It has been noticed, most recently by Amy Sullivan, that former senator and wannabe president Rick Santorum hasn’t got the foggiest idea what “preferential option for the poor” means. And given that he’s kind of a professional Catholic, and that the preferential option in question has been basic Catholic social teaching for several decades, that is fairly scandalous.
But there shouldn’t be much mystery about this lacuna in Santorum’s religious education. The Catholic intellectuals he hangs around with consider the concept an embarrassment–a latter-day expression of Pope Leo XIII’s anti-capitalist encyclical Rerum novarum that happened to be embraced by Pope John Paul II.
After being defeated for reelection in 2006, Santorum signed on at the neocon Ethics and Public Policy Center, where the Catholic bigfoot is George Weigel. Back in 1996, Weigel sought to explain away JPII’s attachment to the preferential option by interpreting it as nothing more than a commitment to “democratic polities and properly regulated market economies.” Then, in his biography of the pope, Weigel dismissed it as part of liberation theology’s engagement with “Marxist categories of social and economic analysis”:
The “sinful social structures of the established order” were to be overturned through class struggle. In this struggle, the Church, exercising a “preferential option for the poor,” would organize small Christian “base communities” where the poor would be taught to comprehend their own victimhood and, inspired by the image of Jesus the Liberator, would take up the task of recreating society.
But you’ve got figure that despite bringing the hammer down on liberation theology, JPII would, on preferential option grounds, have taken a dim view of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 proposal, which would seriously increase the tax burden on the least among us while lightening it on the wealthiest. Now that Santorum’s been clued in, perhaps he’ll see fit to condemn 9-9-9. Or at least, maybe the Catholic bishops will.