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Columns Justice Perspective

Black Lives Matter and the preferential option for the poor

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You might have heard that in early June, Pope Francis called Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso. It’s not unusual for the pope to speak to bishops, of course, but this phone call created some news because Pope Francis called Bishop Seitz shortly after the bishop and a number of priests in his diocese participated in a demonstration against racism in response to the death of George Floyd.

Bishop Seitz and his priests knelt in prayer for that same nine minutes that George Floyd had been knelt on, and held signs reading, “Black Lives Matter.” 

There was some great confusion among many Catholics about the appropriateness of a Catholic bishop and priests embracing the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” However, there is an intimate connection between Black Lives Matter and a tenet of Catholic Social Teaching, the Preferential Option for the Poor. 

First, let’s understand what the BLM slogan means. It began as a movement in 2013 after the acquittal of the white man who shot and killed Travon Martin, a 17-year-old black man. BLM asserts that systematic racism exists, and must be replaced by a culture where the humanity, contributions to society, and the resilience of black people are recognized and raised up.

Some have objected that such thinking puts black people out in front and affords them special treatment. And, in a sense, it does and must. The reason is that attention has to be placed where the problem is – and the problem being highlighted is the systemic racism that still exists in our country. 

Some insist that it is more proper to assert that “All Lives Matter,” but that misses the point. Suppose that your house is on fire, and the firefighters arrive and begin to put the fire out by training their fire hoses on your house. Then neighbors come out to demand that water be sprayed on their houses too because “all houses matter.” That statement is true enough, but attention must be paid to the house that is in trouble.

This idea of putting attention where it is needed most is the idea behind the Church’s teaching of the “preferential option for the poor.” The phrasing of this idea began in the late ’60s  and was explained well by St. Paul VI in his document “Octogesima Adveniens” (“A Call to Action”) in 1971:

“In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.”

While this concept is usually discussed in economic terms, the idea was expanded by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI who expanded the understanding of the “poor” to anyone who is marginalized by society. 

Perhaps this story will help. When I was on a CRS retreat a couple years ago, we had Stations of the Cross outside. I happened to be next to a woman named Mary who had some difficulty walking. By the time we reached the next station the prayers had already started. The solution would have been to put Mary in the front of the line and we would have all arrived together. 

Working to eliminate racism and asserting that Black Lives Matter is necessary if we genuinely want to arrive together in the Kingdom of God.

Deacon Don is the Diocesan Director of Catholic Relief Services and can be reached at deacondon@gmail.com.

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