Catholic Social Teaching and Strategies for the Future in the
Contemporary Australian Context
Address at the Annual Conference of Catholic Welfare
Australia, Sydney, 21st August 2002
Mark Raper SJ
"At the end of our lives we will be judged by
St. John of the Cross
Australian society has changed a lot in the 20 years that I have
spent abroad serving refugees. It will be presumptuous of me to
spell out for you practitioners the consequences of these social
changes, since you are in daily contact with those who are hurt
by them. Nonetheless, for a returning expatriate, certain features
stand out in sharp relief. My remarks this morning will touch on
the social context within which the Catholic social institutions
function, identify some substantive principles that may guide us,
and offer a word about our strategies for the future. My principle
task is to look with you at the teaching of the past and the challenge
of the future. This morning we will also show-case some of your
own innovative projects and try to learn from them.
OUR CHANGING AUSTRALIAN SOCIAL CONTEXT
Broad changes in Australian social context
Over recent years things appear to have been going well for a
majority of Australians. With economic growth steady at around
4% per annum, there have been constant promises of a higher quality
of life, of more café latte and abundant chardonnay. But
economic globalisation has also meant that Australia, along with
most industrialised societies, has been significantly restructured,
leading to perceptions of social breakdown. Urban centres may
have benefited, but rural and regional communities have suffered
and feel neglected. Health and education systems are seen to be
in crisis. Urban crime is said to have grown out of control. The
major political parties have been losing popularity, while support
has grown for minor parties, particularly of the Right.
Government response - example of the asylum seekers
These are common features of post-industrial, post-modern societies.
Social change often generates a feeling of uncertainty. In such
situations governments have two options: either they can act responsibly,
show real leadership, and manage the pace and effects of the change,
or on the other hand they can blame an external threat, or blame
the victims, and appeal to fear. Regarding asylum policy for example,
our government has constantly and misleadingly portrayed itself
as the protector of a generous nation besieged by asylum seekers
arriving with criminal intent, while the Labor Party, even now,
has nothing of substance or principle to say on the matter. The
contemporary politics and rhetoric about asylum seekers touches
on the fundamental Australian values that are at the heart of
our topic today and this week.
One of your number, Bryan Dunn of Centacare Newcastle/Maitland,
wrote on this in Catholic Welfare News of February this year.
He contrasts how politicians and the media spoke about the bushfire
victims, with the way they speak of the people arriving at our
shores seeking asylum.(1) The response to families
affected by the fires, he says, reflects the best in the Australian
community, where all feel one with them, "and stand with
them in spirit; we ask what we can do to help". Yet in the
case of the refugees and asylum seekers,
...we do not meet these people as individuals...They are
spoken about stereotypically. Our fears are evoked not allayed...
Our politicians carefully crafted information about the centre
riots without reference to underlying causes. An approach reflected
in the media. Where is full disclosure of the facts, the personal
stories which could evoke our deeper understanding? The political
face is obdurate, and our leaders play upon our fears. A sense
of hopelessness can pervade those who are concerned in the community
because of the hardness of heart displayed.
Changes in Australian society
To set the scene for our discussions this morning, may I list
some features of the Australian society that I am re-discovering
after 20 years abroad. Australia, according to the Australian
Institute of Family Studies, is "one of the countries experiencing
falling fertility in the context of increasing life expectancy".
In other words, it is an ageing population. It has also become
"one of the most culturally diverse societies in the world".
(2) 24 % of Australia's population was born overseas,
a ratio second only to Israel among industrialised countries.
But of course it is only after World War II and since the so-called
"White Australia Policy" was abolished that ethnic diversity
really began. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Australia's
population has increased more than fivefold, from 3.77 million
to 19.16 million in 2000. Two thirds of this increase was natural,
that is, from the excess of births over deaths, while immigration
accounts for another third. Fertility rate has dropped from its
peak of 3.6 in 1961, to 1.75 births per woman in 1999, the lowest
in Australia's history. Consequently the pace of growth is slowing
and will be close to zero in 50 years time, even with overseas
migration at current levels. The working age population (15 -
64 years) will peak in 2020. The proportion of the population
aged 65 years and over will double over the next 50 years.
Australia is ageing. Half of our population is over 35.2 years,
an increase of 12 years in the median age during the 20th century.
But in the next 50 years, this median will increase another 8
to 11 years. On the other hand indigenous Australians are younger
(median age 20.2 years), while migrants are older than Australian
born population (median of 45 compared with 30.6). Family patterns
are changing too: couples are delaying marriage, marriage rates
have fallen while rates of divorce have risen; more adults live
without partners; more couples have fewer children. 64% of Australians
live in the cities.
The most shocking statistics concern Australia's indigenous population.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people account for 19% of
the prisoner population, or 15 times the non-indigenous rate.(3)
Only 32% of indigenous children complete schooling compared to
73% of all Australian youth. In February 2000, the unemployment
rate was 17.6% for indigenous people compared to 7.3% for non-indigenous.
The study Suicide in Australia (2000) suggests that the
suicide rate for indigenous Australians is two to three times
that of non-Australians.
On census night in 1996 there were around 105,000 people homeless
in Australia, with about one fifth of them sleeping rough. Another
feature of our society is the growth in inequality. The income
for the bottom 10% of the private sector lowered around 3%, while
that for the top 10% increased around 20%. (4)
Globalisation and economic restructuring
Not all of these changes, especially the social ills, can be
laid at the feet of globalisation. But some of globalisation's
key features do prompt reflection. Critics of globalisation explain
that after the 2nd World War, productivity in the industrialised
countries was such that income could be distributed to some extent
between capital, labour and government. But since that time, in
particular since the reform of the Bretton Woods institutions
in the early 70s, in order to make capital grow, there have been
two main strategies: an offensive against labour and diminishment
of the role of the state. The offensive against labour involved
the lowering of real wages, deregulation, relocating factories,
lowering social benefits and loosening the grip of organised labour.
The role of the State as distributor of income and social mediator
was shrunk through a number of measures. There have been successive
waves of privatisations of public services as well as of sectors
of the economy. Moreover the structural adjustments programs imposed,
particularly on many third world countries by the International
Monetary Fund, and other austerity programs imposed by the international
monetary institutions, have limited the freedom of states even
to assist their own people.
The social challenges of postindustrial society
Whereas the Industrial Revolution was a phenomenon of the 19th
Century, quite significant and profound changes have also occurred
in the 20th century in the way our society is organised: culturally,
economically and socially. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman would claim
that in relatively recent times, Western societies have transformed
from being economically and socially based on production to societies
that are now based on consumption. In "production societies"
the poor had something vital to offer, namely their labour. But
they perform no such function in "consumer societies".
In summary, the character and shape of post-industrial societies
is - highly bureaucratised, filled with technology, shaped by
mass communications, and powerfully urbanised. Such societies
produce their own kinds of social questions.
Privatisation and contracting
In this broad sweep description of world wide economic change,
we can recognise some parallels and consequences in our own society.
But let us focus in on one area that directly concerns Catholic
Welfare. There have been, and continue to be significant changes
in the type of contractual arrangements between governments and
civil society organisations involved in delivery of publicly funded
social services. In Australia many non-government social service
agencies previously funded by grants must now be funded by contract
or not at all. In this public management approach to contracting,
civil society agencies are under pressure to become more like
government agents on the one hand and like commercial businesses
on the other. Whereas their role should be to protect the individual
against the power of the State and also of the economy, these
organisations are at risk of being precisely the agent of those
forces. Agencies like your own have to balance your various accountabilities:
your contractual obligations to the government, your moral obligations
to your clients, and your faithfulness to your mission. Moreover,
citizens need you as their intermediaries in order to hold government
accountable for the proper administration of public policy. (6)
CATHOLIC SOCIAL PRINCIPLES
Albert Einstein once said: "We cannot expect to solve today's
problems with the same thinking that created them".
The phrase "post-industrial society" is not used in
Catholic social teaching, to my knowledge. Nonetheless, the social
documents of the Popes, beginning in 1971 with Paul VI's Octagesima
Adveniens (the 80th year since Rerum Novarum), right to the
present, in particular Centesimus Annus (the 100th
year) of John Paul II, are all attempts to analyse the meaning
of and respond to the social challenges of post-industrial society.
Paul VI described the challenge, interestingly, as "to humanise
The social teaching of the past 30 or more years arose out of
a number of important developments within the church. In particular
it is the product of the wider and more informed use of Scripture,
as demanded by the Vatican Council. It is also a product of the
view that the church's role is to be the servant of a much wider
society that is quite diverse and pluralistic. Today I will simply
refer to three substantive principles that can help us construct
a strategy for how the church agencies can relate with state agencies,
and how together they may cooperate or at least relate to civil
society in pursuit of the good of all, the common good. These
principles are: subsidiarity, socialisation, and solidarity.
Subsidiarity means that a service should be located as close
to the need as possible. The State should not do what local social
service organisations can do better. This principle is a cornerstone
of the Catholic social view. "The individual, the family
and society are prior to the State, and ...the State exists in
order to protect their rights and not to stifle them." (7)
It argues for the need of agencies like Catholic Welfare, not
just because they serve the needy in our communities, but because
they promote pluralism of power in the social system, fundamental
to maintaining the diversity of institutions and services required
to meet complex social needs. At the same time, subsidiarity is
not an argument for privatising the whole social welfare operation.
The State still has responsibilities to the poor. When a problem
exceeds the capacity of these persons and groups, then it is proper
for the government to intervene, but in ways carefully guided
by political prudence.
Nonetheless, while excluding "statist" solutions, subsidiarity
insists that the government "furnish help (subsidium) to
the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them."
(8) Moreover, this principle defends the rights
of a host of voluntary associations - such as unions, ethnic agencies,
neighbourhood groups, local councils, small and large businesses,
churches - to exist and to operate according to their own ways.
But none of these bodies, including Catholic Welfare Australia,
are purely private bodies. They are parts of society. They are
the ways in which people participate in social life.
Subsidiarity has a very practical implication for us in the way
we deliver services. We should not take from people their right
to help themselves. So our services should enable them to take
power over their own lives, rather than become overly dependent
on agencies like ours.
It is nonetheless true that some social suffering is of such
magnitude and so entrenched in our economic and political system
that the actions of families and of civil society is inadequate
in meeting the need. John XXIII saw this and in 1961 modified
the principle of subsidiarity with his description of socialisation.
He argued that while the principle of subsidiarity is valid, that
is, we should not go first to the State to solve every social
ill, nonetheless the nature of post-industrial society is such
that an increased role for the State is required. In this 21st
century we are still struggling to balance socialisation and subsidiarity:
maintaining the balance between the need for effective services
with the need for freedom and pluralism.
The principle of socialisation claims that the State should tax
those with sufficient resources in order to redistribute some
of the common wealth to enable those without adequate resources
to participate in their community. This is not charity or welfare,
this is justice.
In practice, where government does intervene, your role changes
from being the provider of services to being the advocate on behalf
of those who are disadvantaged or under-valued. We have a role
to insist that these people have a right to the best service possible.
In helping us to balance subsidiarity and socialisation, John
Paul II added a third substantive principle, that of solidarity.
Solidarity concerns a fundamental vision of society, and of our
relationship to one another. "...The development of individual
people, and the development of societies depend on each other."
(9) This vision is the conviction that we are
born into a web of social relationships, that our humanity ties
us to one another, that the Gospel consecrates those ties, and
that the prophets and all of Scripture tell us that how we honour
those ties is the test of the authenticity of our faith.
Solidarity is not just a vague feeling of compassion, or shallow
distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far.
On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to
commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good
of each individual, because we are all really responsible for
In a post-industrial society, the church and Catholic institutions
need to revisit these three principles repeatedly and to reshape
our understanding of them in terms of what the State ought to
do, in terms of what others in society ought to do, and in terms
of what the Catholic institutions themselves ought to do.
- FUTURE STRATEGIES
This leads us to strategies for the future. But only the truly
wise or the very bold will attempt a clear chart the Church's strategy
today. But as Bishop Power rightly said on last night's Lateline
program: a time of crisis is also a time of opportunity. The words
of John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, ring very true:
Today more than ever, the Church is aware that her social message
will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions
than as a result of its internal logic and consistency. (11)
Earlier in the same passage he had said:
The social message of the gospel must not be considered a theory,
but above all else a basis and a motivation for action. Inspired
by this message, some of the first Christians distributed their
goods to the poor, bearing witness to the fact that despite different
social origins, it was possible for people to live together in peace
Catholicism is institutional by instinct and by nature. This
institutional character is a fundamental asset that we carry into
a new era. Institutions are the way you grab hold of life, the way
you lay hands on complex social questions. Catholic Welfare is the
hands of the church, its instrument for engaging not only in response
to the needs of people, but also in the processes of our society
as it changes.
An overarching strategy is surely needed for the institutional
Catholic social presence, and I mean in education, health care and
social service. And that strategy will be correctly rooted in the
parish base of Australian Catholicism, even if that parish base
appears to be diminishing in strength and numbers.
The contractual relationships between the State and community
organisations have private and public elements. Catholic Welfare
is in a good position to recognise and implement the dual or even
multiple accountabilities involved even in government contracts:
you remain accountable as an organisation to the Bishops' Conference,
and to your member organisations, as also to those whom you serve
as well as to your own mission and values; you are accountable publicly
to the rest of citizenry and even to Parliament, as also to your
own role in promoting a just Australian society.
Many lobby groups exist to promote exclusively the interests
of their own groups. Catholic Welfare, by contrast, has a concern
for the whole community, especially for those whose access to power
in the public sphere is diminished. Catholic Welfare is rightly
active in public conversation concerning justice for all in Australia
and even beyond.
Yet in seeking justice, the church is at its best in an attentive,
listening mode rather than in an authoritative mode. Engagement
in dialogue means allowing respectful space. There are rules of
engagement in a pluralistic society. One speaks, but one also listens.
We are not required to surrender our religious belief. Our task
is to measure public policy against the Gospel values and against
our Catholic social teaching.
Here is a list of roles for the Church today, that I borrow
from one of my colleagues:
- Protector of its own self-interest. (The entitlement of any
citizen or group of citizens.)
- Stakeholder in some disputes.
- Honest Broker in disputes to which the Church is not a party
(and where Church members may be represented in both or several
- Advocate for the poor, disadvantaged, excluded.
- Advocate for the Common Good (or for public interest).
- Defender of Truth.
- Exemplar of Gospel values: for the good of church members, and
incidentally for the good of society.
Returning to the question of refugees: I am sure that the current
asylum debate touches on basic Australian values. When the fear
provoked at the arrival of a pitiful boatload of refugees on the
eve of an election can so powerfully alter the course of a nation
and the fate and policies of a government, we need to search deep
in our hearts as a nation. We also need the leadership and practical
witness of institutions such as Catholic Welfare Australia.
For conclusion, I offer this quotation from a sermon of
St. John Chrysostom:
"Would you honour the body of Christ? Do not despise his
nakedness; do not honour him here in church clothed in silk vestments
and then pass him by unclothed and frozen outside. Remember that
he who said, 'This is my body', and made good his words, also said,
'You saw me hungry and gave me no food', and, 'in so far as you
did it not to one of these, you did it not to me'. In the first
sense the body of Christ does not need clothing but worship from
a pure heart. In the second sense it does need clothing and all
the care we can give it... Learn to be discerning Christians and
to honour Christ in the way he wants to be honoured. It is only
right that honour given to anyone should take the form most acceptable
to the recipient not to the giver... So give God the honour he asks
(1) "Clear cut parallels clouded by fear and
racism", in Catholic Welfare Australia NEWS, Volume 2 Issue
1, February 2002, p. 6
(2) "Ageing yet diverse", Australian
Family Briefing, No 10 September 2001, by Ruth Weston, Lixia Qu
and Grace Soriano. Australian Institute of Family Studies.
(3) See HREOC, Face the Facts, Section 3, Aboriginal
People and Torres Strait Islanders. www.hreoc.gov.au/racial_discrimination/face_facts
(4) Statistics taken from Mission Australia, National
Social Trends Snap Shot 200
(5) Zygmunt Bauman (1998), Work, Consumerism
and the New Poor, Buckingham, Open University Press.
(6) A good discussion of this question can be found
in: David De Carvalho (2002), 'The Social Contract Renegotiated:
Protecting Public Values in the Age of Contracting', in T. Eardley
and B. Bradbury, eds, Competing Visions: Refereed Proceedings of
National Social Policy Conference 2001, SPRC Report 1/02 Social
Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 126-135.
(7) Centesimus Annus, John Paul II, 1991,
(8) Quadragesimo anno, Pius XI, 1931, No
(9) Populorum Progressio, Paul VI, No 43
(10) John Paul II, 1988, No 38
(11) Centesimus Annus, John Paul II, 1991, No
(12) Frank Brennan SJ, 'The Role of Religious
Educators', talk given in January 2002.