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Helping the poor is a matter of faith and reality

By Father Dennis Hamm
Faith in Action

When our pope and bishops speak of making a "preferential option for the poor," this is no abstract mandate that we have to take on faith. This language simply faces a human reality. My experience of an infected thumbnail helped me see this.

I made the dumb mistake of using a paper clip to clean under a thumbnail. I soon developed a painful infection in that digit. It hurt even to strike the space bar with that thumb when I was working at the computer keyboard. I had to find a new way to tie my shoe laces. Until I got relief from the doctor, every move I made during the day was an act to protect that small hurting member of my body. At one point, I found myself saying, "Hey, I'm making a preferential option for my thumb!" And it was happening spontaneously.

Then I realized that this behavior occurs in any living organism. A dog with an injured leg spontaneously puts its weight on the other three legs. We speak of "favoring" an injured foot when we need to make the other foot do most of the work.

On the social level, rallying to the aid of a hurting member is sometimes spontaneous, and sometimes not. For example, a normal family will surely rally to help a sick member. A parent stays up to sit with a feverish child. Relatives pitch in to help a family whose breadwinner has been sidelined with sickness. These things usually happen as spontaneously as favoring an infected thumb.

But when we consider larger social units, we begin to notice a decline in that spontaneous readiness to help a hurting member. That is not surprising; as the social and geographical context widens, we quickly begin to lose a felt connection with others who are suffering. We cease to experience them as "members." A single mother across town who has to take two low-paying jobs to feed, clothe and house her children does not necessarily feel like a "member" of a body with which I am organically connected.

Here is where the "option for the poor" language of Catholic social teaching comes into play. We have a long tradition that acknowledges the obligation of all of us to work for what is called the common good: "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily" ("Gaudium et Spes," 26).

Obviously, it is a long stretch from the good of a thumb or a family member to the goods of undocumented Mexican workers in Nebraska packing plants, or Iraqi storekeepers, or Christian Palestinian woodcarvers. Since we do not experience a felt connection with these members of the human family, the Church calls us to make a deliberate choice to pay special attention to the hurting members of society. It is the only way to ensure that we are attending to the common good.

Father Dennis Hamm, SJ, teaches theology at Creighton University and is co-chair of the Social Ministry Commission.

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