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Reality check for antisocial Church

World Youth Day massWorld Youth Day proved a powerful experience for many, and the happy informality of the tens of thousands of young people became infectious in Sydney, irrespective of people's religious beliefs.

Rock stars would have envied Pope Benedict's ability to draw such vast crowds, but many church personnel were perturbed that a great opportunity was lost to demonstrate how intrinsic to the Gospel was concern for peacemaking, social justice and ecological sustainability.

The irony is that many younger people are passionately concerned about such matters, as Bono and the rock group U2 can attest with their mobilising of younger generations to the cause of the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet the main World Youth Day events failed to highlight a key biblical message: that God will judge us on how we have responded to the needs of the poor, sick, hungry and imprisoned. Jesus meant to shock his hearers. Piety is worthless in God's eyes if it ignores one's social responsibility, since God identifies intensely with people in distress.

World Youth Day offered an unprecedented chance to demonstrate how directly religious beliefs bear on urgent social issues such as social equity, world hunger, the energy crisis, global warming, the MDGs and peacemaking.

True, Benedict congratulated the new Australian government for its apologies for injustices against our indigenous peoples and commended Australia's role in international peacekeeping.

Later he added that 'non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity'.

But these crucial themes then vanished from centre stage, though many smaller events on the margins dealt with such issues, especially those organised by religious orders or social agencies like Caritas or Vinnies.

The neglect of the Church's own social justice teaching was doubly puzzling, since Benedict has spoken often on world poverty, climate change, the food crisis in many countries, along with threats from nuclear weapons, cluster bombs and the flourishing arms trade.

Benedict frequently discusses these issues with world leaders. To French President Sarkozy on 12 September he highlighted the role of religion in helping address social justice, protecting the environnement and human rights, and peace and reconciliation among peoples.

He wrote to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in June, urging renewed determination to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. And at his meeting with President George W. Bush on 13 June, the Pope raised the topics of the food crisis, the Millennium Development Goals, globalisation and the recent economic setbacks, along with threats to peace.

Benedict in April renewed calls to cut military spending — currently at $US1.3 trillion a year, nearly half of that from the United States — and direct the savings into economic development. Even five per cent of this amount could help lift hundreds of millions out of hunger and poverty.

Before the UN General Assembly meeting of 25 September, Benedict again appealed for urgent support for the Millennium Development Goals. The head of Caritas International, Cardinal Rodriguez, welcomed the additional $US16 billion pledged, but contrasted this with efforts to put $US700 billion to avert the US financial crisis. More substantial funding for the Millennium Development Goals would help save the lives of up to 10 million children a year.

The side-lining of the social dimension at World Youth Day reflects a growing tension in the churches, between those focused on internal church matters and piety, and those engaged with wider issues of social wellbeing.

There is widespread concern in Christian circles that some religious leaders are not doing enough to promote their churches' social teaching. One has only to consider the Australian Catholic bishops' lacklustre response to the long debate over the invasion of Iraq. Some bishops spoke strongly, but others remained silent or made token gestures. In some large dioceses, justice and peace commissions remain tiny or have been down-sized.

Nevertheless, concern for peace and justice remains normative for Christians. On Social Justice Sunday on 28 September the National Council of Churches distributed a statement, Faces of poverty, and the Catholic bishops, A rich young nation: the challenge of affluence and poverty in Australia.

Australians of many beliefs will be interested in Pope Benedict's forthcoming document on globalisation. He will presumably stress that concern for social justice is an essential part of the Church's mission, and must not be downplayed as if it were a secular rival to the Gospel.

Millenium Development Goals

Bruce DuncanFather Bruce Duncan is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and coordinates social justice studies at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.

Topic tags: world youth day, globalisation encyclical, bono, millenium development goals, pope benedict



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Existing comments

Thanks for this article. I must disagree however that the important Gospel message of serving the poor and needy was neglected during WYD.

As a pilgrim I attended Youth Festival talks on human trafficking, on the issues of addiction with youth, and so many other social justice issues... and there were several displays put on by charities to raise awareness of world poverty and calling the pilgrims to take action.

On top of that, so many of the catechesis talks were given by Bishops from poorer nations, and often times poverty and our duty to help the poor was the primary issue addressed in these talks.

I think the experience of a pilgrim on the ground is quite different to the impression of WYD given above ... social justice was really strongly emphasised as the way we are called to turn our faith into action.

Mary | 02 October 2008  

Thanks for this piece, Bruce. I hope this encyclical on globalisation will be coming soon. It has been promised for over a year now and still we wait. Pope Benedict is ertainly not rushing into it.

Let's hope it will be worth the wait.

Neil | 02 October 2008  

Thankyou for your article Fr Bruce.

It was always going to be a challenge for the organisers of WYD to create a forum that allowed the richness of the universal church to breathe in. Let alone doing this in the messiness of the real world, with governments to liaise with, an audacious logistical enterprise to manage and numerous, vibrant and eclectic Australian communities to consult and engage.

This is not to say that the centrality of justice to Christianity shouldn’t have been a core refrain of the event; Benedict is tireless in promoting that the “Love of God leads to participation in the justice and generosity of God towards others” (Spe Salvi)

But practical expressions of this can be a challenge. Having worked with the WYD office for a year in my time as Caritas WYD Coordinator, I can say that all I worked with were open, excited even, about our work and opportunities to mainstream it in the wider event. Admittedly there were notable shortcomings and integrating the work of justice with faith is an ongoing project of the church.

Benedict has given us good direction to take. His emphasis on community is a reminder that such integration will require different communities within the Church to leave their comfort zones and set out to each other. One of the great strengths of WYD was that as people opened their doors to Christ, they also opened their doors to each other.

And so, while the Australian church rushed to meet Benedict in July, the real race lies in catching up, with tangible responses, to the lead he has given on justice, peace and ecology.

Evan Ellis | 02 October 2008  

It may be true that there were events on topics of social justice initiatives, but I agree with Fr Duncan that the message our Holy Father gave us in his person was for greater piety than for concern for the world.
The reason is simple, at one level: communism places the collective above the personal. Benedict spurns this world view, and seeks to vitiate the call for personal piety.
Although I would not expect him to make justice issues number one, if one submits ones whole life for God's will to be done, the eschatological justice of God takes priority.
I live and profess my faith in a Parish which witnesses to this very divide in our Church.

Louise Jeffree (nee O'Brien) | 02 October 2008  

So is Ratzinger finally becoming an advocate of Liberation Theology?

peter | 02 October 2008  

So is Ratzinger finally becoming an advocate of Liberation Theology

peter | 02 October 2008  

Congratulations to Mary for her comment. It is only WYD pilgrims who understand the WYD agenda, and they understand it only by having been immersed in it.

Claude Rigney | 02 October 2008  

I agree with the general thrust of this letter but do not like the word piety or justice. Christianity is all about LOVE - love of God and love of fellow man. We need to grow in spirituality. The need is for the church to concentrate on love and not edicts and rules.

Maurice Ferdinando | 02 October 2008  

Fr Bruce - if you're coordinating social justice studies at YTU, one would think you'd know who are the ones to be putting all of your thoughts and the whole Social Justice agenda into practice.

I am surprised you keep having a go at the Pope, the Cardinal, the Bishops for not really getting SJ issues rolling, and ignoring the one group of people who SHOULD BE doing it all: the priests in the hundreds of parishes throughout Australia.

How many parishes do you know of where there's a Mental Health Support group, a help-our-refugees-study-or-language-or homework group and a dozen other groups that should be priority-picks for any parish.

Don't blame the big shots - the 85% of "non-practising" Catholics have given up blaming them. Next time, give us an article about accountability in the presbyteries.

Harry Mithen | 02 October 2008  

Surely it's not either/or. A deep love and connection with Jesus should naturally lead to an active longing for justice, peace and care for the environment.

The old green catechism indoctrinated into Catholics that 'Faith alone will not save us - good works are also necessary'. From childhood I have understood 'good works' to include working for justice and peace and care of the environment given us by God in his love as well as alleviating poverty.

Margaret McDonald | 02 October 2008  

Excellent article. Thank you. I connect it in some ways to the trouble St. Mary's Parish Church in South Brisbane is having with Church Authorities. This 'parish' has a stong undertaking to Social Justice issues which seems to be downplayed against internal issues and supposedly incorrect liturgical adherence. How will we as a church be judged in the end? By correctness or by our involvement with the poor and underprivileged?

Margaret Costello | 02 October 2008  

It is a tension that is not going to go away. There was a small section in Kairos about the ACBC's statement A Rich young Nation ... The photo inside the statemnt shows the rich young man. We know what he did.

Gary Walker | 03 October 2008  

"Bruce" seems to neglect the fact that in speaking and teaching about "piety", prelates and the Pope at WYD were speaking about the starting point for young Catholics, many of whom haven't a clue about many of the treasures of the Church from which they can draw inspiration to be apostles of Christ in their everyday lives. "Social justice" issues stem from that, as do being charitable in everyday life. The reality is, there is no divide between "social justice Catholics" and "pious" Catholics, because the Church, as he says, is built on social justice; but if you're just banging on about "social justice" without any focus on the fact that this action stems from...wait for it....prayer, and a relationship with Christ (which doesn't just manifest itself 'through interaction and care for the poor') then you're really just 'being a nice person', aren't you? It's really quite Pelagian to focus so much on social justice, as if we're saved by good works alone. You actually need faith in Christ to be saved, and that faith must manifest itself in love for others.

Anthony | 14 October 2008  

Margaret McDonald is right. A seemingly endless stream of articles like this give us the underlying message that we must make a mutually exclusive choice between social justice and piety.

But it's NOT an either/or situation at all in real life.

The Catholics I know who are most devoted to social justice are almost invariably the same ones who are most devoted to piety. And conversely those least active for social justice are almost invariably the ones who are least pious. The two go hand in hand, just like loving God and loving our neighbour.

Ronk | 16 October 2008  

Bruce, I think your observations are spot on. My daughter went on World Youth day and while she raved about the experience, she was critical of the fact that there was a manifest absence of discussion about justice issues.

Michael Loughnane | 31 October 2008  

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