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Pope's pointers for Australian welfare review

  • 30 January 2014

Economics and religion usually do not talk to one another. So Pope Francis' message to the World Economic Forum at Davos aroused some interest. It was brief. It developed the Catholic understanding that government and business economic actions should be governed, not by trust in the benign working of the free market, but by care for the good of the whole human community.

Coincidentally in Australia Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews announced a review of welfare payments. It is instructive to reflect on the review in the light of the Pope's approach.

The Pope commended to the delegates at the Forum a view of economic growth governed by ethical reflection on the human good:

In the context of your meeting, I wish to emphasise the importance that the various political and economic sectors have in promoting an inclusive approach which takes into consideration the dignity of every human person and the common good. I'm referring to a concern that ought to shape every political and economic decision, but which at times seems to be little more than an afterthought. Those working in these sectors have a precise responsibility towards others, particularly those who are most frail, weak and vulnerable.

He insisted that the economy should serve human beings, and not human beings the economy. He proposed a view of economic equality that 'demands first of all a transcendent vision of the person. It also calls for decisions, mechanisms and processes directed to a better distribution of wealth, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.'

This vision of equality demands that the most disadvantaged in society can enjoy the conditions that the better-off members of society would regard as essential for themselves to live with human dignity.

The Australian proposal to review welfare payments is in itself compatible with this Catholic vision. Its goal of helping people to find work and so connect with society is laudable. Regular review is essential to guarantee that government resources are directed to the frail, weak and vulnerable. Over time needs change and policies have unintended consequences.

The review of course will not be judged by the goals set for it but by how it enables those who are frail, weak and vulnerable to live in a way that respects their human dignity and removes the obstacles to finding employment that face those able to work.

The current system certainly