At this time in human history, we are all learning to live with COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic is affecting our lives in numerous ways. It has created implications in the economic, interpersonal, family, community and other spheres of life. Indeed, these implications are here to stay for now and for several coming years too. The new normal situation that COVID-19 places before us forces us to reimagine new possibilities and opportunities, reshape our thoughts, redefine our approaches and redirect our actions, focuses and commitments.
In these past months of COVID experiences, Pope Francis quite frequently reflected on the coronavirus pandemic as it took hold of the human family. His reflections had twofold objectives: “The first is to suggest direction, keys and guidelines for rebuilding a better world that might be born from this crisis of humanity. The second objective is, in the midst of so much suffering and bewilderment, to sow hope and faith in the lives of people.”
On the Easter Sunday of 2020, Pope Francis wrote, “Our civilization needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself. You are indispensable builders of this change that can no longer be put off.” Emphasizing the need for authentic human solidarity during this time of humanity’s manifold sufferings, he further stated that we should be “profoundly shaken by what is happening all around us and recognize ourselves as part of a single family and support one another.” Further on, urging all people of goodwill to realign the current social and economic systems, the Holy Father exhorted that “the time has come to eliminate inequalities to heal the injustice that is undermining the health of the entire human family; the time has arrived to prepare for fundamental changes in a post-COVID world.” He also warned the world that “as members of one human family and residents of our only common home, a dangerous selfishness infests many more of us than COVID-19.” Reiterating the need for mutually supportive changes in all spheres of life, Pope Francis further stated that “our life after the pandemic must not be a replica of what went before, no matter who used to benefit disproportionately. Let us show mercy to those who are most vulnerable; for only in this way will we build a new world.”
The above reflections of the Holy Father Pope Francis in the immediate context of COVID-19 is a real leap into the inexhaustible treasures of wisdom contained in the different Principles of Catholic Social Teaching and to reshape the future of humanity in line with these principles, fundamental to the Gospel Values. The social concerns of the Church seek to look at human life in its totality. It also emphatically underlines that the integral development of human persons and society is also the concerns of the Church in so far as these are aimed at unfolding of the kingdom of God. For, “t he Church had always considered that it is her basic vocation and integral mission to be concerned about the human situations of poverty, injustice, deprivation and marginalization. The Church seeks to be the prophetic voice of the voiceless and the victims of injustice, the comforter of the sick and the suffering. The Church seeks to be the hope of the poor and the needy.”
Within the last few months of COVID-19 pandemic, the plight of the poor in the world has become more acute and their sufferings have increased manifold. The plight of domestic and international migrants, the sufferings of widows and orphans and the homeless, the persons with disabilities and those who are terminally ill, the people who lost employment and livelihoods, the families in debt traps, the children who are deprived of online classes due to family poverty situation, the women and children whose vulnerabilities to potential human trafficking increased – this litany goes on! In this context, the ‘preferential option for the poor’ as a Catholic Social Teaching principle has once again become relevant for our personal and collective reflections, leading us to more innovative ways and greater levels of solidarity actions for and on behalf of the poor of the world.
Jesus’ teachings and actions always exemplified the aspect of seeking for and reaching out to the least, the last and lost ones of society – the Gospel in action to those on the fringes and peripheries – as part of his larger inclusive vision for humanity. Taking inspiration from the words and deeds of Jesus, the Catholic Social thought gives paramount importance to special care of the needs of the poor and advocates for a preferential option for the poor. More authentic promotion of human dignity requires of everyone to show a preferential love of the poor and voiceless, because Jesus had identified himself with them in a special way. “This love excludes no one, but simply embodies a priority of services to which the whole Christian tradition bears witness. This love of preference for the poor… cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and above all, those without hope of a better future,” stated the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in its publication “The Social Agenda” (2000).
Taking guidance from the Gospels and other Biblical texts, several Papal and other Catholic teachings from the beginning of the Church have underlined the need to sensitize the Christian community about the care of the poor, the orphans, the widows, the marginalized and those on the fringes of the society and those whom the society tries to exclude from its mainstream. Jesus spoke extensively about the spirit of poverty and simplicity and invited his followers to offer them love, compassion and material support. The poor have been closer to the heart of God and hence, loving God would mean that we take care of the poor and the deprived ones of the society. Christian charity urges the Church members to walk the extra mile in offering their love and support to the socially and economically excluded ones of the society. The Church’s humanitarian and social action initiatives and programmes meant for the empowerment of the poor and the powerless ones are to be seen as her preferential option for the poor of the society.
At his General Audience on August 19, 2020, Pope Francis said that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has not only “exposed the plight of the poor and the serious inequality that reigns in the world, but even exacerbated them.” Continuing his catechesis on “Healing the World,” the Holy Father said our response to the pandemic must be twofold: “Finding a cure for this small but terrible virus,” but also curing “a larger virus, that of social injustice, inequality of opportunity, marginalization and lack of protection for the weakest.” In meeting that challenge, he said, we must always keep in mind the “preferential option for the poor. This is not a political option; nor is it an ideological option, a party option… no. The preferential option for the poor is at the centre of the Gospel. And the first to do this was Jesus.” The Holy Father went on to cite a handful of Gospel passages in which we see Jesus ministering to the poor in a variety of ways. “He took risks to be near to the poor,” the Pope said. And thus, Jesus’ followers “recognize themselves by their closeness to the poor, the little ones, the sick and the imprisoned, the excluded and the forgotten, those without food and clothing.”
Taking forward Jesus’ teaching on the care for the weaker sections of the society, St James in his letter exhorts his readers in these words: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but had not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says, ‘go in peace, be warmed and filled’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-18). Thus, based on this Scriptural foundation, for a believing Christian, preferential love/option for the poor is not merely an option but a faith-driven and action-oriented requirement of solidarity with those in need of his/her care and support in his/her communities and society.
Giving an added mission dimension and communitarian aspect to the Christian call of preferential option for the poor and reiterating the universality of the call to love the poor, St John Paul II in “Sollicitudo rei socialis,” no. 42, writes that “this preferential love for the poor is not a task for the few, but in reality it is the mission of the Church as a whole. Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor.”
The preferential option for the poor is not just the acts of charity of Christians alone. It does have larger scope, implications and aspirations. For instance, most of the modern democracies of the world are built upon the foundational framework of ‘welfare state’ concept and practices. By its definition, “the Welfare State is a form of government in which the State protects and promotes the economic and social well-being of the citizens, based upon the principles of equal opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth and public responsibility for citizens unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.”
India is a welfare state which has the Directive Principles of State Policy, enshrined in part IV of the Indian Constitution. The Constitution itself envisages India to be a ‘socialist’ State. Socialism, as envisioned in the Constitution, aims at elimination of inequality in income, status and standard of life and actively promotes social democracy. Hence, in the strictest sense, a welfare state is a government that provides for the welfare and well-being of its citizens completely. Such a government is involved in the lives of its citizens at every level. Such a government provides for the physical, material and social needs of its people, especially those who belong to the weaker sections and vulnerable categories.
Hence, in progressive democracies, the welfare measures and programmes are not the ‘benevolence gifts’ to the poor and needy by the governments or the political parties they represent. On the contrary, the governments in welfare states are constitutionally duty-bound to provide for the social and economic needs of their citizens, especially those who are in the margins of the society and suffer social and economic exclusion due to various structural and other factors. Thus, the principle and praxis of the option for the poor is not just an option of the Catholic Social Thought, but it is also a social and economic obligation of the welfare state governments such as India.
COVID-19 pandemic has created several challenges for all segments of the society, especially for those who are poor and struggling to meet the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, housing, children’s education and livelihood options. In this grim situation, the Church communities, the Civil Society Groups, the welfare governments and all people of goodwill are called upon to show greater levels of sensitivity to and solidarity with those in dire need of basic necessities of life. Such faith-driven and humanitarian efforts, to a large extent, will ensure to realize the aspirational objective that no one is excluded or left behind from receiving the required care and support during this period of COVID-19 pandemic-induced misery and suffering. And a more contextualized understanding of the option for the poor and its manifold practice with a sense of urgency will help to create a better world and a more caring humanity post COVID-19.
(Dr Jolly Puthenpura is currently the Assistant Executive Director of Caritas India)
(Published on 14th September 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 38)