Christianity's essential role in civilising our society

Christianity's essential role in civilising our society

Bishop Julian Porteous

Our Australian civil society is founded on an understanding of human life that is inspired by Christianity. It has spiritual roots that - it could be argued - are based within the Catholic tradition of thought. Western culture and its social constructions are the fruit of Christianity. The Catholic Church and its teachings largely helped to form not only law, but also learning and commerce.

For our society to continue to offer a sound basis for the human life of all its citizens these roots need to be recognised and protected. We know that there are voices wanting to marginalise religion, particularly Christianity, and to encourage believers to keep their religion private. There is an argument abroad claiming that Christians should not impose their views and morality on society.

Social capital

However, it is true that at the present time the West is living off the Christian social capital that has made our societies what they are and if these sources are dried up then the quality of life in civil society will be jeopardised.

The expression "social capital" has come to be used in recent times to express that invisible but very important ingredient that ensures a certain quality of life within a society.

The term was popularised by an American academic, Robert Putnam, who argued that the levels of trust in Western societies have fallen as individualism has run rampant. Putnam uses the term "social capital" to refer to what he calls the "glue" in a community, that is, the communication links in which there is trust and goodwill, which enable people to solve common concerns and achieve common goals.

There is a growing body of empirical evidence which shows that social capital is important for the wellbeing of the economy and for health, for the sense of security and even for democracy. Social capital contributes substantially to the quality of life. It has been shown that where there are higher levels of social capital, there are fewer psychological and physical illnesses. Where we trust one another, business prospers and people enjoy life, feeling safe and secure.

The current literature on this subject suggests that the stocks of social capital in many Western nations are being depleted.

When we speak of the link between religion and social capital it is useful to note that the word, "religion" comes from the Latin word "religare" which means "to bind". Throughout history religion has bound communities and cultures together. It has held people together through difficult, even desperate times. It has provided the basis of a way of life.

Religious faith provides the moral foundation for civic life. Faith gives meaning to community service and goodwill, forging a spiritual connection between individual impulses and great public issues. That is, religion helps people to internalise an orientation to the public good. Because faith has such power to transform lives, faith-based programs can enjoy success where secular programs have failed.

A society needs spiritual roots. In Australia the bulk of all social capital is provided from religious sources. The Christian churches are active in a vast array of social services - welfare, hospitals, service to the poor, education, international aid. The Catholic Church is at the forefront of the provision of services in our nation. We usually don't trumpet our contribution but in the face of challenges to the role of religion in society we do need to speak up about the contribution the Catholic Church makes to Australian society.

The Catholic Church is the largest non-government welfare provider in Australia (I am indebted to Fr Richard Leonard SJ for the following information). There are 6,600 people employed through our 63 member organisations and 500 different services which cared for 1.1 million people in 2010. The St Vincent de Paul Society is the largest and most extensive volunteer welfare network in the country, four times larger than the Salvation Army.

Under the auspices of Catholic Health Australia, there are 66 Catholic hospitals, with 8,900 beds. The Catholic Church manages 19 public hospitals and 47 private hospitals, with 20 of these opening in the last 20 years. The Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, the Little Company of Mary and St John of God Healthcare are the largest players in this field.

In Church-owned aged care facilities there are 21,458 residential aged care beds, making us the second largest non-government provider of aged care after the Uniting Church. Across Australia the Catholic Church operates eight dedicated hospices with palliative care services. In this field we are the largest non-government provider.

Catholic homes for the elderly manage 5,393 retirement and independent living units and serviced apartments for seniors and low income residents.

In the education sector 29% of all children in Australia are educated in our 1,690 Catholic schools. There are 1,238 primary schools, 340 secondary schools, 95 primary/secondary schools combined, and 17 special schools. These Catholic schools employ 58,979 staff, 43,778 lay teachers and specialist staff, 14,836 general staff, 365 religious.

In the area of overseas disaster relief and development aid Caritas Australia is the fourth largest development agency in the nation, with the smallest margin spent on administration costs - only 12 cents in every dollar, compared with 31 cents as the next best. Through agencies such as Catholic Mission and many religious congregations, the Catholic Church in Australia is the largest provider of trained personnel for the developing world.

Having listed some of the services the Catholic Church offers to our society, we should not forget the vast array of services offered by volunteers in parishes and all manner of spiritual organisations within the Catholic Church.

We do citizenship well! It is not only our works but the Church by its nature fosters community relationships. Faith unites people in a way that civil causes like environmentalism can't. It is said that a small country town can manage losing the bank, the doctor and other services, but when a parish closes the town dies.

Pope Benedict

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict makes the point that society is not just based on rules and regulations even when they can be judged as just. He states, "There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness.

"There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person - every person - needs: namely, loving personal concern".

Benedict speaks of the contribution that the Church can make to civil society. The service the Church has to offer is not merely material but, as he says, "refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support". The Pope is aware that human society is not just a network of social structures to meet the practical needs of people. This approach, he says, "demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human".

In his apostolic journey to the United Kingdom in September 2010 Pope Benedict explored the theme of the role of religion is society. In the hallowed setting of Westminster Hall, the Pope said, "Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation".

Knowing well the forces at work in Britain to marginalise religion and force it from the public square, he commented, "There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none".

It is the question of legislation which would require a Christian to act against his conscience that was of most concern to the Holy Father. "These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square", he said.

Religion is vital not only to the life of the individual believer, but has a vital role to play in the well-being of society as a whole. It provides a resource to strengthen and nourish the "social capital". It provides a vast array of services to the society as a whole. These services have what could be called the "X" factor. Apart from the provision of professional services, there is a level of motivation and personal commitment which flows directly from the Christian faith that inspired the development of the service and continues to be at the heart of its mission.

Many of our agencies these days are concentrating on their Catholic identity and seeking to transmit this "X" factor to all those involved with the agency. This is a recognition that our Catholic services are inspired by what Pope Benedict has spoken of: the love of God. In the end we can say that it is our faith in Jesus Christ and our response to his call to love and service which is the special feature of the Church's service to the society.

Society needs this service and will be impoverished without it. Religion makes a vital contribution to the social capital. Society needs religion.

Bishop Julian Porteous is an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Sydney.

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