The Australian Catholic bishops’ Social Justice Statement for 2008 has been described as “an enormous challenge to all Christians to advocate for real change in the way our society is organised in order to overcome poverty”.
Executive officer of Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) Peter Arndt made the comment after the bishops’ statement – “A Rich Young Nation – The challenge of affluence and poverty in Australia” – was released in Sydney in the lead-up to Social Justice Sunday this weekend (September 28).
Mr Arndt’s comments were echoed by national chief executive officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society Dr John Falzon and executive director of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA) Frank Quinlan.
Dr Falzon said the centrepiece of the statement was “its re-affirmation of the bishops’ 1996 (Social Justice Statement) that: ‘In the main, people are poor not because they are lazy or lacking in ability or because they are unlucky. They are poor because of the way society, including its economic system, is organised’.”
Mr Quinlan said he had noticed “an increasing tendency to blame individuals for their unfortunate economic situations, rather than acknowledging that the system might be failing to bring them along with it”.
Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council (ACSJC) Bishop Christopher Saunders, who presented the statement on behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), said the 2008 document “considers the affluence of our nation against the circumstances of those who experience great hardship. In a land of plenty there are many who are wealthy, but live in spiritual poverty, and there are those who have missed out on the benefits of economic growth”.
“No matter how well the economy performs, the health of our society can be judged by the treatment of its most vulnerable citizens,” Bishop Saunders said in his introduction to the statement.
“Following years of prosperity, Australia has the means to act for the common good and with a special concern for the poor. We are challenged to really consider what sort of society we want now and for the future.”
The bishops’ statement reflects on the Gospel of Mark 10:17-22, when the rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and was told to keep the commandments.
When the rich young man replied that he had always done so, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
The 2008 Social Justice Sunday Statement draws a link between this Gospel narrative and the nation’s current situation.
“The challenge that Jesus presented to the rich young man is the same we face in Australia today: will we use our great wealth for the benefit of all and particularly for those who have been denied the benefits of prosperity?”
Mr Arndt said the bishops’ statement was an enormous challenge because it asked Christians to “swim against the immensely strong tide of consumerism and to advocate for real change in the way our society is organised in order to overcome poverty”.
“The statement also reminds me that the Church has been devoting itself to action to end poverty for a long time – from the earliest times, in fact – and that, in Australia, addressing poverty is a fundamental concern for the Church.
Dr Falzon said the bishops’ statement captured the “the unfashionable reality that we are faced with as a nation that has experienced 17 years of economic growth”.
“Despite this increase in prosperity, our country continues to produce a growth in inequality,” he said.
“The members of Vinnies every day witness the Australian face of marginalisation and exclusion.
“As the bishops correctly have analysed, no matter how much those excluded are blamed for their own exclusion, it is the way our society and economy are organised that produces an accumulation of wealth at the same time as an accumulation of poverty.
“This growth in inequality, as attested to in a recent World Health Organisation report, is bad for all of us.”
Mr Quinlan said the bishops’ statement was an important way of focusing, not just the Church but the wider community as well, on a major current social issue.
He said he had read the statement and “the tea leaves of his own experience” as indicating that the notion of the “fair go” was rapidly departing from Australian society.
“There is an increasing propensity in our society to blame individuals for their economic situation rather than to see them as victims of a system that isn’t working as well as it should,” Mr Quinlan said.
Released by The Catholic Leader