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Option for the Poor and for the Earth

Fr Donal Dorr

Christians are called to ‘read the signs of the times.’ This means inviting the Spirit of God to help us to discern the key issues facing people at any given moment in history. Having identified the crucial concerns we then know what are the fundamental choices that we need to make. Until quite recently many of us felt ourselves pulled in two opposite directions. Should we, on the one hand, make ‘an option for the poor’ and give priority to the pressing issue of injustice—the ever-widening gap between rich and poor countries and classes? Or should we, on the other hand, focus more on the environmental issue?


Those who sided with the struggle of the poor in developing countries were inclined to think that the ecological agenda was mainly a concern of middle-class people in the so-called ‘First World’. What is particularly interesting, exciting, and challenging at present is that within the past few years the ‘option for the poor’ and the ‘option for the Earth’ have merged and have become one single issue. Quite suddenly the main spokespersons on the ecology issue are no longer just people from Western countries. The leaders from poor countries in the Pacific Islands, Africa, and Latin America have now taken a lead in crying out for radical action on ecological issues.


These new spokespersons make a powerful case on behalf of their impoverished people and their lands. Some of these lands are being turned into desert, while others are being swamped by rising ocean levels and ever more powerful tropical tornados. This is happening as a result of the vast amount of carbon that has been dumped into the atmosphere by rich nations over the past two hundred years, and which is still being added to day after day. And the vast amount of this carbon has been, and is being, produced by the wealthier countries of ‘the North.’ The people of the poorer countries are now paying the price for the irresponsible way in which the ‘Northern’ countries are continuing to pursue economic and technological development with little concern for the poor or for the Earth.


This makes things clearer for Christians. We now have a more integrated basis for our commitment to work for authentic human development. We can now feel confident that to be a genuine follower of Jesus in today’s world involves making a clear option for the poor and for the Earth.



The word ‘option’ implies that there is a personal choice to be made by each of us. While emphasising this personal aspect, we must also insist that the choice in question is not just an act of private moderation or self-denial. It also involves a political response to the exploitation, oppression and injustice that are so widespread in our world. It means insisting that the wealthy countries make a radical reduction in the carbon they release into the atmosphere—and that they make reparation for the crimes of the past—for the oppression of peoples and the despoliation the environment.


We must make sure that we are not consciously or unconsciously colluding in injustice and marginalisation. Then we must find ways to challenge the present model of development which is destroying people and the world. Lastly, we must promote realistic alternatives to the present unjust type of globalization and must pressure our politicians to put these alternatives into effect.


We need also to recognize that the phrase ‘developing countries’ is, in many cases, no longer an accurate term. In many of the poorer countries of the world the reality for most of the people is that they are getting poorer rather than ‘developing’ in any real sense. This is a result of the present model of globalization and of the new environmental issues which are impoverishing them.


If the poor are to be helped and environmental disaster is to be avoided what is needed is a pretty radical change of mentality and of lifestyle of people in the West. There is need at the same time for effective political action. This will only come about if politicians are pushed by a powerful people’s movement demanding the kind of painful changes that are required. All of us Christians are invited by Pope Francis to play our part in helping such a movement to emerge.


In working for change we may have to face a life-time of effort with no guarantee of short-term success. What spurs us on is not naïve optimism but a hope based on trust in the power and promises of God. For the Christian, the ultimate sign of this hope is the Cross of Jesus—which, paradoxically, is a reminder that success may come only through what seems like ignominious failure.

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