The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, is a principle of Catholic social teaching. On their website the USCCB says the following of this principle:
A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.
Though incomplete, and so incorrect, this principle is often shortened to the preferential option for the poor. It’s the often excluded “and vulnerable” clause which has allowed the principle to be applied a multitude of subjects and situations.
I have heard many upset because this principle has been used too broadly as of late. But I don’t think the problem lies in it being used too broadly, but that it is being used too narrowly.
In their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship – Part I – The U.S. Bishops’ Reflection on Catholic Teaching and Political Life, the US Bishops avoid this by stating clearly that it applies to a broader group than simply the economically poor:
This preferential option for the poor and vulnerable includes all who are marginalized in our nation and beyond—unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, and victims of injustice and oppression.
And in his encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, Saint Pope John Paul II also clearly made an effort to push against this narrowing tendency:
This option [the preferential option] is not limited to material poverty, since it is well known that there are many other forms of poverty, especially in modern society—not only economic but cultural and spiritual poverty as well.
The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is a deeply powerful principle seated squarely within orthodoxy – understood correctly. When narrowed, misapplied, or abused, our response must be correction, not simply rejection.