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  • Re-building the commons: In conversation with Joshua Lourensz

Re-building the commons: In conversation with Joshua Lourensz


You might recognise Joshua Lourensz’s name from his various contributions to media outlets across the country like The Age, The Guardian, the ABC and Eureka Street exploring the major sources of social need in Australia and posing questions around how we might best work together to solve them. As executive officer of Catholic Social Services Victoria (CSSV), he’s been working enthusiastically to create these bridges between individuals and organisations. Now, as he orchestrates CSSV’s first social services conference in a world that has become increasingly more divided in the aftermath of the pandemic, Joshua is questioning how we might best re-develop a sense of the commons to reignite our communities and foster social responsibility?


Michael McVeigh:  What were some of the most formative experiences for you in the social services space?

Joshua Lourensz: There’s something powerful in reading a story about a person’s life and gaining a better understanding about systems and structures that have influence on our lives. But for me, it’s all about the realisations you have when you actually meet people. Conversations I’ve had when I’ve realised there isn’t much difference between myself and someone sleeping on the street. It’s the difference between having a supportive family or not, the difference between having friendship and love and care versus an experience of broken trust and hurt.

One experience that had a big impact on me was when I’d started working at the Carlton Commission high rise. I was running a bunch of youth programs out of the YMCA, and there was this one kid who’d arrived in Australia and he hadn’t ever been to school. And so starting school here, he’d been kept back a year, so he was bigger than all the other kids. And he was the most lovely child. But if he saw another child being bullied or saw kids fighting, he would become incredibly violent towards whoever was being aggressive.

I learned a little about this boy’s story. He had experienced things in his childhood that I probably will never experience in my life. Like by the age of five, he had seen some of his siblings killed. I had basic training in youth work, not the skills to understand the complexity of that trauma, but I could see that his experiences and behaviours were linked. How kind he was, how loving he was, how calm he was, until there was some conflict, and it would change his entire orientation. To see that at such an early age really stuck in my mind. Our bodies hold the score. 


How did you come to learn about and engage with Catholic social thought?

My first introduction to a more comprehensive understanding of Catholic social thought was when a mate handed me a book that he was reading. It was Dorothy Day’s memoir, The Long Loneliness. It put me in touch with the Catholic worker movement from the USA, which had me very interested in this intense conversation around reckoning with poverty.

One idea I found fascinating was that Dorothy Day and her collaborators all seemed to draw on their understanding of who God was — Christ in the poor. And their activities were really grounded in what they saw as the role of the Church in the world.

When I was at Jesuit Social Services, I had a chat with Andy Hamilton SJ and asked him, ‘Do you have a book on Catholic social teaching? I just need to get my head around what it all is?’ He gave me a book by Race Matthews, Of Labour and Liberty. His way of introducing me to a more systematic understanding was to go back to an analysis of the cooperatives in Australia’s history.  


We still have the labor movement today in a sense, but it’s becoming more and more difficult for young people to have the time and space for all this. Your upcoming conference is built around the theme ‘Commons, Commonality, Common Good’. If we’re talking about rebuilding the commons, where’s the energy going to come from? 

This is the question of the moment: where is the energy? We’ve seen really strong shifts in the way we do life. People’s time and attention is fractured, divvied up between various social media accounts, news outlets, streaming platforms, workplaces, and where they hang out in person.

Because we’ve seen this fracturing of time and attention and spaces we inhabit, the kinds of activity we see is smaller. But there is good energy, often on the edges of institutions and communities. I think we can read history with probably a bit of a glossy lens when it comes to social changes and movements. In reality, it’s all a bit of a mess.

We’re talking less about mass movements now, but people are really thinking through their lives and their faith, wrestling with the idea of what being ethical is in a late capitalist world. And people often find that means not being consumed by a neoliberal understanding of self, but actually seeing ourselves being a part of a community, being part of a church at work in the world. As I said, it’s on a different scale, but the energy is the same.

I get a lot of hope from Laudato Si’, in that concept of conversion. It means not just consuming differently, but actually thinking I need to reorient myself. It’s about understanding that we’re in this together, that we’re not above or beyond nature, but that we we’re inseparably linked with each other and the world, for better and for worse.

When I worked for Jesuit Social Services, I was given the opportunity to head to the Philippines for a few days. And it led me to consider: how are we squaring the ecological elements of our lives with the social cry of the earth and the cry of the poor? It became one of those moments that synthesises all this material for me, orienting my activities.


As well as providing services to people on the ground, social services try to influence government decisions around issues affecting people they serve. But with a large proportion of the funding for organisations these days coming from governments, how do social services manage that balance between being a service provider and the social justice imperative?

I think advocacy has always been ‘above and beyond’ what social services have always done. Whether you’re funded by government or not, a lot of organisational time is put into meeting the needs of the people through a program, or emergency relief, or case management or whatever model of care people are working through. But you’re tight, organisations also have made an effort to think about the issues of justice that underlie people coming to need our services.

 Many of our Catholic Social Services Victoria members have dedicated resources into thinking about the various situations they’re working in. And in terms of being critical of how government uses its money, broadly, there’s two ways of doing it: through individual organisational advocacy or through peak bodies such as Catholic Social Services Victoria. 

Generally, our sector has been very good at partnering with robust research to show that we’re not just coming at issues from an anecdotal standpoint from seeing people with great need in society. Rather, we’re forming up rational arguments about why these needs exist. We look at creative ways of putting together a robust argument to government, or finding others who might have something else to say about it, to work together for policy change or social change.


Back to this idea of ‘the commons’. In our communities today, we don’t really have many shared physical spaces where people come together. Often everyone’s quite isolated in their small networks of family and friends. There’s been an erosion of that sense of shared communal spaces, and with that, the notion that we actually have a responsibility to each other. 

We’re coming off the back of the pandemic, and where we are now as a country is very different to where we were four years ago. Some of those things you mentioned have already started on the internet. A lot of people are spending a lot more time connecting digitally in various ways. And this has changed us, even down to how the public voted in the last election cycle. We’ve seen the teals arise as a political force federally, we’ve seen an increase at the state level particularly in the suburbs where people are moving away from the major parties – even in traditional strongholds. We’re seeing a lot more diversity in the way people vote. But where is the common ground? People, sadly, seem to be drifting to the extremes rather than coming to that common ground and engaging in dialogue. 

We’re trying to think about how social services might contribute to a social environment where people are able to dialogue, interact, think about differences and commonalities in a way that’s going to bring people together. Social services are generally not in the digital space so much. Where we’ve worked with people is through their very physical realities, and the material necessities of their existence. We believe in the social element of social services and really thinking about how to build a social environment that brings out the best in each of us.


You mention the importance of engaging in dialogue. In current public debate, people tend to write off those who disagree with them, and you see this in the wake of the referendum. Everyone digs their own trenches and lobs grenades at the other side. That kind of approach to public dialogue is one we are very wary of. At Eureka Street, we want to build bridges of understanding, and see where people are coming from and that means understanding that there can be sincere and good reasons for their beliefs even if we disagree. Within social service organisations, I imagine that’s a challenge. How do you manage that space when you’ve got people who are passionate about issues and want change, but also in a context where people are going to have strong disagreements?

 There’s 8,000 workers across Catholic social services in Victoria, and some 14,000 volunteers who come from a wide range of backgrounds, all contributing to this great work.


And I presume a fair few are not Catholic… 

Absolutely. We have people from all kinds of faiths and traditions working within Catholic social services, and some have no interest at all. And that’s not to mention the clients that are served by this workforce. Clients come all walks of life and all faiths and no faiths and everything in between. 

Ours is a fairly simple approach: we are grounded in Catholic social teaching and thought. That can be approached from a variety of ways, but that’s our basis for how we approach social issues. We look to the poorest in society and ask how we can stand in solidarity with them, how we empower participation for people to make decisions for themselves.

The common good is not the utilitarian idea of ‘the most good for the most people’. Common good is about looking at what each person needs to live a life that flourishes. Our definition of justice isn’t that everyone deserves the same thing. Our understanding of justice is that everyone needs different things in order to flourish. And that’s what we’re all working together to do. 

There are certain things people won’t agree with, and certain interpretations of those social teachings that will provoke interesting discussion. But that understanding of ‘common good’ allows us to focus on what we are about, and who we should be in solidarity with. Out of that, we do our work.


That’s the benefit of having that Catholic social teaching to fall back on. We find the same thing. It means you can be open to discussion and conversation, but there is a set of ideas that ground you that can’t be compromised. 

Right. And Catholic social teaching is dynamic and we’re seeing it updated all the time. Like the work of Pope Francis writing on the ecological crisis and how that is a social crisis at the same time. To me, it’s a dynamic space, and because social services often work with people who are doing it tough on multiple fronts, so social teaching becomes very alive and real. Social services adapt and contribute to those social teachings, and respond to the constantly changing needs of our moment. Even though there’s some fundamental principles which we operate from, there’s a great amount of adaptation about how they’re applied.


In the social services sector, the Church is uniquely placed because you have parish communities on the ground with people going to church every week, and people send their children to Catholic schools. There’s a huge community that churches still bring together. And yet we see declining numbers of people in Christian churches all over the country. People still have a positive view of churches through their social services work. This is probably a dirty word in the social service sector, but is there any sense of ‘evangelisation’ in what your member organisations do? About being a model of Christ in the world, and the potential to lead people into an encounter with what Christ is about? 

In social services, we work in a very pluralistic space. We talk about faith in action, but the actions are being done by staff from all different faiths. This is truly a very interesting place to be. We’re collaborating in the social mission of the Church, and that is confronting for some people. But ultimately if you work for a Catholic organization or another faith-based organization, by nature of your work, you are part of the social mission of the Church. 

Different organisations develop an understanding of that in different ways. Perhaps they have a director of mission, perhaps they have an interesting formation program, perhaps they have professional development. Each of our members do it slightly differently.  

And it depends on your definition of evangelisation – there’s the very American kind of idea evangelization, but there is also the way Pope Francis talks about evangelisation, which is being in fidelity to the truth, in fidelity to the Gospel, on the margins, for the margins. We talk a lot about how we want to be the Church on the margins for the margins. Social services are well placed by nature of their work to be where people are struggling most. 

People participate together in that shared work of being in fidelity to the Gospel. Individual staff members might not see their work that way, but by the very nature of working in a Catholic social services organisation, they are beautifully caught up in the work itself.  

For me, Catholic social services has been a great gateway to understanding more about the Catholic tradition, thought, social teachings and faith and what that means in a pluralistic world. It’s always grounded in the concrete reality of the conditions of the poor and what we are doing about it.

Everyone will talk about it a bit differently, but I see it happening in many different ways across social services and it’s a very exciting place to be. It’s messy work getting involved with people in the mess of their lives, and people’s spiritual lives are a part of that, as much as their need to eat and where they need to be housed and where they need to be clothed. It’s important that social services, and particularly faith-based social services, are giving the space to consider the whole person.


Finally, what brings you hope for the future of the mission of the Church and how that mission is lived out?

There’s an old saying that in social services you should be trying to do yourself out of a job. So for me, that’s one thing that gives me great hope: when I see organisations trying to do really good work and almost do themselves out of a job. That makes me excited. 

The other thing is collaboration. I get very excited that, while yes, there’s a heavy compliance load and a heavy professionalisation of many different workforces and social services is one of them, but with the connection to parish communities, there’s people gathering together, the connection to the health sector, the connection to education. I see a really holistic way of approaching social issues that I get excited about from the whole Catholic community. 

And my hope is that people will continue to have conversations and that these will result in real programs that draw from all those strengths and draw people to work together. That’s the only way we’re going to see a shift in Australia that inspires us to be better people, better to each other, kinder to each other and kinder to the world.



The Catholic Social Services National Conference 2024  takes place in Melbourne from 21–23 February. Find out more here: https://css.org.au/css-national-conference-2024/



Michael McVeigh is Head of Publishing and Digital Content at Jesuit Communications.

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, Catholic Church, Social Services, Josh Lourensz, Commons



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