If there is a leitmotif running through virtually all of recent Catholic literature it is the phrase: option for the poor. We are to walk with the poor, the marginalized, the alienated, with those who have been victimized by the system. Nobody can, or should, dispute Christ’s imperative to do exactly that, to make a preferential option for the poor. The literature has been most challenging on this point.

What recent theological and spiritual literature has been less helpful in addressing is one of the real difficulties that is, today as in the past, inherent in making that option, namely, the fact that when it comes to walking with the alienated, both as individual Christians and as an institution, the church, we come face to face with the fact that a large number of those who are alienated are in fact angry with the church, anti-clerical, and sometimes positively anti-church. To a goodly number of the marginalized we, who are supposed to be walking with them in solidarity, represent something that they see precisely as part of the problem. Rightly or wrongly, we are seen as part of the oppression and, accordingly, are the recipients of a fair amount of anger and hatred. 

And so we are left with some dilemmas: How do you walk in solidarity with someone who hates what you stand for? How do I, as a cleric, walk in empathy with someone who is anti-clerical? How does the church, as an institution, make a preferential option for the marginalized who, so often, feel that the church is itself part of the problem? 

There are twin temptations present vis-a-vis handling this question. Neither is a gospel response.

In the face of all of this, there is the temptation, endemic within conservative circles, to be put off, to feel oneself victimized by the anger and the hatred (much of which will seem unjust), and to withdraw. Hence the attitude: “I cannot, in the name of the church, walk in solidarity with someone who hates the church and blames most of his or her unhappiness on the church!” Thus, there is often a backing off. But this is hardly a gospel response for it abdicates precisely what is contained in the word “Christian”, not to mention what is contained in the word “adult”. 

The second temptation, the liberal one, is to try to establish an empathic relationship with the alienated, but with a association that does not include within it one’s own connection to the institutional church. Thus, we walk with the poor … but precisely on the basis of, at a point, bracketing our own connection to the institutional church: “I know how you feel! I have the same issues with the church myself. I am just as angry as you are! On many points, I too don’t accept what the church teaches!”  This too, like the conservative response, is not exactly what the gospel calls for. It is empathic, but it is not enough ecclesial. The problem with this is that the solidarity established is too much of a private thing, a privatized friendship which, while valuable in itself, cannot carry enough things to be ecclesially very useful to the alienated. By bracketing one’s own institutional relationship in an attempt to be in solidarity with those who are alienated, one does little in terms of lessening another person’s alienation from the church. Thus, the liberal, like his or her conservative counterpart, does not really walk, ecclesially, in solidarity with the poor and alienated, irrespective of what other ways he or she may be in solidarity with them. 

How does one, as a member of the church, walk in solidarity with the poor, the alienated, and the marginalized? 

By refusing to let go of either prong in the tension, namely, by refusing to turn away from the poor while at the same time refusing to bracket one’s relationship to the institutional church. To do this, however, one must be willing to move beyond both the denial of the conservative and the self-hatred of the liberal. And what will the feeling be if one does that?

Helplessness, frustrating powerlessness. Stretching, painful pressures both ways in the heart. Aloneness, moral loneliness, accusations from all sides that one is weak. Personal doubt, a nagging feeling that one is wishy-washy. To walk with the poor is to feel, truly feel, one’s own poverty. One should not be surprised at how much it hurts. 

To hear pain and to respond to it, without either denying it nor narrowing one’s loyalties, is to become, oneself, truly poor.