Archbishop Pell: social justice for today's family

Archbishop Pell: social justice for today's family

Archbishop George Pell

Archbishop George Pell recently gave the Ozanam Lecture to the St Vincent De Paul Society in Melbourne. In addressing the Church's struggle against the culture of death, he strongly emphasised the role of the lay apostolate in defending the family from today's economic and social evils.

The following are extracts from Dr Pell's address together with linking comments by Patrick Byrne.

During his Ozanam Lecture, Archbishop George Pell referred to a series of articles from The Australian, published earlier this year, based on research by Ann Harding from the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM). He pointed out how it showed the widening gap between rich and poor in Australia and the effect this was having on families.

"The rich really are getting richer, although sometimes at great cost to themselves and their families. While some people say they have more money to buy things than 10 years ago, 91 percent of those surveyed felt there is more pressure and stress in their lives and 68 percent say they have less time to spend with friends and family.

"Between 1979 and 1995, the number of families with two parents working rose by 51 percent. But during the same period, the number of families where no one was employed grew by 74 percent. [Families with children under 15 and no parent working increased from 280,000 in 1986 to 390,000 in 1997, the last figure approaching one family in five.]

"In the 15 years to 1996-97, the number of middle income earners shrank from 45 to 37 percent. This means that almost 550,000 people moved out of the middle class bracket. More went up the scale than down, and the standard of living of some on poor incomes improved, but nevertheless many went into the growing class of battlers on low incomes. Confirming this trend, The Age (28 August) published figures suggesting that one in four children live in families which rely on welfare payments for all or a substantial part of their income.

"This division is not only financial but also geographic. The unemployed and poor increasingly are grouped together in outer suburbs and coastal towns, and the five poorest postcodes in Victoria (with incomes around or just under $20,000 a year) are all rural localities.

"These changes have come about in a context of massive economic and social reform: the end of protection for our industries; openness to the pressure of world markets; the privatisation of government services and the reconfiguration of welfare. Some of these reforms were necessary, others less so, but the net result has been a growth in inequality between rich and poor and between city and country, and a rising sense of anxiety among people that the reforms have not delivered what has been promised. This was the background to the rise of the "One Nation" Party É

Standard of living

"One of the most worrying trends is how hard things are becoming for families. The days when a family on the average wage could survive, save and buy a house on one income are long gone. For most people, bringing up a family on one income entails great sacrifice - where it is not altogether impossible. Many, perhaps most families, need two incomes to maintain the sort of standard of living we take for granted - house, school fees, the occasional holiday. Sometimes, even two incomes are not enough É

"The present Federal Government seems to be serious in its commitment to helping families with young children, as the tax cuts which have followed the introduction of the GST in July show. All this is to be applauded. But whether the benefits will be lost in higher prices and rising interest rates remains to be seen.

"Australia cannot live outside world markets, with the pressures and prosperity this creates. But all of us, and especially governments, need to think about narrowing the gap between rich and poor, about what a just living or family wage entails and about the long hours increasingly demanded of both rich and poor that are so damaging for family well- being and even individual health and happiness.

"Most Australians realise that life is first of all about family and community. Just as we need to do more to ensure a fairer distribution of material goods and wealth, we also need to reinforce the family values that make our way of life still one of the best in the world. We are becoming too much like the United States."

Dr Pell next expressed concern about the impact these new economic pressures were having on people's ability to contribute to the social and cultural life of the country.

"There is no doubt that the experience of prolonged unemployment, or having to sell the house because you can't manage the mortgage even on two incomes, or just the sheer grind of living hand to mouth day after day, takes an enormous toll on people's self-confidence and capacity for hope. And when we add the other factors which sadly so often play a part in these situations - marriage break-up, gambling, drug and alcohol abuse - the hopelessness is much greater, and the capacity to contribute more severely constrained.

"Thankfully, the social capital of Australia, as measured by the willingness and capacity of people to provide voluntary service, is still strong. But like all good things, it cannot be taken for granted. And it is one of the things we should keep in mind when considering the effects on our society of the increasing gap between rich and poor."

The Archbishop added that statistics showed regular church-goers were twice as likely to be involved in voluntary organisations as people who went to church just once a year. Hence the decline in religious practice is affecting the social and cultural life of the nation.

"Catholic religious practice in particular, as measured by regular Mass attendance, has declined from about 55-60 percent in the 1950s and early 1960s to 18 percent nationally. Many 'RCs' are not retired Catholics, but resting, relaxed or reluctant Catholics," he observed.

Frederic Ozanam

The Archbishop then outlined how Frederic Ozanam addressed the problems thrown up by the political, cultural and economic changes of his time.

Regarding the decline of the family and an ageing population across the developed world, Dr Pell commented: "The American social critic, Gertrude Himmelfarb, has pointed out that almost certainly the family in the Western world will undergo a 'second' revolution to deepen the impoverishment it has suffered after the first revolution that is reflected in the statistics of divorce, illegitimacy, single-parenthood and cohabitation. In addition to the fatherless family, we now have to worry about a family without peers. É The nuclear family is sometimes criticised for its failings compared with earlier forms of family arrangement, but 'the nuclear family does not begin to approach the limits of social atomisation which may await us in a depopulating world'."

At age 20, Frederick Ozanam set up the Conference of Charity in 1833, which is the accepted date of the foundation of the St Vincent de Paul Society. Ozanam, said the Archbishop, "advocated that Catholics should play their part in the evolution of the democratic state in the construction of public policy and public opinion, a controversial idea at that time. Ozanam unsuccessfully stood for election to the National Assembly in 1848. He denounced economic liberalism and any form of socialism. Lecture 24 of his course of commercial law is a brilliant exposition of Catholic social teaching, foreshadowing Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, by over forty years, and antedating the Communist Manifesto in its attention to the social question."

Ozanam, said Dr Pell, did not compromise with the evils of his time any more than did Christians facing the barbaric culture of ancient Rome.

"Many of you will have seen the film Gladiator set in the second century under Marcus Aurelius, one of the most enlightened of the pagan Emperors. The brutality of the amphitheatre was mirrored by the brutality of Roman daily life É My thesis is simple. Christ's teachings were the bread of life for those who believed in him in this hostile and savage environment. Christianity was a movement of cure and renewal responding to the misery, chaos, fear and oppression of daily life in Rome. They came much closer to a civilisation of life and love through Christian living.

"Did they accommodate themselves? Conform to the fashions of the time? Go with the flow, because everyone was doing it?

"Enough of them, the best of them, refused to do any such thing. With invincible obstinacy they stuck to Christ's teachings; they sometimes fell, as we do, but they persevered. Christ's teachings, the bread of life, sustained, inspired and directed their efforts.

"To cities filled with the poor and homeless, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with immigrants and strangers, the Christians offered community, friendship. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity offered help and a wider sense of family. To cities torn with ethnic strife, riots, Christianity offered social solidarity. To cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. Even Galen, the most famous ancient physician, fled to his country house away from the plague. The Christians stayed and nursed their sick.

"The Christians taught a new concept of sexuality, not as an escape, not as a recreational right, not as another opportunity for the strong to oppress the weak; but sexuality linked to love; the love between a husband and wife, open to fertility, life and children."

Archbishop Pell concluded by posing the question Ozanam asked at the age of 22 for Australia in the year 2000: "It remains to be seen which will win: the spirit of selfishness or the spirit of sacrifice. Will society merely develop into a means of exploitation for the strongest members to make huge profits, or will all people devote themselves to the common good and the protection of the weak?"

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