminaries and various houses of formation) accumulated since Vatican II. So thorough was the revolution that the mere mention of the phrase “saving souls” today in well-heeled circles is met with arched eyebrows or awkward embarrassment.

Overnight, the Church was made to appear as though the plight of the poor was never her concern. Against her alleged callous indifference rose bands of “enlightened” priests and nuns who would show her a thing or two. This fifth column would spare no shock in proving their point; in fact, shock became a potent weapon in their arsenal. Breaking with the past was their driving passion—especially the despicable past of the Catholic Church before 1965.

Their cause exhibited the utopian furor of the Jacobins and Maoists. Destruction was necessary to soften the soil for the social justice/equity they would usher upon the face of the earth. In the twinkle of an eye, Catholics noticed the difference: St. Vincent de Paul Societies were replaced by “social justice” committees; Lenten Mite Boxes (touchingly depicted with the suffering Savior of Gethsemane) would be tossed for rice bowl boxes; St. Nicholas drives at Christmastime gave way to Giving Trees.

Add to this something even more troubling. The precious (and oftentimes artistically priceless) liturgical accoutrements used for Holy Mass and the Sacraments were tagged as signs of the oppression of the poor (as well as the detritus of a malign “triumphalism” that needed to be erased entirely, like the airbrushing of historical photos incommensurate with Communist Party orthodoxy).

With the fanaticism of Bolsheviks, organized bands ransacked sacristy after sacristy for every sacred vessel and vestment they could find. Everything was either sold or burned, lest their contagion ever infect the New Catholics aborning. Similar frenzies were unleashed upon the beloved interiors of churches across the globe. This was all done so that the poor could be served, and a new Reimagined Church could arise. You could not be accused of melodrama for calling to mind Rousseau, who calmly remarked, “man must be forced to be free.”

Scores of ancient religious orders toppled like dominoes before the force of this antinomian juggernaut. Tell-tale signs of these heady rebel groups can be seen in organizations like the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, still waging war against despised past centuries of traditional religious life. Though these religious are now greatly spent by age, one can still spot the revolutionary spark which created the fires that consumed Old Catholic culture. That spark still flickers in the many religious orders that traded “saving souls” for creating a “just society.”

Because of the Movement’s feral intensity, today’s Catholics are forced to walk amongst the scarred remains of a once glorious Catholic Church. Of course, a faithful remnant remains, but they are relegated to roam a spiritual wasteland resembling Berlin after World War II. Shakespeare expresses the tragedy of this cataclysm,

those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. (Sonnet 73)

Emergent from this troubled period was the slogan, “preferential option for the poor.” One searches in vain for this new concept in the church’s treasury of dogma or piety, or in her long and soaring history. Instead of this novel and tendentious category, what one does find is the Law of Charity: which binds each and every Catholic to care for any need.

Our Lord is clear: “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40). From this Divine Commission, the Church fashioned the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Legions of saints, over thousands of years, committed themselves to the selfless care of the poor, leaving the world stammering before their heroic generosity. In every Catholic Church, the Faithful are confronted by the poor box, begging for their supererogation. It could safely be said that the Catholic Church invented active care for the poor. After all, our salvation depends upon it (cf. Matthew 25:32-46).

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