Option for the Poor and for the Earth

From Leo XIII to Pope Francis

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Donal Dorr
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , June
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The present monograph is a revised, fourth edition of what is often held up as a classic exploration of Catholic Social Teaching [CST], Donal Dorr’s Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching (1983). His original volume began with a treatment of Leo XIII’s papacy, which included the promulgation of the encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891), on the proper relationship between capital and labor. That document is frequently cited as marking the beginning of contemporary CST. Dorr’s 2012 edition expanded the title to include the “option for the Earth” framing, and correspondingly integrating a discussion of the anthropocentric treatment of ecology developed during the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This fourth edition takes into account highlights from Francis’ papacy up to October 2015, inclusive of the landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’, on caring for our common home.

Bringing together these elements, Option for Poor & for the Earth: From Leo XIII to Pope Francis unfolds the development of the two concepts named in its main title, mostly focussing on their emergence in papal teaching. Herein, Dorr effectively links both care for creation and the empowerment of people living in poverty with a social justice tradition that first flowers during the papacies of John XXIII and Paul VI. Indeed, as Dorr presents them, the emergence of these intertwined fundamental options is inseparable from several issues and principles of social justice. Here lies the basis for his claim that this monograph can be employed “as a textbook about the main themes of social justice” (1).

Option for Poor & for the Earth is, however, no univocal textbook. Dorr frequently enters into conversation with not only CST documents but also with other commentators in order to position his analysis. In the process, he explains his hermeneutical key as an attempt to navigate papal teaching from the viewpoint of the poor. This approach allows Dorr to offer support for his analogy of papal social teaching, in the first 70 years from Leo XIII, as like a ship on as a steady course, with most of the substantive changes of trajectory and shifting of the crew’s positions coming in the last half-century.

Dorr has set himself a difficult task. This monograph suffers, at times, from the accompanying breadth of its remit as it attempts to navigate an overwhelming amount of material.. This is not to say that Dorr is unfocussed in his commentary on CST. Indeed, he mostly addresses developments and regressions from the past fifty years. Nonetheless, Dorr’s broad treatment of fundamental option, as including all the themes of social justice, leaves him open to being accused of neglecting some key points and sources. At the same time, there is a noticeable amount of repetition, mainly within the body text itself, but also during some of the reflection sections that close each of the twenty-one chapters. It is not the case that the earlier material is inconsequential for his arguments; there is just a danger that the monograph’s discourse is so extensive that it requires a certain measure of perseverance to reach the final three chapters—where the majority of the newer analysis and most prescient material are located. Dorr recognizes this tension himself in the preface, implicitly by affirming that he edited the chapters from previous editions for length, and more concretely, by suggesting an alternative of working through the text by reading the first chapter on context and then only reviewing the summaries at the end of each chapter until reaching the final three chapters, which he recommends engaging in full. Perhaps a stand alone, more compact monograph roughly crafted along these lines, citing earlier editions of Dorr’s work at key points, and focussed on the option for the Earth as an extension of the fundamental option for people living in poverty, might have been more fruitful at this juncture in his career when his standing and the reputation of this work, in particular, are quite well established.

Nonetheless, the last three chapters dually reward the persistent reader. Therein, there is an informative discussion of Francis’s social teaching, and his contributions to the life of the Catholic Church. Particularly helpful here is the way, as Dorr highlights, Francis connects care for creation with an integral humanism—drawing upon, synthesizing, and shifting in important ecotheological directions some of the most cogent contributions from his predecessors. Dorr shows how Francis responds remarkably well to a fair number of concerns about the direction of CST in general—and as promulgated under Benedict XVI in particular—which come into view from the perspective of the poor, including an Earth community made poorer by human abuse. In this manner, Dorr is able to effectively locate select strengths and weaknesses of papal social teaching. Here, he praises strengths in CST such as its re-found biblical basis, reconnection of ecology and justice, and vision of solidarity. At the same time, he does not shy away from papal teaching’s gender essentialism, often Western-centric view of development, and the exclusion of women from substantive decision-making positions within the Vatican.

The challenge remains, as Dorr poignantly illustrates, for the Vatican to move much more fully to address the moral inconsistencies, not only in its teaching, but also as these are manifest in the life of the Catholic Church. This transformation will allow the papacy to speak with a deeper prophetic authenticity. Thus, permitting its genuinely important contributions to social justice worldviews, such as the one represented by Francis’s integral ecology, a greater foothold in a Christian community characterized not by dominance and hierarchy but, in line with the fullness of aspects of Francis’s vision, by the fostering of the agency of the poor and having those with privilege, including pastors, taking on the proverbial smell of their sheep. That Dorr provides inspiration for this transformation and demonstrates its rootedness within papal teaching makes Option for Poor & for the Earth: From Leo XIII to Pope Francis a welcome addition to both academic and parish libraries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Hrynkow is associate professor in the department of religion and culture at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan.

Date of Review: 
June 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donal Dorr is a theologian and missionary priest who has served as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and as a resource person for the Irish Missionary Union. He is the author of ten books, including the original Option for the Poor and the award-winning Spirituality and Justice.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.