USC Book Club: The Preferential Option for the Poor beyond Theology

September 2016:

The Preferential Option for the Poor beyond Theology

Edited by Daniel G. Groody and Gustavo Gutiérrez

Review: It’s been 43 years since Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote A Theology of Liberation. His book forever changed the face of Catholic theology, and yet the poor around the world are still suffering. Therefore, it is not enough to hold on to the theological idea of a preferential option for the poor; we need to put the idea in practice while acknowledging the multifaceted nature of poverty.

The essays in this volume show how poverty affects every aspect of human existence. Contributors write on law, economics, film, science, and education—to name a few of the many topics addressed—examining how their own lives and vocations have been shaped and guided by the option for the poor, no matter what their industry or academic discipline. Anyone, no matter their career or location in life, can live out a commitment to the world’s poor and marginalized.

—Emily Sanna, associate editor, U.S. Catholic

University of Notre Dame Press says: How can one live a Christian life in a world of destitution? This book addresses the option for the poor and the ways it can shape our social, economic, political, educational, and environmental approaches to poverty.

Paperback: $30.00

Available at bookstores or from University of Notre Dame Press at 1-(800) 621-2736

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General Book Club Guidelines

Discussion Questions
Chapter One: “On Professors and Poor People” by Robert E. Rodes, Jr.

1. Compare and contrast this statement, the purpose of law is “to make the limited resources of the world meet as many human wants as possible with the least possible friction and waste” (page 11), with your understanding of the preferential option for the poor.

2. How might a discussion of the preferential option for the poor change based on whether one believes justice, on the one hand, or charity, on the other, to be it’s foundation?

3. Discuss the quotation by William Stringfellow on page 12. What other factors, besides simple economics, contribute to the condition of poverty?

4. How do the five principles of Gutierrez’ theology (pages 17-18) compare to the influences of the other scholars that Professor Rodes mentions? How might the ideas in the Gutierrez quotation on page 18 mitigate the discouragement of doing the work of justice?

5. As he sets forth his “Liberation Jurisprudence,” Rodes states: Our pursuit of justice involves the replacement of unjust laws and institutions. It is a task that will not be completed this side of the eschaton, because the forces of history and the creativity of evil are constantly making just laws and institutions operate unjustly. (page 21)  Do you find hope in these words or only the feeling of fighting a losing battle? Why?

6. Reread the paragraph on page 23 that begins with, “Next, the preferential option for the poor is not a power base.” How do you see some of the pitfalls outlined in this paragraph in the current political culture of our country?

7. Has your idea of poverty changed based on reading this chapter? Has it become simpler or more complex? Why? Are you more hopeful or more discouraged? Why?

Chapter Two: “The Option for the Poor and Business Ethics” by Georges Enderle

1. Discuss this statement: “George Lodge claims, corporations hold the key to combating global poverty because they can bring business know-how and the profit motive into play” (page 37). What are the implications if it is true? Is it true, do corporations hold the key to ending global poverty? If they don’t, who does?

2. Why might an emphasis on the material, concrete, bodily reality of poverty be so important? Discuss this idea: “life is a process of love that tends to become ever more concrete” (page 39).

3. Discuss the ideas of creating wealth and making money? Are they good or bad? Why? Are they necessary? Why?

4. If a goal of poverty elimination is to enable the poor to become agents of their own destinies and more dignified lives, might that include being able to create wealth for themselves? If this is true, what differences might there be between their creating wealth for themselves and wealth creation in general?

5. Discuss the role of small and medium-sized business and transnational corporations in working towards eliminating poverty (see pages 41-2). Are they just “ugly servant[s] for meeting material needs,” or important players in the solution? Why and how?

6. Discuss the difficulties of doing business ethically and with integrity in our modern culture. How might these difficulties affect how businesses approach their role in the elimination of poverty?

7a. Discuss this statement: “Serving the poor requires a great deal of entrepreneurial imagination, as well as human and financial resources, and it is not objectionable that the profit motive plays an indispensable role” (page 44). Do you agree or does this rub you the wrong way? Why?

7b. Discuss the next sentence: “However, this new strategy is bound to fail if it is based solely on the profit motive and not also on the ethical responsibility of the companies as corporate citizens to serve the poor for intrinsic reasons (because ‘it is the right thing to do’).” What are some ways companies can marry the two ideas that working to eliminate global poverty is both in their best interest and the right thing to do?

Chapter Three: “The Multidimensionality of Poverty” by Javier Maria Iguiniz Echeverria

1. On page 48, Echeverria states that according to some, “economy appears as the best tool to improve all dimensions of life.” Discuss the validity of this statement. Are there “dimensions of life” that economics has no bearing on? What other indicators of poverty, besides purely economic ones, can you come up with?

2a. Is it true that, as is noted on page 49, “economic effects arise out of noneconomic factors”? Why?

2b. How do you react to this statement: “Everything becomes, or should become, capital including social relations, physical appearance, age, gender, race, virtues, and other qualities”? Does this idea diminish or emphasize the reality of material poverty?

3. Discuss the differences between poverty related to specific people, families, and groups and mass chronic poverty? What are the indicators of each and how might the methods of eliminating each be different?

4. Discuss the “individual differences” that the author points out that may be factors in determining whether someone is poor or not. Are they valid? Are the “poor different from the non-poor in some significant way” (page 50)?

5. Where “whole society suffers from a massive and chronic condition caused by insufficient or underdeveloped natural resources, the lack of an industrial base, factors related to heritage and tradition, and political and social weakness” (page 51), “natural, economic, cultural, and political variables constitute a structural impediment to reducing poverty where this is massive and chronic.” Does mass chronic poverty seem to be a more challenging problem than individual poverty? Why? How are the solutions the same or different?

6a. Discuss the relative importance of economic gains for those in poverty and developmental gains such as longevity, literacy, schooling, health conditions and services, housing, clean water and sanitation, food security, etc. How do they fit together?

6b. “What happens to the human being after getting the things he or she obtains in the market”? (page 55) Is there more to “full life.”

7. How can you explain the “persistence of poverty in the midst of wealth”? (page 56)

Chapter Four: “Are the Poor Happier? Perspectives from Business Management” by Matt Bloom

1. Discuss the following two statements from the introduction to chapter four: “if some people live very well with too much money while others suffer with too little, then no one can be truly happy,” and “the way a society treats its poor and marginalized has implications for the well-being of all its members” (page 70). What evidence do you see of these statements locally, in the United States, and globally? Can you come up with examples where these ideas do not prove true?

2. Discuss possible motivations that people who live above the poverty line might have for increasing their current wealth and desiring greater material prosperity. Does the research show that the assumptions behind these motivations are true? How might the situation of global poverty change if general expectations about daily happiness and life satisfaction were changed?

3. Discuss the statement: “money matters less for happiness as we become wealthier and better paid” (page 72). Is it true? Why?

4a. Why does relative income or wealth seem to matter more than absolute wealth?

4b. What is it about our nature that makes us tend to compare ourselves unfavorably with those around us?

4c. Why do we tend to be happiest when our national income inequality is the lowest?

5. Discuss the idea of being “under-rewarded” (page 73). Aside from the physiological reasons, why might this be such an issue for us? How might it be overcome?

6. Discuss the psychosocial effects of low socioeconomic status? Are these effects ameliorated or alleviated when income and wealth increases?

7a. Discuss how changing one’s thinking from “being stuck in a low-paying job” (page 76) to “starting in an entry level position” might change one’s prospects for social mobility (page 75) and future happiness.

7b. Discuss the concepts of value and human dignity. What are some of the pitfalls of equating these to socioeconomic status, pay scales/income levels, and the accumulation of wealth?

8. What are some ways we might change how we view and use money so that we think and act not only for our own self-interests but to help others, prioritizing people over possessions, profit, and power (see page 77)?

Chapter Five: “The Option for the Poor and the Indigenous Peoples of Chile” by Patricio A. Aylwin and Jose O. Aylwin

1. Discuss the history and reasons for poverty among the indigenous peoples of South America. Include in your discussion the areas of land/agriculture, economy/income, self-rule/politics, culture, migration, job opportunity, etc.

2. How do you understand the idea of assimilation? What are the pros and cons and why are they important considerations?

3. Discuss the importance of this statement from page 88: “insufficient attention was given to the indigenous reaction before projects from public and private investments were implemented in indigenous areas.” What happens, materially and immaterially, when voice and representation are ignored?

4. What are the intangible benefits of an official, on the record acknowledgement that, “the indigenous peoples are the ‘first peoples’ to inhabit the territory that Chile occupies today, that their history is extensive and dates back thousands of years,” that, “the “European invasion” of its ancestral territories, although a civilizing and religious project (the Conquest), was carried out by means of military actions of great violence, and introduced sicknesses against which the indigenous peoples did not have any defenses,” and that, “in this colonial order, the indigenous peoples almost always occupied a place of subordination.” (page 89)

5. Discuss the following consequences of integration: [T]he formation of the Chilean State/Nation…had consequences that last even to the present—in some cases disastrous ones—for the indigenous peoples, as it can be abundantly proved by the data that the commission has examined and is evident in this report: territorial reduction, social fragmentation, loss of patrimony, loss of enforcement of their own normative systems, loss of their languages for policies forcing the use of Spanish, and even the death and disappearance of entire indigenous peoples. (page 90) Which might have been intentional and which might have been unintended? Why?

6. How do you react to this statement by Pope Saint John Paul II to the Mapuche people? In defending your identity, you are not only exercising a right, but you are fulfilling a duty: the obligation to transmit your culture to the generations to come, in this way enriching the whole Chilean Nation, with your well-known values: the love of the land, the unquenchable love for freedom, and the unity of your families. (page 93)

7. Discuss the following: As long as we do not acknowledge each other in our cultural identity and difference, we will continue to be stratified and exclusionary societies as we have been throughout the course of history. (page 95) 

Chapter Six: “Option for the Poor and Option for the Earth: Toward a Sustainable Solidarity” by Stephen Bede Scharper

1. In light of the following concept of liberation, as articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez, discuss the ways in which poverty encompasses far more than simple economics. Gutiérrez developed a compelling notion of liberation with three interrelated, interdependent dimensions: (1) the hope of poor and oppressed persons to achieve economic, social, cultural, and political liberation; (2) the historical reality of poor persons taking the reins of their own destinies and experiencing their agency as historical subjects; and (3) the emancipation, through Jesus Christ, from the bondage of sin… Liberation means shaking off the yoke of economic, social, political, and cultural domination to which we have been submitted. (page 100)

2. Discuss how the notion of development as evidenced by persons in underdeveloped nations maturing into “modern persons, whose traits include a developed sense of punctuality, a more serious interest in efficiency, and a propensity to view the world as calculable,” and who “must be helped on their road to develop just like the developed nations,” (page 101) might clash with the idea of retaining culture, language, religion, juridical systems, self-rule, etc.

3. Discuss how early efforts at development lead to dependence. How does Gutierrez’ notion of liberation put a different slant on the conversation and become part of the antidote to development?

4. Discuss the following. What is God’s general will for all persons? What structural injustices contribute to poverty? What are the characteristics of a fully developed person? The poor are not poor because it is God’s will…but because of structural injustices. They are not underdeveloped persons; rather, they are fully developed persons who are exploited by unjust economic, social, and spiritual oppression. (page 103)

5a. How can personal sin lead to unjust social, political, and economic structures?

5b. What about “devastating soil erosion, air pollution, ozone depletion, acid rain, toxic waste sites, and species extinction? Is it simply God’s will that humans are destroying the earth, the natural consequence of human progress, or does it pertain to social and political sin, owing to certain economic, political, and cultural systems?” (page 103)

6. How do the examples of ecological debt, given by Donoso on pages 110-11, strike you? Which have the greatest emotional impact? Why? If it were to be acknowledged, how might this kind of debt be repaid? 

Chapter Seven: “Liberation Science and the Option for the Poor: Protecting Victims of Environmental Injustice” by Kristin Shrader-Frechette

1. Discuss “dehumanizing poverty”. Is it different from the other aspects of poverty studied in this text so far? How? Do you think it is more damaging? Why?

2. If you could somehow, magically, give one gift (meant to help them make lasting change in their lives) to the residents of Robbins, IL and other communities like Robbins, what would that gift be? Why? How could the one gift help them in many areas of their lives?

3. Bearing in mind the modern lifestyle in much of the world, and the impossibility of moving backwards from this lifestyle, are there alternative solutions to “landfills, power plants, toxic-waste dumps, bus and rail yards, sewage plants, and industrial facilities,” etc. (page 123), or are they just a fact of life? What might the alternatives be? Be sure to consider the complexities of these problems and think beyond the easy answers such as clean energy, mass transit, etc.

4. Might there be a fallacy in this statement? In democratic societies with greater economic equality, pollution typically decreases because more people can speak for and protect themselves, and others are less able to exploit them or force them to bear higher levels of pollution, transferred from the wealthier sectors. (page 126) Does the pollution level really decrease, or does it just go some place else, creating the same problem for a different community? Remember, it is unlikely that we humans will ever return to “simpler times” (no central heating/AC, doing laundry in the river, horse and buggy transportation, etc.). Can you think of other solutions?

5. How does this statement strike you? The solution is not to eliminate all toxic dumps or hazardous facilities but to minimize and equalize their burdens so that poor people and minorities do not bear most of them. (page 127) Are there solutions that don’t involve spreading pollution around so that everyone breathes it equally? Are there solutions that could prevent everyone from breathing/ingesting/absorbing any (or most) pollutants at all? What might they mean to us in terms of “cheap” goods and services? Are we willing to pay the price?

6. Discuss the following statement: “The WHO says air pollution alone is associated with up to half of all childhood cancers” (page 127). If this is true, might there be alternative uses for money that now goes to cancer research/charities (prevention rather than ongoing search for cures that big pharma will never allow)?

7. Reflect on the following statement: “As Thomas Aquinas noted, ‘In cases of need, all things are common property…whatever certain people have in superabundance is due by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” (page 137) Are there skills superabundant in your group that could be organized and used for the purpose of succoring the poor? How might you make it happen?

Chapter Eight: “Teaching and Transformation: Liberal Arts for the Homeless” by F. Clark Power and Stephen M. Fallon

1a. Keeping in mind the following, “Given that education leads to power in a democratic society, we have a special obligation to distribute our society’s educational resources to bring about full equality” (page 150), discuss the various ways in which educational opportunities are foundational to empowering the poor.

1b. In what non-traditional ways might increased educational opportunities be implemented?

2. Consider this idea: Classic texts, as the language of the enfranchised and the elite in our society, give access to power. They can liberate the mind to see possibilities, to question conventions and authority, and to articulate the otherwise inarticulate aspirations of the dispossessed. (page 152) What does this mean to you? What might it mean to the marginalized in your area?

3. Discuss advocacy and empowerment in light of the following: Ultimately we must enable the poor to breathe for themselves, to find their own voice in society. Breathing finds its full embodiment in the spoken word. God’s act of creation is depicted in Genesis as involving God’s breath or God’s wind, which then becomes God’s word. The creation story reminds us not only of the power of the word but also of the origin of that power in God. To enable the poor to breathe and speak for themselves is to participate in the ongoing creative activity of God. (page

4. How does the following statement sit with you? Is it always and everywhere true? Why? “[T]o grasp politics, to enter the public world, the poor first had to learn to reflect and to claim ownership of civic life” (page 155).

5. In what ways is the World Masterpieces course empowering to the students who take it? Why is this crucial?

6a. What is homelessness? Go beyond the obvious. Discuss various causes. Are the causes/reasons different when talking about chronic homelessness as opposed to sudden/unexpected homelessness? Why? Are those who live in homeless shelters or homeless camps, homeless? Why?

6b. How do you react to this section from the chapter? Before that conversation with Joe and Alice, we had thought of homelessness as a manifestation of extreme poverty generally accompanied by addiction and mental illness. We had not considered the possibility that homelessness was fundamentally a spiritual condition, marked by a radical rootlessness. Even some of the most penetrating descriptions of homelessness fail to consider homelessness as an internal state. (pages 161-2)

7. Conclude your study of this chapter by discussing the follow thoughts: The preferential option for the poor has as much to do with identity as it does politics. The poor are not simply others in need of the help of the powerful. All of us are anawim without sufficient breath, without a true home. Power, wealth, privilege, education, and mental and physical health do not in the final analysis define us as persons or bring us lasting fulfillment or happiness. (page 164-65) How do you see the option for the poor being worked out in the World Masterpieces
course? What might be the best outcomes from this course in a setting of homeless individuals? In a setting of unemployed or underemployed persons?

Chapter Nine: “A Hollywood Option for the Poor” by Gerard Thomas Straub

1. In general terms, how does the western, first world define success?

2. Discuss the forces that come to bear on a person’s life to cause them to search inside for a deeper meaning. What do we ultimately long for? How do we find it?

3. Consider this, “Christ offers good news to the lowly, the hurting, the ailing. He is at home with the exiled; he shelters the scorned” (page 175). If Jesus walked among us in the flesh today, where would he go? With whom would he stay? What might he say? What might he ask? What would he do? Where would he lodge? Who would he change?

4. Discuss the following: “The essence of Christ’s message is this: make every stranger, no matter how poor or dirty, no matter how weak or unlovable, our neighbor” (page 177). “From Christ’s perspective, how we care for the poor is the only authentic indicator of how much we love God” (page 176). Do you agree? Why?

5. After reading this chapter, how are you able to add to the definition of poverty that you have been formulating as you have read the prior chapters? 

Chapter Ten: “The Option for the Poor and Community-Based Education” by Mary Beckman

1. Discuss the benefits and pitfalls of attempts, on the part of the non-poor, to “fix” everything for those who live in poverty.

2. Do you believe that first hand experience, as opposed to classroom learning, might change the way the preferential option for the poor is worked out practically? In what ways? Is one learning method better than the other, or are both needed?

3. Describe the ways in which community-based learning benefits the community. How does it benefit the student participants?

4. Discuss the importance of mutuality among students participating in communitybased learning opportunities and community members being served. How are both benefited?

5. What changes might one expect to take place in the lives of students participating in community-based learning courses? In what ways might their religious beliefs influence first their reflection on their course, and then the changes they experience?

6. How might students who are not Roman Catholic or who hold political views that are different from the typical person who might be expected to agree with all or most aspects of Catholic social teaching (for example, students from other Christian denominations, other non-Christian religious traditions, no religious tradition, or who lean to more conservative rather than liberal solutions to community/world problems) respond to a community-based learning course that features the option for the poor and Catholic social teaching as its foundational principles?

7. Discuss the following: Catholic social thought only can be truly understood through application. It is meant to be applied, and we learn just as much through analyzing that application as we do through reading that theory. (page 194) In what ways can the analysis of the application of Catholic social teaching embody and embolden the option for the poor?

Chapter Eleven: “Health, Healing, and Social Justice: Insights from Liberation Theology” by Paul Farmer

1. How does the following statement made by Gustavo Gutierrez strike you personally? “The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible” (page 199). How might we understand it as a community?

2. Discuss how disease and sickness opts for the poor. Why and in what ways?

3a. In light of the following idea and thinking beyond the obvious, discuss the feasibility and benefits of positive change in small communities. Liberation theology, in contrast to officialdom, argues that genuine change will be most often rooted in small communities of poor people; and it advances a simple methodology—observe, judge, act. (page 201)

3b. What are the components of observing, judging, and acting?

4a. If the following is true, what hope is there of ever overcoming poverty and marginalization in the world? In what ways is it impossible? In what ways might it be possible? All these aspects which make up the overall picture of the state of humanity in the late twentieth century have one common name: oppression. They all, including the hunger suffered by millions of human beings, result from the oppression of some human beings by others. The impotence of international bodies in the face of generally recognized problems, their inability to effect
solutions, stems from the self-interest of those who stand to benefit from their oppression of other human beings. (page 203)

4b. Can you come up with any helpful ways of thinking about this truth that might lead to helpful action?

5. What are the components of “pragmatic solidarity” as it pertains to medicine?

6a. Reread the description of tuberculosis incidence and treatment on page 209, concluding with the following question: “How had the staff failed to prevent these deaths?” Can you pinpoint a fallacy here? What are the dangers to health care and aid workers of not identifying this fallacy?

6b. Reread the rest of this section on tuberculosis (last paragraph on page 209 through page 212). How are the outcomes improved when “personal responsibility” is shared between the “staff” in the question in 6a and the patients rather than placed exclusively at the feet of one group OR the other?

7. React to the following: [P]eople who work for social justice, regardless of their own station in life, tend to see the world as deeply flawed. They see the conditions of the poor not only as unacceptable but as the result of structural violence that is human-made. As Robert McAfee Brown, paraphrasing the Uruguayan Jesuit Juan Segundo, observes, “Unless we agree that the world should not be the way it is . . . there is no point of contact, because the world that is satisfying to us is the same world that is utterly devastating to them. (page 219) How do we reconcile this truth with our own daily lives? What might this mean for the way we pray and the way we act, how we give, and who we know? How might we develop the “point of contact” here in our own communities? How do we put the indignation, humility, and penitence we feel to their best uses?

8a. Discuss the following: “In this increasingly interconnected world…we must understand that what happens to poor people is never divorced from the actions of the powerful” (page 220).

8b. In light of the social justice model and the preferential option for the poor, how do we “make common cause with the poor by thinking locally and globally and acting in response to both levels of analysis” (page 221)?

Chapter Twelve: “Closing Argument” by Pat Maloney, Sr.

1a. Do you agree that “the poor and marginalized—even more than others—need a fair judicial system” (page 230)? Why?

1b. How about this statement: “I have found that women make by far the best jurors for the poor and deprived” (page 231). Is it valid? Why? Should it be valid? Why?

2. Maloney reiterates the importance of listening well that has been a theme throughout this volume. Revisit this principal in your group discussion. How is listening difficult? How may we strive to be better listeners?

3. In light of this statement, “Even more than the absence of material goods, poverty means vastly reduced options and a lack of hope” (page 232), discuss ways that hope might be infused into the situations of the poor

Afterword: “The Most Important Certainty” by Mary J. Miller

1a. In light of the following, has this volume encouraged you, given you hope, sparked your creative imagination for what might be possible in your own efforts for justice and the preferential option for the poor? This book is a manual or primer, of sorts, that gives us, in exemplary form, a glimpse of what is possible when the option for the poor takes root in the heart, manifests in the life, and grows to become more than a theological abstraction…This volume eliminates our excuses and reaffirms the responsibility that each of us bears to do good to and for the least of these. (pages 237 – 238)

1b. What are you going to do about it?

2. “Solidarity and loving respect for our brothers and sisters in most need at least opens up a hope and a possibility that something other than poverty is possible” (page 239). In your heart of hearts, do you believe that something other than poverty is possible? Why?

3. In light of the option for the poor, what unique gifts do you possess that you can place into service toward advancing the solutions to human poverty? How might you use them as we live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God?