Church and State: a meeting place

Who is my neighbour?

Jesus’ answer to the question presents a vision of society that calls people to a new and greater communion with each other. Based on this, Catholic Social Services Australia calls for a rediscovery of the notion of genuine partnership …

Two thousand years ago, Jesus told the story of a man who fell upon bad times travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Under the social and political arrangements of the day, the man was not in a target group that had been identified for intervention.

A Priest and a Levite - symbols of the religious and political forces of the day - passed the traveller by as they made their way along the highway. Then came a Samaritan - an outsider - and he stopped and helped.

He received no outcome payment for his intervention.

There was no Job Seeker Account to pay for the wine and oil he poured on the traveller’s wounds.

No receipts were required when lodgings were arranged at the local inn.

No service agreement was invoked when he offered to pay any additional expenses incurred on his return trip through the area.

Jesus' telling of such a story was surprisingly political act at the time.

The story was told in response to the questions from a young follower of Jesus who asked "Who is my neighbour?"  The answer challenged the priorities of the social, political and religious elites of the day.

The answer presented a vision of society that called people to a new and greater communion with each other.

The answer suggested that it is in this communion and NOT in rigorous compliance to the religious rules of the day, that people would discover the true identity of their loving and creator God.

Two thousand years later, in many ways, we find ourselves facing the same question, "Who is my neighbor?"  Still we struggle to respond to our neighbours in a way that brings us into closer communion with them…

This was the beginning of Fr Joe Caddy’s Parliamentary Breakfast speech as part of the 2006 annual conference of Catholic Social Services Australia. By the end of the speech, he had called for a new partnership among the Church, community services and the government – a partnership that would serve those in the greatest need.

“Community agencies are not simply out-sourced providers of government programs but partners who are able to use government funding to achieve the ends that are consistent with their mission and with Government policy objectives,” he told Ministers, Shadow Ministers, Members and Senators.

“Two thousand years after the Good Samaritan story not much has changed. People are still willing to turn a blind eye to those in need.

“Like the Gospel and the vision of many who care, Catholic Social Services Australia wishes to promote a society where we all take responsibility for people in need.”

Built on the determination, professionalism and drive of visionaries such as Monsignor Frank McCosker, Fr Eric Perkins (later Bishop), Norma Parker and Constance Moffatt, the Catholic Church in Australia had become a leader, providing services in direct response to unmet needs of the community.

“Whilst the churches can't claim to have a monopoly over morality, they do have a very significant tradition of having wrestled with some of the key human social and life questions,” Fr Caddy said, “questions such as: Under what conditions can war be justified? When does life begin and end? The Church's contemplation of these questions over the ages has left a valuable legacy as we contemplate the questions of our own age.”

The ‘preferential option for the poor’ which underpins the Church’s traditions of social service and advocacy is not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another.

“Rather it states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community.  The extent of their suffering is a measure of how far we are from being a true community of persons.”

Fr Caddy said that the option for the poor was not simply a charitable response to a perceived need in the people served but a response to a failing in the community as a whole.

In today’s world where social aspirations are more often about the individual than the common good; where ‘competition' is identified as a stronger and more relevant motivation than ‘altruism' and where ‘mutual obligation' is more commonly about demands on individuals, rather than an expectation that the community will provide opportunities for its struggling members, Fr Caddy highlighted several priority areas “where we would see great opportunities for action”.  They are social inequality, welfare/tax reform, families and mental illness.

“As a nation Australia has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth over the last decade. But as a nation we have not been able to overcome the poverty experienced by many people in our community … Our macro-economic successes as a nation are undermined by our failures at a micro level.  We have citizens in this country who will wait years for assistance with their dental care, who will attend schools with run-down facilities, who will sleep rough, and who will die young because our unprecedented growth, increased incomes and buoyant budget surpluses have left them relatively untouched.

“From our point of view the ‘welfare system' must provide two things.

“Firstly, it must provide an adequate safety net for individuals who, like the man in the Good Samaritan story, have fallen on bad times…  we assert that the safety net continues to be an entitlement and a right that should be afforded to individuals by virtue of their humanity, not as a gift from society.

“The second expectation that we have of the welfare system is that it provides incentives and support to allow people to break out of the poverty cycles that we know can span generations...  Tax and welfare reform is a substantial task, but it's a worthy challenge that will lead to lasting improvements in the quality of people's lives.  

“Such reforms will need a commitment beyond electoral cycles and party politics.”

Fr Caddy said that response to families should be two-fold.

“Firstly, we must create the economic circumstances that ensure that families have greater time for each other, allowing parents to spend less time at work.

“Secondly we must create the social circumstances that provide families with greater support.  Just as we build the necessary physical infrastructure into modern residential developments, we must also create and support a new social infrastructure to connect members of the community to each other.”

In expressing concern about mental health provisions, he reminded listeners that mental illness affected not only the thousands of Australians who suffered an illness but their families and communities.  Services were overwhelmed with people who should be in specific mental health services but for whom there was no place. Homelessness and prison were the next options.

“Delivering on the recent promises of the CoAG agreements in relation to mental health services, and turning good intentions into effective community based services on the ground, is the challenge of the coming years.”

Fr Caddy said there was a great potential to resolve these concerns through the rediscovery of the notion of partnership.

“Catholic Social Services Australia doesn't underestimate the difficulty of this task, but we look forward to a genuine partnership and continued dialogue with governments of all persuasions and policy makers in creating a genuinely fairer and better world for all to enjoy.”

Fr Joe Caddy is the Chair of the Board of Catholic Social Services Australia. He is also Executive Director of Centacare Melbourne.   The speech was delivered at Parliament House, Canberra, on Tuesday, October 17, as part of the national 2006 Catholic Social Services Australiaconference.



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