About us



Vol 36 No 3


John Ryan

John-Baptiste Bornand

Terry Lyons

Charles Hill

Mark Raper SJ

Michael Trainor

Peter Malone MSC

Editor, JSD, Stephen Hackett MSC, Kevin Mark


Catholic Social Teaching and strategies for the future in Australia


Edited address given at the Annual Conference of Catholic Welfare Australia, Sydney 21st August 2002.[1]

At the end of our lives we will be judged by love. (St John of the Cross)

AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY has changed a lot in the twenty years that I have spent abroad serving refugees. It would be presumptuous of me to spell out for the practitioners in welfare the consequences of these social changes, since they are in daily contact with those who are hurt by them. Nonetheless, for a returning expatriate, certain features stand out in sharp relief. My remarks will touch on the social context within which the Catholic social institutions function, identify some substantive principles that may guide us, and offer a word about our strategies for the future. My principle task is to look at the teaching of the past and the challenge of the future.

Over recent years things appear to have been going well for a majority of Australians. With economic growth steady at around 4% per annum, there have been constant promises of a higher quality of life, of more café latte and abundant chardonnay. But economic globalisation has also meant that Australia, along with most industrialised societies, has been significantly restructured, leading to perceptions of social breakdown. Urban centres may have benefited, but rural and regional communities have suffered and feel neglected. Health and education systems are seen to be in crisis. Urban crime is said to have grown out of control. The major political parties have been losing popularity, while support has grown for minor parties, particularly of the Right.

These are common features of post-industrial, post-modern societies. Social change often generates a feeling of uncertainty. In such situations governments have two options: either they can act responsibly, show real leadership, and manage the pace and effects of the change, or on the other hand they can blame an external threat, or blame the victims, and appeal to fear. Regarding asylum policy for example, our government has constantly and misleadingly portrayed itself as the protector of a generous nation besieged by asylum seekers arriving with criminal intent, while the Labor Party, even now, has nothing of substance or principle to say on the matter. The contemporary politics and rhetoric about asylum seekers touches on the fundamental Australian values that are at the heart of our topic today and this week.

Bryan Dunn of Centacare Newcastle/Maitland, wrote on this in Catholic Welfare News of February this year. He pointed to the contrast between the way politicians and the media spoke about the bushfire victims and the way they speak of the people arriving at our shores seeking asylum.2 The response to families affected by the fires, he says, reflects the best in the Australian community, where all feel one with them, ‘and stand with them in spirit; we ask what we can do to help’. Yet in the case of the refugees and asylum seekers, …we do not meet these people as individuals…They are spoken about stereotypically. Our fears are evoked not allayed… Our politicians carefully crafted information about the centre riots without reference to underlying causes. An approach reflected in the media. Where is full disclosure of the facts, the personal stories which could evoke our deeper understanding? The political face is obdurate, and our leaders play upon our fears. A sense of hopelessness can pervade those who are concerned in the community because of the hardness of heart displayed.

To set the scene may I list some features of the Australian society that I am re-discovering after twenty years abroad.

Australia, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, is ‘one of the countries experiencing falling fertility in the context of increasing life expectancy’. In other words, it is an ageing population. It has also become ‘one of the most culturally diverse societies in the world’.3

Twenty-four percent of Australia’s population was born overseas, a ratio second only to Israel among industrialised countries. But of course it is only after World War II and since the so-called ‘White Australia Policy’ was abolished that ethnic diversity really began.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Australia’s population has increased more than fivefold, from 3.77 million to 19.16 million in 2000. Two-thirds of this increase was natural, that is, from the excess of births over deaths, while immigration accounts for another third. Fertility rate has dropped from its peak of 3.6 in 1961, to 1.75 births per woman in 1999, the lowest in Australia’s history. Consequently the pace of growth is slowing and will be close to zero in 50 years time, even with overseas migration at current levels. The working age population (15 - 64 years) will peak in 2020. The proportion of the population aged 65 years and over will double over the next 50 years.

Australia is ageing. Half of our population is over 35.2 years, an increase of 12 years in the median age during the 20th century. But in the next 50 years, this median will increase another 8 to 11 years. On the other hand indigenous Australians are younger (median age 20.2 years), while migrants are older than Australian born population (median of 45 compared with 30.6).

Family patterns are changing too: couples are delaying marriage, marriage rates have fallen while rates of divorce have risen; more adults live without partners; more couples have fewer children. Sixty-four percent of Australians live in the cities.

The most shocking statistics concern Australia’s indigenous population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people account for 19% of the prisoner population, or 15 times the non-indigenous rate.4 Only 32% of indigenous children complete schooling compared to 73% of all Australian youth. In February 2000, the unemployment rate was 17.6% for indigenous people compared to 7.3% for non-indigenous. The study Suicide in Australia (2000) suggests that the suicide rate for indigenous Australians is two to three times that of non-Australians.

On census night in 1996 there were around 105,000 people homeless in Australia, with about one fifth of them sleeping rough. Another feature of our society is the growth in inequality. The income for the bottom 10% of the private sector lowered around 3%, while that for the top 10% increased around 20%. 5

Not all of these changes, especially the social ills, can be laid at the feet of globalisation. But some of globalisation’s key features do prompt reflection. Critics of globalisation explain that after the Second World War, productivity in the industrialised countries was such that income could be distributed to some extent between capital, labour and government. But since that time, in particular since the reform of the Bretton Woods institutions in the early 70s, in order to make capital grow, there have been two main strategies: an offensive against labour and diminishment of the role of the state. The offensive against labour involved the lowering of real wages, deregulation, relocating factories, lowering social benefits and loosening the grip of organised labour.

The role of the State as distributor of income and social mediator was shrunk through a number of measures. There have been successive waves of privatisations of public services as well as of sectors of the economy. Moreover the structural adjustments programs imposed, particularly on many third world countries by the International Monetary Fund, and other austerity programs imposed by the international monetary institutions, have limited the freedom of states even to assist their own people.

Whereas the Industrial Revolution was a phenomenon of the 19th Century, quite significant and profound changes have also occurred in the 20th century in the way our society is organised: culturally, economically and socially. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman would claim that in relatively recent times, Western societies have transformed from being economically and socially based on production to societies that are now based on consumption. In ‘production societies’ the poor had something vital to offer, namely their labour. But they perform no such function in ‘consumer societies’. 6

In summary, the character and shape of post-industrial societies is: highly bureaucratised, filled with technology, shaped by mass communications, and powerfully urbanised. Such societies produce their own kinds of social questions.

In this broad sweep description of world wide economic change, we can recognise some parallels and consequences in our own society. But let us focus in on one area that directly concerns Catholic Welfare. There have been, and continue to be significant changes in the type of contractual arrangements between governments and civil society organisations involved in delivery of publicly funded social services. In Australia many non-government social service agencies previously funded by grants must now be funded by contract or not at all. In this public management approach to contracting, civil society agencies are under pressure to become more like government agents on the one hand and like commercial businesses on the other. Whereas their role should be to protect the individual against the power of the State and also of the economy, these organisations are at risk of being precisely the agent of those forces. Agencies like your own have to balance your various accountabilities: your contractual obligations to the government, your moral obligations to your clients, and your faithfulness to your mission. Moreover, citizens need you as their intermediaries in order to hold government accountable for the proper administration of public policy. 7

Albert Einstein once said: ‘We cannot expect to solve today’s problems with the same thinking that created them’.

The phrase ‘post-industrial society’ is not used in Catholic social teaching, to my knowledge. Nonetheless, the social documents of the Popes, beginning in 1971 with Paul VI’s Octagesima Adveniens (the 80th year since Rerum Novarum), right to the present, in particular Centesimus Annus (the 100th year) of John Paul II, are all attempts to analyse the meaning of and respond to the social challenges of post-industrial society. Paul VI described the challenge, interestingly, as ‘to humanise the city’.

The social teaching of the past thirty or more years arose out of a number of important developments within the church. In particular it is the product of the wider and more informed use of Scripture, as demanded by the Vatican Council. It is also a product of the view that the church’s role is to be the servant of a much wider society that is quite diverse and pluralistic. Today I will simply refer to three substantive principles that can help us construct a strategy for how the church agencies can relate with state agencies, and how together they may cooperate or at least relate to civil society in pursuit of the good of all, the common good. These principles are: subsidiarity, socialisation, and solidarity.

Subsidiarity means that a service should be located as close to the need as possible. The State should not do what local social service organisations can do better. This principle is a cornerstone of the Catholic social view. ‘The individual, the family and society are prior to the State, and…the State exists in order to protect their rights and not to stifle them.’8 It argues for the need of agencies like Catholic Welfare, not just because they serve the needy in our communities, but because they promote pluralism of power in the social system, fundamental to maintaining the diversity of institutions and services required to meet complex social needs. At the same time, subsidiarity is not an argument for privatising the whole social welfare operation. The State still has responsibilities to the poor. When a problem exceeds the capacity of these persons and groups, then it is proper for the government to intervene, but in ways carefully guided by political prudence.

Nonetheless, while excluding ‘statist’ solutions, subsidiarity insists that the government ‘furnish help (subsidium) to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.’ 9 Moreover, this principle defends the rights of a host of voluntary associations—such as unions, ethnic agencies, neighbourhood groups, local councils, small and large businesses, churches—to exist and to operate according to their own ways. But none of these bodies, including Catholic Welfare Australia, are purely private bodies. They are parts of society. They are the ways in which people participate in social life.

Subsidiarity has a very practical implication for us in the way we deliver services. We should not take from people their right to help themselves. So our services should enable them to take power over their own lives, rather than become overly dependent on agencies like ours.

It is nonetheless true that some social suffering is of such magnitude and so entrenched in our economic and political system that the actions of families and of civil society is inadequate in meeting the need. John XXIII saw this and in 1961 modified the principle of subsidiarity with his description of socialisation. He argued that while the principle of subsidiarity is valid, that is, we should not go first to the State to solve every social ill, nonetheless the nature of post-industrial society is such that an increased role for the State is required. In this 21st century we are still struggling to balance socialisation and subsidiarity: maintaining the balance between the need for effective services with the need for freedom and pluralism.

The principle of socialisation claims that the State should tax those with sufficient resources in order to redistribute some of the common wealth to enable those without adequate resources to participate in their community. This is not charity or welfare, this is justice.

In practice, where government does intervene, your role changes from being the provider of services to being the advocate on behalf of those who are disadvantaged or under-valued. We have a role to insist that these people have a right to the best service possible.

In helping us to balance subsidiarity and socialisation, John Paul II added a third substantive principle, that of solidarity. Solidarity concerns a fundamental vision of society, and of our relationship to one another. ‘…The development of individual people, and the development of societies depend on each other.’ 10 This vision is the conviction that we are born into a web of social relationships, that our humanity ties us to one another, that the Gospel consecrates those ties, and that the prophets and all of Scripture tell us that how we honour those ties is the test of the authenticity of our faith.

Solidarity is not just a vague feeling of compassion, or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.11

In a post-industrial society, the church and Catholic institutions need to revisit these three principles repeatedly and to reshape our understanding of them in terms of what the State ought to do, in terms of what others in society ought to do, and in terms of what the Catholic institutions themselves ought to do.

This leads us to strategies for the future. But only the truly wise or the very bold will attempt a clear chart the Church’s strategy today. But, as Bishop Power rightly said on the Lateline program (August 20th, 2002): a time of crisis is also a time of opportunity. The words of John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, ring very true:

Today more than ever, the Church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency.12

Earlier in the same passage he had said:

The social message of the gospel must not be considered a theory, but above all else a basis and a motivation for action. Inspired by this message, some of the first Christians distributed their goods to the poor, bearing witness to the fact that despite different social origins, it was possible for people to live together in peace and harmony.

Catholicism is institutional by instinct and by nature. This institutional character is a fundamental asset that we carry into a new era. Institutions are the way you grab hold of life, the way you lay hands on complex social questions. Catholic Welfare is the hands of the church, its instrument for engaging not only in response to the needs of people, but also in the processes of our society as it changes.

An overarching strategy is surely needed for the institutional Catholic social presence, and I mean in education, health care and social service. And that strategy will be correctly rooted in the parish base of Australian Catholicism, even if that parish base appears to be diminishing in strength and numbers.

The contractual relationships between the State and community organisations have private and public elements. Catholic Welfare is in a good position to recognise and implement the dual or even multiple accountabilities involved even in government contracts: it remains accountable as an organisation to the Bishops Conference, and to its member organisations, as also to those whom it serves as well as to its own mission and values; it is accountable publicly to the rest of citizenry and even to Parliament, as also to its own role in promoting a just Australian society.

Many lobby groups exist to promote exclusively the interests of their own groups. Catholic Welfare, by contrast, has a concern for the whole community, especially for those whose access to power in the public sphere is diminished. Catholic Welfare is rightly active in public conversation concerning justice for all in Australia and even beyond.

Yet in seeking justice, the church is at its best in an attentive, listening mode rather than in an authoritative mode. Engagement in dialogue means allowing respectful space. There are rules of engagement in a pluralistic society. One speaks, but one also listens. We are not required to surrender our religious belief. Our task is to measure public policy against the Gospel values and against our Catholic social teaching.

Here is a list of roles for the Church today, that I borrow from one of my colleagues:13

1. Protector of its own self-interest. (The entitlement of any citizen or group of citizens.)

2. Stakeholder in some disputes.

3. Honest Broker in disputes to which the Church is not a party (and where Church members may be represented in both or several parties).

4. Advocate for the poor, disadvantaged, excluded.

5. Advocate for the Common Good (or for public interest).

6. Defender of Truth.

7. Exemplar of Gospel values: for the good of church members, and incidentally for the good of society.

Returning to the question of refugees: I am sure that the current asylum debate touches on basic Australian values. When the fear provoked at the arrival of a pitiful boatload of refugees on the eve of an election can so powerfully alter the course of a nation and the fate and policies of a government, we need to search deep in our hearts as a nation. We also need the leadership and practical witness of institutions such as Catholic Welfare Australia.

For conclusion, I offer this quotation from a sermon of St. John Chrysostom:

Would you honour the body of Christ? Do not despise his nakedness; do not honour him here in church clothed in silk vestments and then pass him by unclothed and frozen outside. Remember that he who said, ‘This is my body’, and made good his words, also said, ‘You saw me hungry and gave me no food’, and, ‘in so far as you did it not to one of these, you did it not to me’. In the first sense the body of Christ does not need clothing but worship from a pure heart. In the second sense it does need clothing and all the care we can give it… Learn to be discerning Christians and to honour Christ in the way he wants to be honoured. It is only right that honour given to anyone should take the form most acceptable to the recipient not to the giver…So give God the honour he asks for… 14


1 From 1990 to 2000 Mark was International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), based in Rome, and throughout the 1980s he was the Regional Director of JRS for Asia and the Pacific, based in Bangkok, Thailand. In 2001 he held a visiting chair at the Center for the Study of International Migration in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. In 2001 he was named a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia in recognition of his services to refugees. In the same year he was awarded the ‘Servant of Peace’ award by the Path to Peace Foundation in New York.

2 ‘Clear cut parallels clouded by fear and racism’, in Catholic Welfare Australia NEWS, Volume 2 Issue 1, February 2002, p. 6.

3 ‘Ageing yet diverse’, Australian Family Briefing, No 10 September 2001, by Ruth Weston, Lixia Qu and Grace Soriano. Australian Institute of Family Studies.

4 See HREOC, Face the Facts, Section 3, Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders. http://www.hreoc.gov.au/racial_discrimination/face_facts/sect3.html

5 Statistics taken from Mission Australia, National Social Trends Snap Shot 2001.

6 Zygmunt Bauman (1998), Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Buckingham, Open University Press.

7 A good discussion of this question can be found in: David De Carvalho (2002), ‘The Social Contract Renegotiated: Protecting Public Values in the Age of Contracting’, in T Eardley and B Bradbury, eds, Competing Visions: Refereed Proceedings of National Social Policy Conference 2001, SPRC Report 1/02 Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 126-135. (www.sprc.unsw.edu.au).

8 Centesimus Annus, John Paul II, 1991, No 11.

9 Quadragesimo anno, Pius XI, 1931, No 79.

10 Populorum Progressio, Paul VI, No 43.

11 John Paul II, 1988, No 38.

12 Centesimus Annus, John Paul II, 1991, No 57.

13 Frank Brennan SJ, ‘The Role of Religious Educators’, talk given in January 2002.

14 From the homilies of St John Chrysostom (Hom 50, 3-4), Office of the Readings for Saturday of 21st Week.

Mark Raper is Director of Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre, and serves on the Board of the Refugee Council of Australia. He soon will commence a new assignment as Jesuit Provincial Superior.