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The changing landscape of Catholic social work

  • 16 February 2018


Social service organisations are a key element of the Church in action. Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, emphasised that, with proclaiming the word of God and celebrating the sacraments, the works of loving service are an indispensable part of the Church's mission.

The structure of these services within the Catholic Church in Australia is diverse. CatholicCares and CentaCares operate in most Australian Dioceses, and the St Vincent de Paul Society operates within most parishes. There are bodies such as Jesuit Social Services and Good Shepherd Australian New Zealand that build on the work of religious congregations. Services run by the Maronite, Melkite and other churches, and parish-based organisations add to the collective endeavour.

All of these social service organisations are working to support vulnerable people in need, and to build a more just society. On any given day, throughout Australia they are delivering services as diverse as emergency and stable housing, family and relationship services, mental health support, homelessness services, community building, and disability and youth services.

Some agencies are also providing chaplaincy services for those in prison, in youth justice or immigration detention, in hospital and beyond as well as providing assistance to Indigenous Australians and recently arrived communities. The list of services offered is as diverse as the list of needs is long.

But there is no room for complacency. Catholic social service agencies are facing many challenges from a number of the disruptions at play in our postmodern society. These have to be addressed if the agencies are to continue their work with those on the margins, and their indispensable contribution to the mission of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council serves as a beacon: it reminded us that 'the Church has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel'. The 'signs' that church based social service agencies are grappling with at the moment, and which are challenging their ability to deliver their services, are many and varied.

The sexual abuse and catastrophic failure of leadership laid bare by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex abuse has had a profound impact, not only for victims and survivors, but for all parts of the Church. Nothing can erase the damage that has been done, but an inadequate response now would rub salt into the wounds of victims and of all stakeholders.


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