Status of the Question
We always said that the option for the poor was rooted in God himself, in the
being of God and therefore by nature was theo-centric: in a certain sense, we can
say that God makes an option in favor of the poor and that God «is»
the option for the poor. There was universal consensus that this option for the
poor is based precisely on the Love-Justice of the biblical-Christian God.
Nevertheless, with the recent «liberation theology crisis» some
authors have softened their discourse about the option for the poor. They have
abandoned the Love-Justice perspective and substituted the
«Gratuitousness» of God as the basis for the option for the poor. In
this new way of thinking, God simply «prefers» the poor or there is
a «weakness» in God’s mercy or an uncontrollable
«tenderness» toward the poor. Thus there would be no need to search
for any other reason, because the option is «gratuitous».
From this perspective, the option for the poor becomes a «whim»
of God toward the «the lowly, the weak and the insignificant». So
now we speak of the «lowly» and not «the poor» with the
powerful meaning found in the classical
discourse that today has been suppressed. In this theology, the option for the
poor has disassociated itself from the strong theme of justice and replaced it
with the more acceptable theme of gratuitousness.
My thesis is that this rewording and shifting of the focus from God’s
Justice to God’s Gratuitousness as a basis for the option for the poor,
weakens and ultimately misappropriates the option, (consciously or
unconsciously), converting it into a simple «preference», a
«preferential love», a priority in the order of charity, and thus it is no longer a
true «option», no longer a selective and an exclusive taking of
sides and no longer a fundamental option rooted in the very nature of God.
I do not deny that in some sense it can be said that «God has a
gratuitous preference for the lowly and the weak»; but I maintain that
such a «preference» cannot be identified in a strict sense with the
option for the poor (even less can it be seen as the basis for the this option).
To confuse the option for the poor with this «preference of God toward the
lowly and the weak» or with the so called «preferential love for the
poor» and then name it a preferential option, is to become the victim of
confusion and submit oneself to the strategy of those who have attempted to give
a new meaning to the option for the poor and strip it of its proper content. The
original and classical Latin American option for the poor, that which is typical
of the theological spirituality of liberation, the option for which our martyrs
died and that which we consider «firm and irrevocable» is different
than and must be distinguished from any later deviations. A courageous
and enlightened fidelity ought to reject, consciously and explicitly, this false
basis that roots the option for the poor in God’s
«gratuitousness». This is what I want to clarify and to do so, it is
best to reframe systematically the very nature of the option for the poor.
In a strict sense, God loves without any preference or discrimination
To state otherwise would be anthropomorphism.
God cares for and loves all equally; God loves each individual with a very
particular love, an infinite love that is impossible to quantify. No one should
feel him/herself «preferred» over another or discriminated against
either positively or negatively. It is impossible to speak seriously about
«preferential love» on the part of God toward certain persons. The
dignity of the human person and the impartiality of God demand that we affirm
anew God’s infinite love toward all people. Anything else is simply an
inadequate form of speech that is «too human», anthropomorphic.
God is not partial and has «no favorites». God is not motivated
by race or color or gender or culture. God loves all creatures with «an
incomparable and unqualified» love. In God there can be no preferences or
God opts for Justice, not preferentially but rather in a partial and
There is an area, however, where God is radically and inflexibly partial: the
area of justice. God places himself on the side of justice and against
injustice, with no compromises or «preferences», certainly not
«neutral»: God is against injustice and takes the side of those
«treated unjustly», that is, the victims of injustice. God does not
make nor can he make «a preferential option for justice»: rather God opts for justice
by placing himself in a radical position against injustice and totally assuming
the Cause of the victims of injustice.
This option of God for justice is not rooted in his
«gratuitousness», nor is it some kind of divine «whim»
which could have been something else or simply never have come into existence,
as if the divine approval of justice obeys a simple ethical voluntarism.
God’s option for justice is rooted in his very being: God cannot exist
in any other way and indeed without this option God would contradict and deny
his very being. «By nature» God is the option for Justice and this
option is not gratuitous (but rather axiologically inevitable), not contingent
(but rather necessary), not arbitrary (but rooted in the very being of God), not
preferential (but rather partial and exclusive).
The option for the poor is an option for the victims of injustice
The concept «poor» as part of the expression «option for
the poor», has caused certain confusion. In effect, if the option is
«for the poor», then one is explicably tempted to situate the
foundation of this option in «poverty», thus falsely identifying
poverty with holiness (which was avoided from the beginning), or metaphorically
orienting the concept of «poverty» in a different direction or aligning it with one of
the groups which in the Old Testament seems to be the object of
«preference» on the part of God («the weak and the
lowly») or giving it a meaning that was never intended.
We can avoid these deviations if we bring to light the theological role that
the concept «poor» concretely plays in the expression «option
for the poor». Theologically speaking, «poor» refers precisely
to those who are «the victims of injustice». God does not opt for
the poor because they are poor, (economically or materially), but opts for the
poor because they are «the victims of injustice». Economic poverty
is not in itself a theological category, but injustice, often a cause of
economic poverty, is a theological category. Theologically considered «the
option for the poor» is in reality an «option for the victims of
injustice». If it is called
«option for the poor», this is due to the fact that the poor
(economically) are the primary victims of injustice and its par
excellence expression. Speaking with theological precision, the subjects of
this option for the poor cannot be identified with the «economically
poor» in themselves nor with «the poor who are good», or with
those who are «poor in some other sense of the word» or who are
«poor in spirit»… (because of the metaphorical word games, all
of these definitions are elusive and inadequate), rather the subjects of this
option are «the victims of injustice», economically poor or not,
metaphorically or not.
On the contrary, the «lowly and the weak» or all those whose
«poverty» cannot be measured in terms of injustice, cannot be identified as the
first recipients of the option for the poor, except through metaphorical
extension. They can be the object of God’s and our «special
tenderness» and graciousness, but this attitude and feeling should not be
confused with the option for the poor.
Every human problem that can be called unjust (even though it may have
nothing to do with «poverty» in the literal or economic sense) is
the object of the option for the poor (because this is an option for justice).
Even though they might not be directly linked with economic poverty, yet racial
discrimination, gender discrimination, cultural discrimination… as forms
of injustice (indeed very clearly so), are the object of the option for the poor
-- not because they are expressions of some form of poverty (which they are not)
but because they are forms of injustice.
The option for the culturally despised, for those living on the fringes of
society, for those oppressed because of their gender, are not different options
from the option for the poor, but rather concretizations of the only
«option for the victims of injustice», which we call the option for
The theological-systematic essence of the option for the poor and its
foundation is God’s option for Justice.
speaking, in a systematic-dogmatic sense, the true nature of the option for the
poor is God’s option for Justice. The «theological
radiography» of the option for the poor, the foundation that sustains it
and that which in reality constitutes it, is God’s option for justice.
If God’s relation to justice is set aside in such a way that the option
appears to be one of «gratuitous good will» on the part of God, then
the option for the poor becomes lost in a way that weakens and confuses and
strips it of its very nature, turning it into a simple «preferential
love» or an optional option, gratuitous, arbitrary, contingent,
disconnected from justice, reduced to «charity» and benevolence.
God’s option for justice is greater than, and precedes, that which the
theology of liberation understood and expressed as the option for the poor. The
option for the poor is an expression of (indeed an important expression but not
one which totally captures) the option of God for justice. The option for the
poor is one way for us to understand, express and assume this option of God for
«Option for the poor» is a pastoral, historical phrase, chosen to
help us in our understanding. But theologically-systematically considered, that
is, examining its deepest theological essence, the option for the poor
«is» the option for justice, and the term that best expresses its
theological nature would be «option for the victims of injustice». We are not saying that we
must now change the name of this option, but rather we are simply calling
attention to the fact that the name does not correspond to that which would be
«an essential definition» of the option for the poor.
As an option for justice, the option for the poor is not preferential, but
rather selective and exclusive. On the other hand, the preferential option for
the poor is simply a priority and not an «option».
option for the poor is the adoption of a spiritual position (wholly human and
therefore, also social and political) in favor of the poor in their concrete
social, historical, and conflictive situation. Therefore it is an option that is
selective and exclusive.
The option, (not preferential) for the poor pertains to the area of justice
and is rooted in God’s option for justice. On the contrary, the
«preferential option for the poor» pertains to the area of charity and can be placed in
relationship with the gratuitousness of God. The option for the poor is not
applicable to natural poverties whereas the preferential option for the
poor is only applicable to these natural poverties.
The option for the poor sees poverty as an injustice to be eradicated by a
political and transforming love, by a social praxis, as an act of justice. The
preferential option for the poor, however, sees poverty as a lamentable reality
but perhaps natural, that is, as a reality that has to be compensated for by
acts of gratuitous generosity and benevolence.
Making the option for the poor «preferential», that is,
displacing the option for the poor and substituting it with the preferential
option for the poor serves to obscure the framework of justice and then views
reality solely from the perspective of beneficence and material assistance. To
put it another way, it reduces Christian love to private mercy and spiritual
solidarity. Indeed, the opposition to the option for the poor -and in general
the opposition to the theology and spirituality of liberation where this option
for the poor first saw the light of day- has served as the principal objective
of those who have attempted to reverse the post-conciliar renewal of Latin
American spirituality as expressed in Medellin and Puebla and of those who want
to return to a Church that legitimatizes the capitalist and neo-liberal system
that is also openly hostile to the Church of Latin American liberation and its
When applied to the option for the poor, the adjective
«preferential», implies a relation of simple priority between
distinct entities that are at one and the same time inclusive and mutually
exclusive. Thus the option for the poor is stripped of its nature and becomes a
simple priority or a hierarchical preference and ultimately denies the
possibility of a radical option for one of the entities that has been reduced to
a preferential relationship. Thus, speaking precisely, the preferential option
for the poor is not an option for the poor, but rather, as stated by its
rhetoricians, is a simple «preferential love» in the strict sense of
the word. The addition of the word
«preferential» has served in many cases as the «Trojan
horse» that has introduced into the option for the poor the seed that
destroys its very nature. Fortunately, there are many people who have adopted
the use of this adjective (because of external pressures) without abandoning
(internally) the radical understanding and lived reality that forms the genuine
nature of the option for the poor, that is, not preferential, but exclusive and
excluding other options.
Applications and Corollaries
Option for the poor: a transcendental on the level of norm of
In its theological-systematic meaning (over and above its concrete
application to non-theological mediations or as distinct from these mediations),
the option for the poor is a transcendental that surpasses and moves beyond the
theological dimensions and pertains essentially to the very image of the
biblical-Christian God. Our God (at the very heart of biblical and Christian revelation
and per se) «is» an option for justice, with absolute
precedence over and totally independent of any theological school or any charism
or spirituality in which we might situate ourselves. Seen in this way, the
option for the poor is not susceptible to be normative in a subordinate
position (it is situated on the
highest level of norm of norms) and therefore demands obedience as though
one were obeying God, thus opening one’s spirit to the test of greater
In this same sense, the option for the poor is not a «theory» of
Latin American liberation theology, but rather a transcendental dimension of
Christianity, a dimension of liberation theology (for the benefit of all
Christians) that has been rediscovered as belonging to the very essence of God.
This rediscovery is indeed «the greatest event in the history of
Christianity that has occurred during the past few centuries», and marks a
«before» and «after», a defining moment, with no turning
back for those for whom the option for the poor has been a spiritual experience
of conversion to the God of the poor. The option for the poor has to be seen as
«firm and irrevocable» and as a «mark of the true
Poverty, wealth and injustice
With respect to the identification of the option for the poor with the option
for justice, let us speak at length in more precise language.
– If the poverty of an individual or a group is due to the fact that
they have been the victims of injustice, then to that extents God is
on the side of these poor persons and against their poverty and the persons who
cause this poverty-injustice. God is necessarily on the side of the poor in a
way that «excludes» the injustice of the unjust and not simply on
their side with a non-exclusive «preferential option».
If, however, we are dealing with some type of «poverty» that has
nothing to do with justice («natural poverty» due to race, gender,
culture...), then we must understand that God does not discriminate nor does God
«prefer» one person to another. God neither prefers nor ignores any
race or gender or culture per se.
– If the wealth of an individual or a group implies an injustice, then
to that extents God is decisively against this wealth and against the way of
life that has produced this wealth because God takes the side of those who
suffer the consequences of injustice and is against those who cause this
injustice. God necessarily takes on this attitude and does so in a way that
excludes this injustice and not with an option that is only «preferential
toward the poor» but in a way that radically excludes «the way of
life of the rich» that produces this
If, however, we are dealing with wealth that has nothing to do with injustice
(psychological qualities, gender, spiritual and/or natural gifts, misfortune...)
then in this case God neither discriminates nor is partial toward anyone.
To put it another way:
– If in the social order we only see people as people of color or not,
as short or tall, as strong or weak, as significant or insignificant …
(that is, if we see people simply in terms of their natural differences and
ignore their dialectical, conflictive and political differences) then we can only think of
God as having some concrete «preference» toward the lowly, the weak,
the insignificant… but not making an «option» or taking sides
with one group that excludes another (because this would be unjust of God). The
foundation for this «preference» is the «gratuitousness»
of God and demands us to be benevolent and to act with kindness and alms giving.
This is the preferential option for the poor.
– If in the social order we are able to see people impoverished by
others who are enriched, races dominated by dominant
cultures, genders oppressed by oppressing genders… then we are able to
grasp the fact that God is incapable of simple «preferences» without
true «options» and «taking the side» of the victims of
injustice and «against» injustice, and that this option of God is
radical, selective, and excludes the opposite. Its theological foundation is not
the gratuitousness of God, but rather God’s justice, and therefore demands
us to make a similar «option»: radical, selective and exclusive,
with implications for an option to a «social role» and with a
commitment to a praxis that transforms history. This is the option for the
The concept of justice as mediation
Logically, theological principles, as they are put into practice in the real
world, are obliged to pass through the diverse filters of philosophical,
sociological and even political mediation.
For example, the very concept of «justice» with all its
philosophical, sociological, political and even cultural implications will be an
especially influential mediation when referring to this «option for the
poor». There is a capitalist concept of justice as well as a socialist,
neo-liberal and imperialist concept. People are influenced by their concept of
justice and by the «social role» they play or choose. Those who see
justice as «giving to each one his/her due», can see the world of
extreme inequality as just if, for example, they hold as absolute the right to
private property. This was certainly not the case for the Fathers of the Church,
nor is it so for those who embrace the concept of distributive and social
justice according to the social doctrine of the Church. Indeed these people
operate with a very different concept of justice.
In this sense, even though we theoretically make reference to the same God,
and accept as evident God’s option for justice, yet our vision of
God’s will for the world can differ and we may very well hold positions
that are completely contradictory to the positions of others. What is the origin
of this discrepancy?
The discrepancy is not rooted in our concept of God or his plan or will, but
rather in the concept of justice that we use to form our moral judgments. The
origin of these discrepancies can very well be found in the moral judgments
(based on our concept of justice) that we make about poverty and wealth and
about the social and structural mechanisms that produce them, that is, do we
judge them as natural or historical, determined or flexible, accidental or
caused, culpable or not, structural or circumstantial, an essential product of a
perverse system or an accidental negative by-product of a system that is not
necessarily negative. Therefore, for example,
– if we see the unequal distribution of wealth in the world as natural
(the famous «champagne glass» of the PNUD reports) then we will also
think (logically) that God has nothing to say about all of this or that God only
exhorts us to give alms, to be charitable and generous… and thus mitigate
these lamentable «natural» differences.
– On the contrary, if we see this distribution of wealth as unjust and
sinful, we will think (logically) that God is angry at this situation and
ardently desires its obliteration and that God also wants us to struggle against
this unjust system with a radical commitment to justice.
– Again, if we think that the struggle against this unjust system is
the greatest drama of humanity, then it will seem that overcoming it expresses
the best and most urgent will of God.
– If we consider neo-liberalism as innocent and that it is the
«lesser evil of the systems», then it would seem that God wants us
to support it and even «better» its «accidental
– On the contrary, if we believe that neo-liberalism is unjust, the
greatest injustice and unjust in its very structure, then it would seem that God
wants us to combat this sinful structure in the most resolute way possible.
Thus it would seem that the theological problem is orientated toward the
discussion and the analysis of the mediations and that the discrepancies are not
found on the theological level of principles but on the prudential level of
mediations. Nevertheless, this is only half the problem, because our concept of
justice forms part of our choice of God. «Tell me how you define justice
and I will tell you who your God is». Tell me how you view justice and I
will tell you about the God you adore.
We are accustomed to think that our concept of justice comes from the God of
our belief, but the opposite is also true: we believe in a God compatible with
our concept of justice. The most fundamental option of our life might very well
be the one we make with regard to our concept of justice, (justice that at the
same time encompasses our world vision). Our image of God is the child of the
option that leads us to choose one or another concept of justice and its
corresponding world vision. The opposite is also true: many people never assume
a utopian concept of justice because previously they opted for the God of
selfishness and wealth.
The option for the poor then, is also an option for the God (of the poor) and
an option for the utopian justice (of the Kingdom). The «option for the
rich» is a rejection of the God of the poor and an option for a justice
resigned to selfishness. The option for the poor or rich, utopian justice or a
justice resigned to selfishness, the option for God or its rejection are
mutually implicit in a hermeneutical circle. Obedience to God is not determined
by a direct relationship with God, but by our choice between utopian justice and
a justice resigned to selfishness. Principles and mediations
are more mutually implied than at first they might seem to be. God is just and
justice is divine. The option for the poor then is an act of faith in the God of
the poor and an ethical and humanizing option for justice (at one and the same
time the justice of the poor and the justice of God). On the other hand, the
option for selfishness is an injustice and a rejection of the God (of the poor).
Thus we return to the beginning: God and the option for the poor cant be
separated because the option for the poor is rooted in God himself, in
God’s justice. The gratuitousness of God is another theme.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, C.M.
José María Vigil, CMF is a Claretian priest from Spain now living
and working in Central America. He studied theology at the Pontifical University
in Salamanca and at the Angelicum in Rome, and did studies in clinical
psychology in Salamanca, Madrid and Managua. He is executive secretary of CICLA,
the Conferencia Internacional Claretiana Latinoamericana, and the author of a
number of books and articles, many of which appear (in Spanish) on the Internet.
http://servicioskoinonia.org. He says he is working "for the coming of the
Reign of Christ, for world justice, a correct globalization, the cause of women,
the option for the poor, the recovery of self-esteem and hope by the poor and by
their organizations, for ecology, for ecumenism and the end of «invierno
eclesial» …the end of winter in the Church.