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The baby Jesus and the business of welfare

By Kate Mannix - posted Wednesday, 20 December 2006

When God became Man more than 2,000 years ago, Christians believe, God broke through time, place and space to become one of us. The seen and the unseen were reunited in that act of grace.

The one-ness of God, combined with the distinctly Catholic message of inclusion of all, are two notions which ought never be separated. The emphasis on the all-encompassing nature of the deity can be skewed to promote an authoritarian notion of God. Yet the poignant story of the poor baby born in a stable reminds Christians that God-with-us means God for every last one of us.

Yet it is becoming apparent that God’s caritas - which Catholics express in acts of care for the old, the sick, the prisoners and the poor - is being appropriated and manipulated for the political convenience of the State. Further, the State appears to be intentionally creating a two-tiered system, with very different outcomes for different sections of society.


Last month’s discussion paper from Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA - formerly Catholic Welfare Australia) - A Job Network for Job Seekers - rightly complains that onerous government requirements of service providers will make the provision of the Job Network financially unviable. The report says that the costs of service provision are increasing, and not being met by compensating fee adjustments or indexation.

“The choice is simple. Does the Australian taxpayer want Job Network providers to be focused on ‘playing the system’ as a means of business survival, or on providing real assistance aimed at re-establishing unemployed job seekers in the workforce permanently with an accompanying reduction of public expenditure on allowances?” CSSA fears that if it is to act in accord with its Christian principles, the “system” will ensure CSSA goes broke.

Should Catholic charity be beholden to the State?

Concern that Catholic charity easily slides into “welfarism” is widespread. Conservative commentators such as Samuel Gregg see government subsidy of Catholic charity as inevitably an attack on Catholic identity: “The ability of church welfare groups to express religious commitment has been muzzled by contract and neutered by subsidy,” Gregg writes.

An example of this occurred in 2005, when Melbourne’s Archbishop Denis Hart issued a memo to all staff directing them not to comment on the introduction of the new IR laws. Archbishop Hart’s action was a clear example of Gregg’s point: Centacare Melbourne alone receives 36 per cent of its revenues from government. Catholic schools in Victoria receive approximately $1 billion annually from state and federal sources. Even the now dubious Job Network is to deliver $1.3 million over the next three years, and a new Disability Employment Network, $4.2 million over a similar period.

But money is not the only issue. It is hard not to contemplate the possibility that some Catholic leaders may be compliant with the divisive intentions of the Howard Government.


In 2004, the publicly-funded University of Notre Dame Australia announced that it would not admit students on the basis of marks alone. It is surprising that no public commentator has reflected on a new medical faculty boasting that it will admit medical students based on something other than academic merit.

This is Catholic triumphalism, as is denying non-Catholic students places in Catholic schools. Acting as if Catholic identity is an ultimate value denies God’s original act of grace in becoming one of us through Jesus. Jesus is Emmanuel, the poor Jewish preacher who loved the sinners, the unclean, and the women. Would Jesus suffer to impose a departmental “star” rating on job seekers? Would Jesus refuse an education to a child who needed and wanted it, because that child was not of the tribe of Levi? Would Jesus choose an inferior student to gain entry to a medical faculty, because such a person had signed up to the “No Therapeutic Cloning” manifesto?

Samuel Gregg and others imagine that Catholic agencies are offered governmental responsibilities in social welfare because government is (necessarily) inferior in service delivery, ethics, “formation”, and true charity. Therefore, Gregg argues, Catholic agencies should show a bit of backbone and make demands.

The error Gregg makes is in failing to appreciate government’s real purpose. Market-driven governments are happy to create social divisions, and sanguine about reducing the opportunities and outcomes for some. People who need social welfare are “losers”. Governments will continue to strip benefits from such people, and squeeze agencies that deliver them, because these days it is the agency which will bear the opprobrium. Government has distanced itself from what should be governmental responsibilities. Catholics, struggling with a disconnected faithful and an absence of relevance, have rushed to embrace that burden.

Catholics should recommit to the genuinely Catholic idea of universality. They should find ways to make sure none of their works contribute to a two-tiered system - in education, in health, in aged care, and in welfare. Catholics can run distinctively Catholic entities. What they should never do is to accept separate funding arrangements for Catholic entities than exist for public entities. That way lies inequity and injustice.

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First published in Eureka Street on December 12, 2006.

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About the Author

Kate Mannix is the founding editor of On Line Catholics, which she edited between 2003 and 2005. Before that she was a senior researcher at ABC Television. She has edited the Catholic Church's e-zines Ozspirit, and various publications for schools.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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