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The role of the faith based organisation


Frank Brennan's presentation at the Jesuit Social Services Symposium on 'The role of faith based community organisations in contributing to a civil society', 26 May 2014

On this National Sorry Day, I took a walk around St Ignatius Church here in Richmond just to clear my head over morning tea before speaking. I recalled another walk I made around this Church 17 years ago. It was late afternoon. That evening Patrick Dodson and I were to speak in the Church on national reconciliation. The legendary Nugget Coombs had just died. Some months before I had been the rapporteur at the National Reconciliation Convention which Pat chaired and facilitated, as the nation's father of reconciliation. After the Convention, I had written to Prime Minister John Howard suggesting that the time was ripe for a national apology from our Parliament to the stolen generations of indigenous Australians. His minister John Herron had just written back to me telling me that there would be no apology and the reasons for such a decision. I said to Pat over a cup of tea in the presbytery, 'So no apology, eh?' He said that was not right. He and some of the key indigenous leaders had recently been in Canberra meeting with government ministers who intimated that the door might still be open. As Pat and I walked around the church, he contemplated whether he should resign that night as the Chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and whether he should use the church meeting as the opportunity to explain his reasons. He decided not to resign, but to hang in, against the odds. He thought it important to stay inside the government tent working for the long-term objective which was to take a change of government and another decade to achieve. Those of us in the welfare sector working in faith based organisations (FBOs) in difficult times need to decide how we are going to hang in, and what clear goals we are going to set for ourselves.

Years ago when my father was Chief Justice, he was attending a national Catholic education conference in Parliament House in Canberra. Over dinner, a religious sister approached him and explained, 'Sir Gerard, we trust that you will be delighted that we are about to set up the first Catholic law school in Australia.' Dad looked at her and said, 'Must you?' This morning we have heard outlined the history of involvement by religious orders and other church bodies in Australia setting up a vast range of health, education and welfare organisations. With stretched resources, we are often asking how we might maintain our existing institutions. Might we not more profitably at times ask what we might contemplate setting up in twenty first century Australia if we were starting with a tabula rasa.

When Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, the Labor Member for Leichardt in North Queensland was a colourful and amiable lawyer John Gayler who used to organise the prime minister's annual marlin fishing trip off the Barrier Reef. I remember being in Parliament House one night after a long dinner when John Gayler had enjoyed some fine wines. He told me, 'Its all very well for you. You are able to influence things around here. But people like me have no influence at all.' I felt like saying exactly the same thing to him. Often when we church welfare people gather, it is easy for us to demonise, stereotype, morally neutralise, or politically neuter the politicians or the bureaucrats. I am sure they do the same to us behind closed doors. But often it may be that they feel just as powerless, just as trapped, and just as helpless as we do. In charity and justice, it is essential that we accord dignity to all, to politicians and bureaucrats, as well as those we profess to serve through our agencies and those who are our staff and overseers.

We gather from a vast array of Christian traditions — Baptist, Uniting Church, Anglicans, the Salvation Army and Catholics. If we reflect on what works we take pride in and why, I daresay there would be a sense in the room of identity and symmetry — a sense that we all wish to be involved in similar works with a similar ethos and with a similar clientele. And yet each of us has our own distinctive tradition, teaching and modus operandi. In our Catholic tradition, we have been ably assisted in recent years with the 2005 encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est and this year's apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis Evangelli Gaudium.

Though socially much more conservative than his successor, Benedict writes: 'Love of neighbour, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety.' He insists that 'within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life'.

He insists on the need for both justice and charity noting, 'Since the 19th century, an objection has been raised to the Church's charitable activity, subsequently developed with particular insistence by Marxism: the poor, it is claimed, do not need charity but justice. Works of charity — almsgiving — are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights.' Benedict concedes, 'There is admittedly some truth to this argument, but also much that is mistaken.' We must hold together our commitment to charity and our passion for justice.

Benedict says this is the place of the Church's social doctrine: 'it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.' He says, 'the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.'

Some of us would question Benedict's bold assertion: 'The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State.' But we would all agree that the Church 'cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.' This is best done by eyeballing both the decision makers and those affected adversely by those decisions. Eyeballing both, we at least avoid the temptation to sound sanctimonious. Eyeballing both, truth can speak to power and truth can be heard by power.

These are great pointers for faith-based organisations:

  • Practising charity AND justice in all we do and with all with whom we deal
  • Purifying reason in the debate about justice, especially in the tough times after a killer Budget
  • Reawakening the spiritual energy and moral forces in ourselves and in our society, fostering and encouraging the desire to go the extra mile
  • Ordering a just society with a commitment to fostering the common good or the public interest, while maintaining a preferential option for the poor
  • Providing a privileged place for the poor in the life of our organisations.

There are those in FBOs in the health and education sectors who have been much more adept than us in the past, adapting to the demands and expectations of clients and the State, being less suspicious of business and espousing the right of economic initiative, holding together the charism and good business practice, being accountable for outcomes while allowing staff to live their vocation in freedom.

Some FBOs can rightly decide to provide services only for those of their faith communities; others will be committed to providing services for all people in the community regardless of their religious faith. Some FBOs can rightly decide that their services will be provided only or chiefly by members of their faith communities; others can decide that the service be provided by staff of all faiths and none. Some will decide that they be informed by their religious traditions, and others simply by the prevailing community values. Some will decide that they be shaped and inspired by their religious tradition even if few staff are educated or committed in that tradition; others will be satisfied with staff being shaped and inspired by community values. Some will see their organisation simply being described, labeled or marketed by their religious tradition. However it is to be done, we must always have an eye not just to our actions and statements, but also to our structures and mode of accountability.

The present royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse provides all FBOs with a useful mirror at this time. No doubt there is some secularist hostility and media bias out there, but that does not account for what we are encountering. We need to admit that we have been found wanting in our training and supervision of staff, in our non-transparency and unaccountability in the exercise of trust and authority, and in the practice of values which fall well short of contemporary community values in relation to the most vulnerable, children in our care. We have needed help from the State. Usually we pride ourselves on advocating and living values more exacting than those of the community at large. Here we are shown to suffer cultural and institutional shortcomings which undermine our ethical coherence.

Pope Benedict reminds us, 'The Church can never be exempted from practising charity as an organized activity of believers, and on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love.'

In his fourth chapter of Evangelii Gaudium on the social dimension of evangelisation, Francis has a section entitled 'The special place of the poor in God's people'. He writes: 'For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor 'his first mercy''. He says the option for the poor 'is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty. This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor.'

In the section entitled 'The economy and distribution of income', Francis is more insistent than Benedict that we have a hands-on political involvement. With a South American flourish, he asserts, 'As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any prob­lems. Inequality is the root of social ills.' He thinks there are times when we need to be perceived as 'irksome' by decision makers and opinion formers. He writes:

The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere adden­dum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the dis­tribution of goods is mentioned, when reference in made to protecting labour and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to jus­tice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indiffer­ence in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning.

Francis insists on the need for 'more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their ho­rizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.'

With the religiously committed Minister Kevin Andrews preparing to publish the welfare review by the religiously committed Patrick McClure, I wonder whether it might be possible for a broad coalition of FBOs in the welfare sector to provide an analysis of the review's conditionalities for welfare payments and services — not for their political achievability or their economic responsibility, but for their moral coherence upholding the dignity of all with the requisite display of mercy, justice and charity. We are committed to quality care being delivered on the ground and at the edges, the delivery of humane service where it is toughest, and the enhancement of dignity, spiritual energy and critical reason for all participants in policy making and service delivery. We are here to make a difference inspired and motivated by our incarnational vision. We will have our 'no go' areas being unwilling to be complicit in evil, but we will also have our prophetic and practical stances wanting to improve what is an already dreadful situation. Like Pat Dodson, we will keep a place at the table, believing that there is a time for everything under Heaven.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Jesuit Social Services



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Existing comments

Thank you for this inspired address,Frank. I have just read it in Dublin, where the news of home reaching me speaks loudly of pain, concern and lack of Church leadership.

Philomene Tiernan | 28 May 2014  

Frank, we have adapted our public discourse to money-talk and it has harmed us. we need to talk about trust, justice and compassion as what makes a shared life one worth living. Bravo Francis, and thanks to Frank.

Moira | 29 May 2014  

Bravo! Those within FBO hierarchies might do well to ask themselves are they behaving justly in their internal dealings, let alone those services they offer to others.

kathryn | 31 May 2014  

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