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Churches fight for economic justice


Giant foot about to crush a small person as they attempt to escapeIn his recent address to the Yarra Institute about Christian social thinking in Australia, Fr Frank Brennan expressed the view that 'Christian churches are all but absent from the economic debate other than making the occasional, predictable utterance about ensuring that no one is left worse off as the result of new policy measures'.

This seriously understates the public advocacy of the Australian churches and does a disservice to many people and organisations. It is true that many church leaders do not easily engage in economic issues, partly because they are not trained in economics. But this should not be a bar to informed commentary.

The Australian Catholic Bishops, for example, published a major statement in November 2005 detailing their opposition to the then proposed Work Choices legislation, based on established principles of Catholic social teaching, and calling for changes to be made to it. Subsequent events vindicated their position.

Contributions like this are not required every year. But what the bishops do every year is to issue a Social Justice Statement for release on Social Justice Sunday. In the last two years the bishops have addressed issues of economic importance: 'The Gift of Family in Difficult Times: The social and economic challenges facing families today in 2012', and 'Lazarus at our Gate: A critical moment in the fight against world poverty in 2013'. These have been contributions of substance.

While the bishops could be more active on economic issues, the responsibility for research, advocacy and engagement in public debate falls on church organisations that are generally led by the laity.

A wide range of Catholic organisations, either under the umbrella of Catholic Social Services Australia or otherwise, advocate over a range of economic and federal budgetary issues. Across the health and aged care sectors, Catholic providers and organisations have engaged in the economic issues associated with adequate and efficient care for those in need, especially those who rely on the social safety net. The work of Caritas, for example, requires substantial knowledge of a range of economic issues, sometimes contentious, associated with foreign aid.

Much of this social ministry work is found in other Christian churches. The research and advocacy of, for example, Anglicare, UnitingCare and the Salvation Army in regard to economic matters is substantial and cannot be fairly described as 'making the occasional, predictable utterance about ensuring that no one is left worse off as the result of new policy measures', in Fr Brennan's words.

All church organisations that advocate for incomes that will provide participation, social cohesion, social inclusion and the alleviation of poverty know good economic research and reasoning is an essential part of their advocacy.

My concern about Fr Brennan's address is not only what was said, but what was left unsaid. Fr Brennan's review of Christian social thinking, with particular reference to Catholic teaching, does not deal with thinking or teaching on economic issues.

Catholic social teaching is primarily about economic relations of one form or another. The labour/capital question was the central purpose of Rerum Novarum, the seminal document in modern Catholic social teaching. The 'social question' addressed by successive encyclicals has changed, but always involves economic issues and the consideration of economic structures. Catholic social teaching has come to address a wider range of issues, including a number of contemporary human rights issues, but economic issues are at its core.

A major part of this development in Catholic social teaching has been the articulation of economic rights and economic justice, including the right to participate in society. They are part of the Catholic contribution to human rights discourse. The right to participate in society necessarily involves economic participation. To work through the implications of this right, and to give it practical effect for the poor and marginal, requires substantial knowledge of the working of the economic system. Poverty is the absence of economic and social participation.

It is important that those who campaign for the alleviation and elimination of poverty argue that poverty is a human rights issue. Too often discussion in Australia about human rights neglects economic justice and the rights of the poor and marginalised. For their part, human rights activists need to incorporate economic rights into their advocacy and engage in the economic debates that relate to the practical achievement of these rights.

Both groups need to better understand their common ground and their collective capacity to influence debate and public policy for the benefit of the poor and marginalised.


Brian Lawrence headshotBrian Lawrence is chairman of the Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations. This article is an abbreviated version of A rejoinder to Fr Frank Brennan's address to the Yarra Institute, which is at www.yarrainstitute.org.au.

Giant image by Shutterstock

Topic tags: Brian Lawrence, Catholic social thinking, Frank Brennan



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Existing comments

I am sorry for the great hurt and upset I have occasioned to Brian Lawrence and perhaps many other social justice advocates. My offending speech was given in response to an invitation from the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy to deliver the keynote address of a conference on Christian social thinking. I was asked to address 'the challenges and responsibilities of the churches in the current social, ecumenical and cultural context, especially about engaging positively in helping promote human wellbeing in Australia and beyond.' At the outset, I said, "I have one major reservation about undertaking this task. My training is in law; I know little about economics. Sadly, I think the Christian churches are all but absent from the economic debate other than making the occasional, predictable utterance about ensuring that no one is left worse off as the result of new policy measures." I happily acknowledge all the painstaking work to which Brian alludes. Chairing the policy committee of Jesuit Social Services, I think it all very worthwhile work. I do confess that from where I sit, the church has done little to arrest the whole neoliberal economic agenda. I am just as much to blame as anyone else. I don't know that we have the political influence to reverse much of this. But I have no intention of bashing up on my coreligionists. Pope Francis has given us many economic challenges in Evangelii Gaudium. So all power to your arm, Brian.

Frank Brennan SJ | 28 November 2013  

We are all in debt to both Brian Lawrence - who has been a tireless advocate for economic justice and a insightful presenter on Catholic social teaching - and to Frank Brennan for his extensive engaging advocacy and exposition, from a theological, legal and historical base. This exchange usefully highlights for me both the substantial contribution that is being made by people within the Church on economic issues and principles, and the yawning gap between that and what is needed in our society. Brian and Frank are both beacons for the rest of us and for our collective direction.

Denis Fitzgerald | 29 November 2013  

I, too, am concerned at attitudes of many church people. We express concern at poverty but often fail to "walk the walk" . The scriptures record that we believers are in the world but not of the world." We are not setting a good example. I recently heard a bishop talking about his holiday home , in a sermon, it seemed to be so contradictory to our professed gospel fait.h

David | 29 November 2013  

While I agree with Brian that there is no shortage of the written word by the Australian Bishops and the Pope regarding economic justice what concerns me is the lack of support and assistance for these values and principles to be put into practice. The approach by the Church today is largely one of aid and welfare—don’t get me wrong these are vitally necessary but do not challenge the underlying causes of poverty nor the growing inequality that exists in our world. My experience in working in and around the church for the past 50 years has been that any genuine attempts to engage in action to tackle the growing disparities in wages and use of community resources are either squashed or rejected as too political. Most of the organisations inspired by Catholic social teachings on justice and human rights have disappeared and I see no real attempt by the institutional church to encourage their re-establishment. One is always reminded and inspired by the words of the late Bishop Helder Camara; “ When I feed the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.”

Bill Armstrong | 29 November 2013  

Should we really care what people call us if we are living the true Christian life in both word and deed being loyal to our Lord and Saviour. We could use those criticisms as a cop-out .

David | 29 November 2013  

So we'll soon hear the cardinal and the bishops respond to Christopher Pyne's imminent trashing of the public education sector, shall we? Do't hold your breath.

Ginger Meggs | 29 November 2013  

Brian Lawrence was more than justified in emphasising the work already being done by Catholic economic experts and their institutions and Fr. Brennan was more than gracious in copping it. Can I also applaud Ginger Meggs and his warning of the pernicious campaign of Minister Pyne and the PM, to pierce the heart of the Gonski Report - that, in the end, is a vital economic reform too ?

Peter Kiernan | 30 November 2013  

I hope Mr Lawrence has read Evangelii Gaudium, noted the condemnation of market capitalism as a new tyranny and consider the ramifications of this .papal statement within his Council. There is no need to hark back to Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo Anno (both splendid documents) - there are the everlasting principles of the gospels, the attitude of the current Pope, the heroic work of men such as Helder Camara and countless others in recent times who have dedicated their lives to social justice. I have yet to see the Catholic bishops' condemnation of the coalition's treatment of asylum seekers which reached the nadir of appalling behavior when a mother was denied proper access to her newborn.

John Nicholson | 01 December 2013  

Could it also be that some people are just paid too much? IF someone works for 40 hours per week, that's roughly 2000 hours per year. With "average" Australian full-time earnings around $70,000 per annum, or $35 per hour, what are we to think of someone who is paid ~$1 million per annum, which is $5,000 per hour. I cannot see how anyone's labour could be worth that much. "Ah, but he's the CEO of a company with turnover of billions of dollars, of course he's worth that much", I hear people say. What such argument neglects is that this CEO's labours would be worthless but for the work of all the other people in the corporation. In the absence of any other control, perhaps there ought to be a law that says that no employee can be renumerated at more than six times, say, the median rate of renumeration for that organsation. This would still allow for ten pay levels in the company, with ~20% salary increase with each promotion up the scale. If the boss wants a pay rise, then he guides the company to greater profitability, ensuring wage justice for all its workers.

David Arthur | 01 December 2013  

Interesting discussion re the extent re the ‘political’ church. Great work done by professionals as providers and advocates for aid and justice, sometimes amplified by bishops. But isn’t it concerning if most of those active in the church today are professionals, either with theological or vocational training? What about the ordinary churchgoers? The stalwarts are the St Vincent de Paul Societies, the specialist groups like Marriage Encounter, and parish volunteers who do things like take casseroles to families in crisis. It seems that even these could do with more support from bishops (and some parish priests). The parish ‘activists’ take up refugee, climate change and world poverty issues, doing useful, occasionally spectacular, things apparently with little official involvement. But there are a myriad of other issues - big challenges to family (eg relationship and parenting skills), isolation, blue collar unemployment, gambling and other addictions, mental illness, local environment, safety and public transport issues, political decisions about our ‘collective consumption’ (eg allocation of infrastructure) etc. There is evidence of accelerating dysfunction in our families and neighbourhoods. Much could be done by ordinary people who, with the Catholic ‘see judge act’ method, ask ‘who is my neighbour?’ Our church is probably the biggest community organisation in Australia, with vast potential, but such small plans.

David Moloney | 03 December 2013  

"Subsequent events vindicated their [the Catholic Bishops'] position." Unless one subscribes to the "might is right" fallacy, this is rubbish. The fact that Work Choices was, it seems, resoundingly rejected at the 2007 election and overturned by a unionist-dominated Labor regime doesn't prove anything against the worthwhileness (or not) of that Coalition legislation, or of the Bishops position. Notwithstanding Catholic Bishops non-binding Statements, Catholics are perfectly entitled to endorse Work Choices, and indeed positions far more 'free market' than it. A pox on creeping infallibility. And in the same vein: what is this "neoliberal economic agenda" that Fr Brennan says the Catholic Church must oppose? Are Catholics solemnly forbidden from advocating the privatisation of Australia Post and the ABC, or the abolition of tariffs? Are they bound to support Gonski and the NBN on pain of excommunication? Is an Australian Catholic in schism if he or she advocates that the pre-nationalised health arrangements were a much better model than the current system? Catholics of the Left need to be reminded that the big government systems they reflexively advocate are not the only positions compatible with Catholic doctrine, and that it is at least arguable that many of our social problems today are the consequence of big government.

HH | 03 December 2013  

Jesus quoted from Genesis as if he believed it. Original sin is in the Genesis story. Jesus came to die for that original sin. Was he mistaken? You mean he died because he was ignorant? I find your theology is completely useless for me as it is for many Catholics. Lapsed Catholics now outnumber adherents. With the confusing and contradictory theology you offer it is no wonder. Are you even saved? Saved by a Jesus who died because of an original sin that you don't even think exists?

Brian Evans | 08 March 2014  

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