Church leaders deliver lectures on preferential option for the poor
Mary Steurer | Monday, March 25, 2019
Catholic leaders Cardinal Charles Maung Bo and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez urged the Church for a greater devotion to the poor in the Center for Social Concerns’ 2019 Catholic Social Tradition conference, titled “Engaging Social Tradition: Option for the Poor.”
The seminar, which took place from Thursday to Saturday, hosted a number of presentations, lectures and panels on the topic of the preferential option for the poor — a modern principle of Catholic theology based on advocacy for the marginalized.
In a lecture Friday evening in McKenna Hall, Bo, the first-ever cardinal of Myanmar, called for the Church to remember the needs of the poor in Myanmar and similar impoverished countries.
Catholicism was first brought to the country by Jesuit missionaries in the ’50s, he said. In 1962, however, a coup d’etat ushered in an era of martial law that would last nearly half a century. During this time, non-Buddhist minority groups, including the Catholic Church, endured intense persecution from the state.
“In 1962, we lost everything, and [the] myopic socialist regime expelled the missionaries,” he said. “All our resources were challenged.”
Catholicism in Myanmar nevertheless continued to grow, increasing from around 300,000 in the ’60s to about 700,000 today. Still, Bo said, the Church there is struggling. Despite being rich with natural resources, 75 percent of Myanmar lives below the poverty line; hunger, disease and violence run rampant, with ethnic minorities being the most vulnerable.
“As we walk through Lent, I often feel the life of the people of Myanmar is the way of the Cross,” Bo said.
Though they have much to offer, Bo said he feels wealthy nations have turned their backs on Myanmar’s poor.
“Pope Francis called this a ‘globalization of indifference,’” he said. “The problem today is not ‘fake news,’ but the fragmented discourses about human suffering — [a] total hijacking of the discourse of the poor men’s and women’s tears and brokenness is the sad reality of this era.”
Bo said the heavy hand of Myanmar’s corrupt government and a lack of humanitarian aid from abroad has crippled the country.
“Brothers and sisters, poverty is not natural as rain or snow. Poverty is a manmade disaster,” he said. “People are made poor, kept poor — poverty is the modern sin of the modern times.”
Though theological scholars have written about the preferential option for the poor since ’70s, Bo said the poor demand the doctrine’s teachings be implemented.
“For every man of faith, option of the poor is not an option but a mandate from Jesus himself,” he said. “The poor are always with us, as Jesus said. We have no alternative. We are poor, powerless and align ourselves with the most powerless and those thrown out of their society.”
Gutierrez, who helped found liberation theology — a modern Christian doctrine which upholds social, economic and political freedom for the oppressed — delivered a lecture in McKenna Hall on Saturday.
Speaking via translator, Gutierrez called for the Church to make charity the bedrock of its faith.
“Salvation is understood sometimes as trying to save oneself. And then our option for the poor — you know, almsgiving and helping people in need — is understood as a way to save [oneself],” he said. “We need to think about being christians as something way more than that.”
The Church must also acknowledge poverty extends beyond monetary privation, he said.
“We need to go beyond the understanding of poverty that thinks about it in terms of lack of economic means, lack of money,” Gutierrez said. “It’s way more than that. It’s about despising people, it’s about racism, it’s about just despising those who are not like [us]. Overall, when we think about the poor we need to understand it in terms of those who are seen as not being human.”
Echoing Bo, Gutierrez said poverty has, in part, global inaction to blame.
“Poverty was [once] considered to be an unfortunate situation and given,” he said. “We need to continue asking the greater question about this fixed position and the idea that poverty is not a given situation but a caused situation.”
Intrinsic to the option of the poor is the understanding that God is close to those who help the suffering, Gutierrez said.
“This is the heart of the Bible. This is the Bible,” he said. “Of course, there are many nuances we should add, there are many ways to resemble the closeness that God has for the poor and hungry, but the key point is that this is the core of the Bible.”