The Preferential Option for the Young

“The different theologies of liberation are situated between the ‘preferential option for the poor,’ forcefully reaffirmed without ambiguity after Medellin at the Conference of ‘Puebla’ on the one hand, and the temptation to reduce the Gospel to an earthly gospel on the other. We should recall that the preferential option described at ‘Puebla’ is two-fold: for the poor and ‘for the young.’ It is significant that the option for the young has in general been passed over in total silence.”

So wrote Cardinal Ratzinger in the CDF’s 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” in a passage setting down principles for teasing out the good from the bad.  The criterion he sets down here is this: talk of preferential option for the poor, without regard to an equally compelling preferential option for the young, is likely to be misguided.

In support, he refers to the Document of Puebla by John Paul II, where the great pope urges the bishops of Latin America to redouble their efforts at evangelization.  The saint picks out three themes for special emphasis by the bishops – which today can seem to us eerily distant.

The first is the family as domestic church: “Simply consider,” he says, “the campaigns in favor of divorce, artificial contraception, and abortion, which are destroying society.”  The second is vocations: “One of the proofs of the commitment of the laity is their fecundity in vocations to the consecrated life.”

The third is the preferential option for the young: “How many energies circulate among the youth of Latin America, which the Church needs! How close we shepherds need to be to them, so that Christ and the Church. . .may enter deeply into their hearts!”

Let’s get an easy point out of the way.  It’s impossible to be showing a preferential option for the young while molesting them, or not protecting them from molesters. Shepherds like that have rather deflated the “energies” of young people and led them to close off their hearts to the Church, and to Christ.  These bishops have been anti-evangelizers.  By the CDF’s criterion, we also couldn’t trust what such shepherds have to say about the preferential option for the poor.

John Paul II in Puebla

Admittedly, it was always possible to interpret the preferential option for the poor, correctly, as including children.  I’ve never seen an infant with a superfluity of material goods. Parents must clothe, feed, house, teach and comfort their children, without ceasing, for many years.

By the principle of subsidiarity, so important to Catholic Social Thought, we see that families do this better than governments, and best of all the natural family.  Thus, by a direct and immediate line of reasoning, we see that Catholic Social Thought must include all of the teachings about the family that typically get ignored by Social Justice Warriors and identified with “Social Conservatives.”  Rusty Reno has argued this point excellently.

So even sexual morality is a necessary part of Catholic Social Thought – which makes sense, given that sex is supposed to be social, and the family is the basic cell of society.  “Thou shalt not commit adultery” comes right after proscriptions against the society-destroying transgressions of murder and theft.  Indeed, to permit abortion (a sexual matter?) is to permit murder.  To permit divorce is to permit adultery.

It was Jesus who insisted on this last point, we should recall. Which leads to the interesting conclusion that those who ignore the preferential option for the young must also ignore the Bible.  For example, the USCCB’s webpage on “The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable” has lots of Bible verses about the poor, but none about children.

But then “The Option for Children, Born and Unborn, and the Young” should have its own web page.  Yet the moment one says that the one option is two-fold, or that there are two co-equal options, then any fudging about how “abortion needs to be contextualized given gross structural injustice in society,” etc., becomes unsustainable – because we are invited, without any ambiguity, to use the same reasoning for both.

Suppose that to solve the nuisance of the clamoring poor, some nations permitted the wealthy to kill them at will, and hundreds of millions had been eliminated in this way?   Could any commentator seriously say, in that case, that Catholics might in conscience vote for a politician who proudly endorsed such a policy – on the grounds that this politician favored a higher minimum wage and opposed a border wall?

The USCCB page approvingly quotes the following statement from Gaudium et Spes, 69: “Persons in extreme necessity are entitled to take what they need from the riches of others” (Flannery trans.), which on its face seems irresponsible, as inciting to violence.  Suppose an analogous page, on the co-equal preferential option for the young, similarly stated that, in cases of extreme necessity, such as an immature human getting hauled off to be killed, others acting on his behalf are entitled do what they must to stop it?  But the cases are equal applications of the principle of necessity.

On its page, the USCCB does not include the Council’s footnote to that sentence, which rules out both violent revolution and socialism as remedies to long-standing inequalities.  It refers to Aquinas who says, in effect, that the principle of the universal destination of goods is counterbalanced by the natural law principle that “each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.”

Thus, while there is a natural law principle that counter-balances the claim of necessity in the case of the poor, nothing does so in the case of the young – certainly not a right to privacy.

All this is to say that if the same urgency is felt towards the option for the young, as for the poor, the latter will certainly not dominate – which presumably is why some have “passed over [the option for the young] in total silence.”

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.