Idolatry and “The Poor”

Editor’s Note: The remarks that follow were occasioned by Bishop John S. Cummin’s invitation to comment on the first draft of the pastoral letter on the American economy. Bishop Cummins is the Ordinary of the Diocese of Oakland. Aaion Wildaysky is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California at Berkley.

Dear Bishop Cummins:

The centerpiece of the Pastoral Letter on “Catholic Social Teaching and the U. S. Economy” is “the preferential option for the poor.” On this moral vision it stands or falls.

Although at times the Pastoral Letter speaks of the preferential option as if it referred to minimum conditions of material life, for the most part, given the repeated references to powerlessness and marginalization, as well as the explicit condemnation of the existing distribution of income as unjust, poverty is equated with inequality of resources in general, not just income in particular.

The “preferential option: for the poor” is a form of idolatry, making a single value—equality of condition—into the dominant criterion of choice in society. A Catholic church, no more than a heterogenous society, which wishes to make moral distinctions, cannot be based on the elevation of a single one.

Can you imagine a preferential option for the 4th Commandment? Can you conceive of Moses or Jesus placing themselves behind “the veil of ignorance,” without a preferred way of life, the position utilitarians like John Rawls imagine necessary to make a disinterested choice in favor of greater equality of results? Do you suppose that if people believe all hierarchical organizations are oppressive (because hierarchies institutionalize inequality), they will add a saving clause exempting the Catholic Church (and its bishops) from these strictures? Authority is also a form of inequality, is it not?

If the most important moral merit of the non-poor is to reduce their disparities with the poor, a double dehumanization takes place: The non-poor are made into means for the ends of others, and the poor are converted from subjects into objects whose merit consists in how others treat them.

Homogenizing the poor dehumanizes them. They are no more alike than are the rich or people of middle income. By depriving the poor of will (they are helpless, therefore others must act on them), irresponsibility is added to their other ills. Refusing to inquire into why individuals are poor on the grounds that comparisons are odious not only renders poor people faceless, it also deprives them of virtue. May they not have been improvident as well as hard done by, mentally ill, as well as badly treated? Getting out of poverty can hardly deserve praise if there is nothing a poor person can do about it.

Collectivizing sin undermines the moral relationship between individual human beings. For if it is evil institutions not good human nature that brings bad into the world, the emphasis shifts from individual sin to oppressive (read “inegalitarian”) forces. I had thought the church as an institution was necessary to help individuals improve their behavior.

The poor are not only homogenized but politicized. In the draft Pastoral Letter, their lack is not only or primarily material resources but political power. This explains the joining of “poverty and powerlessness,” or “vulnerable and needy,” or “defenseless and poor,” as if the terms were equivalent. The salvation of the economically poor evidently lies in reducing disparities of power, i.e., in using political power to wrest resources from others. If the main cause of poverty is institutional oppression—the doctrine that existing institutions kill quietly by maintaining and enlarging power differentials—the only remedy is to take it away. I hardly need add the usual phrase for justifying violence—”by any means necessary.”

Since the “preferential option” is justified as virtue itself, it is only right to consider the implications (early church history would be a good guide) of organizing life on the basis of equality of condition. How do groups behave who organize their lives according to purely voluntary principles with equality of condition as their sole value?

“Sects breed schism,” so H. Richard Niebuhr taught. Unwilling to accept institutional authority, egalitarian groups have only one way of solving differences of opinion—expulsions and splits. Fearing disintegration, they accuse established authority of bringing the world to destruction. While seeking state power to redistribute resources, they simultaneously reject it as unworthy. They denigrate economic growth as a source of hated distinction while urging redistribution of existing resources. Their vision of the world as divided between the nice egalitarian “us” and the nasty, predatory “them” justifies their unwillingness to compromise. The recent rise of egalitarian sects in America has been accompanied by the decline of every large-scale, hierarchical organization that attempts to go beyond single issues—the big churches, the political parties, the unions, the federal government. Why do the Bishops advocate as a general principle for society a mode of organization that would make it impossible to govern any society (or, for that matter, church) of size or social complexity?

I had hoped that the Catholic Church would reassert and reinterpret its traditional values. These would, of course, include the sacrificial ethic of the hierarchy in which the parts are enjoined to sacrifice for the whole and the collective takes care of its weaker members. Instead, to my dismay, I see an effort to create another single-issue sect under the rubric of “the preferential option for the poor.”

And that—church or sect—is the issue. It is not only that this unidirectional option will undermine your church (indeed it must deny the authority of any large-scale, integrative organization) for that is of concern mostly to its members, but that this preference will make America more difficult to govern.

Democracy is based on agreement to do what is agreed; thus there is ample room for disagreement. So long as proper procedures are observed, policy disagreements are tolerable. If Americans have to agree on egalitarian policies before they can accept governmental decisions as legitimate, however, how can democracy, based on consent among people who differ, be sustained?

On what grounds could equality of condition have first priority? Were there cumulative inequalities, so the rich got richer and the poor poorer, both political democracy and economic opportunity would be threatened. But this is not so. There is a lot of downward and upward mobility. A substantial proportion of the economically poor, as well as the politically influential, turn over with the passage of time. More than one resource—numbers, activity, knowledge, formal position, shared values, votes—is important in determining government decisions. The vast number of new businesses as well as the high rate of failure testify to the continued vitality of economic opportunity. Money is no more the root of all evil than its lack is the source of all that is good.

To the extent that there is a class of permanently poor, and especially that it is disproportionately black, that is a cause for concern. Maintaining minimal levels of income commands widespread agreement. What government should do and how it should do it, beyond that, so that economic poverty becomes only a transient status, is a matter of much dispute. I fail to see in your Pastoral Letter any doctrine that Catholic society thought brings to the improvement of economic conditions that is not found in contemporary political tracts. Of what, then, does your special vision consist?

The Bishops say that “the poor have a special claim on our concern because they are particularly vulnerable and needy.” Is there merit in this position? Yes, providing only that “special claim” is not the only claim, and that “concern” does not translate into a demand that differences in wealth and income be dramatically reduced, even if the vast bulk of society, which is not permanently poor, is coerced. There is no moral claim ‘to equality of condition. Inequality is also variety. The homogenous society has no claim on our consciences. There is nothing wrong with disparities unless they are permanent and cumulative. So long as people are able to live decently and to try to better themselves, disparities are a source of innovation and opportunity, not of condemnation.

We see what has happened: The condition of the worst off is being used to drive society as a whole in the direction of equality of condition. This, I maintain, is morally undesirable.

Equality of condition is at odds with other commonly accepted and important meanings of that term. Virtually all Americans agree on the desirability of equality in general because they attribute quite different meanings to it in particular. Were it the dominant value, equality of condition would become incompatible with equality before the law. Equal rights must give way when some people are deemed more equal than or more entitled or preferred to others. Equality of opportunity, so people can be different, is evidently at odds with equality of reward, so people can end up with the same. When only some players are allowed to score more than others, the game hardly gives each player an equivalent opportunity.

No act does just one thing. If only the poor qualify for preference, the desire to do good can best be met by increasing the numbers entitled to special treatment. That is why the United States suffers from elephantitus of the deprived. Starting with women, who make up 52 percent of the population, going on to racial minorities that make up about a fifth, adding a few percent for the physically and mentally disabled, the deprived, allowing for double counting, constitute a majority, even without including the economically poor. This is perverse. If most are oppressed, then it becomes difficult to single out the most needy for special help. If the vast majority are deprived, this is an indictment of America, not a proposal to help the poor.

All the Bishops meant to say, you may reply, was that more needs to be done to alleviate the plight of the economically poorest people. Then they should have said so. What “the preferential option for the poor” does do, aside from failing to alleviate economic poverty, is justify hostility toward existing institutions.


Aaron Wildavsky


  • Aaron Wildavsky

    Aaron Wildavsky (1930 – 1993) was an American political scientist known for his pioneering work in public policy, government budgeting, and risk management.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...