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The Bishop's Letter


Imagine the Old Testment prophets Amos and Micah sharing a stage with Sir Bob Geldof in a LiveAid concert: Bishop Kevin Manning encouraged the faithful to do so in this letter to the people of Parramatta earlier this month. The letter, which is a reflection on this year's Federal Budget, was originally published in Catholic Outlook, June 2005:


My Dear People,

The words "rich" and "poor" frequently fell from the pens of commentators on this year's Federal Budget, and rarely has the comparison been more pronounced.

I was left wondering if the words of the nursery rhyme "Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief" were not a sliding scale for the future of the poor.

My wonderment was further fuelled by a few indicators of the Federal Industrial Relations Legislation, proposed for debate in July/August and which promises little joy for the poor:

  • A continuing imbalance in the employment relationship;
  • No clear guarantee of a proper minimum wage to protect the poor;
  • Lack of support for the poor in their search for just wages;
  • Exemption for small business employers from unfair dismissal claims and redundancy payments. The musical Oliver, the novels of Dickens and Zola, bring home to us the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, propertied classes.

    Exploitation

    In the 19th Century, the time of the Industrial Revolution, for example, labourers were exploited and made to work long hours so that the rich became richer, and the worker had no redress.

    As a result of their abject working conditions and miserable wages, trade unions were born to protect the rights of workers, while opposing those who advantaged themselves by exploiting the poor.

    Emphasis on personal wealth is a legacy of a way of understanding the world that we have inherited from Enlightenment Europe, an understanding in which the individual is the centre.

    It is not the understanding of indigenous Australians, nor of the people of the continents of Africa, nor South America, nor Asia.

    When the Federal Budget came down, analysis was based on the individual: What's in it for me? Will I have to change my investment strategy?

    This is the talk of the rich and those with the means to enrich themselves. Their investment and superannuation horizons are not the horizons of the poor and the working poor whose concerns are more immediate: this month's rent, and food on the table for the week.

    Sharing resources

    If the prophets Amos and Micah were alive today they would be sharing the stage with Bono and Bob Geldof in calling for an equitable share in the world's resources for all the inhabitants of the world.

    How can it be equitable that a European cow gets subsidies worth 157 times what the EU gives to each person in Africa? (1)

    How can it be right that companies enrich their shareholders by the production and export of arms, whose sole aim is to kill?

    Micah prophesied: "Disaster for those who plot evil ... seizing the fields that they covet, they take over houses as well, owner and house they seize alike, the man himself as well as his inheritance" (Micah 2:1-2).

    Jesus' explicit identification with the poor, "As long as you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me", personalises the issue and acts as a counter to the tendency to dehumanise work.

    The Catholic Church, by her God-given mandate, recognises the rights and dignity of the worker and the importance of work itself, for she sees work as part of God's plan for the building up of creation, and labourers as co-workers with Christ.

    Collaborating in creation

    Pope John Paul II taught that the worker enjoys a special role of collaborating with God in His work of creation. (2)

    If work is grounded in God's creation, then people have a right to meaningful work. By "meaningful" I do not mean mere activity to keep a person occupied all day, but work that enables a person to earn enough to support themselves and their family.

    I am reminded of the Dardenne brothers' film Rosetta, which won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. Rosetta, the heroine of the title, is a teenaged Belgian girl living in dire poverty. There is very little dialogue in the film and only three sets: the caravan park, the waffle kiosk and the walk from one to the other.

    Yet the film powerfully depicts, not only Rosetta's relentless search for work, but her sense that work is her right, a right she will defend against all odds.

    It would seem that the lot of the poor has not improved greatly over the centuries. For them, work can be burdensome: some who find it necessary to work two or three jobs to support the family and meet expenses, others unable to support their children who finish up in the welfare system, and still others, working at the whim of unscrupulous employers protected by government legislation.

    Such situations contradict the Church's teaching on the dignity and role of human work.

    There is some consolation, some might say little, in Pope John Paul II emphasising that "the Christian finds in human work a small part of the Cross of Christ accepted in the same spirit of redemption with which Christ accepted His Cross for us. In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life for the new good." (3)

    But does it justify governments, and the rich, exploiting the poor?

    Yours sincerely in Christ,

    Bishop Kevin Manning
    Bishop of Parramatta




    Footnotes: 1. Bob Geldof, Europe in Solidarity, Faith in Europe Lecture Series, 4 May 2005.
    2. John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 36.
    3. John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 27.








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