Catholics should go where the government isn’t

Jun 6, 2023
Hands of a priest consecrating a host as the body of Christ to distribute it to the communicants in the church.

I do hope that the Catholic Church remains closely involved in providing health care to Canberra citizens, particularly the poorer ones, after the takeover by the government of Calvary public hospital. Indeed I suspect it could be making for itself, and Canberra citizens, greater treasure in heaven if it got entirely out of the provision of government-funded health care and concentrated on areas where the less well-off were not as well served by government as they could be and should be.

It is a political, not a moral question, whether the takeover of the hospital by the government is a good thing. One can wonder if Chief Minister Andrew Barr, or health minister Rachel Stephen-Smith are doing a wise thing. Or whether they can manage Calvary, or a united hospital system better. You can guess that single ownership of the public hospital system, or secular ownership of Calvary might be better or cheaper. One doesn’t or shouldn’t judge these matters according to religious affiliation. But whether they are wise or not, governments have the legal and constitutional right, as elected representatives, to decide to do it. And that is regardless of whether it’s good for the Catholic church as a corporate entity, for Catholics generally, or for the whole Canberra community. Actually, only the latter matters, though it is by no means necessary that this means a faith-based religion cannot subcontract for the job. Disadvantage to the existing land tenant is not a relevant consideration, any more than it is when the state wants to make a compulsory acquisition of land for road building, or a war memorial slippery slide.

The legality or constitutionality of a purchase is not determined by the “reasonableness” of the action, or the merits of its business case. (Unless perhaps it could be proved beyond doubt that the action was for some ulterior, improper, purpose.) The only question – a legal and a practical one – is whether the compulsory acquisition involves the payment of just terms to the previous operator or leaseholder. Just terms – the fair value can be haggled over, perhaps must be arbitrated in court. But if they are on offer the previous owner cannot ultimately prevent an acquisition. It’s not an “attack on religion”. It also wouldn’t be if the ACT government decided, as it ought, to resume the Archbishop’s house on Commonwealth Avenue, given to the church for another purpose.

Personally, I am inclined to think that state-acquisition would not be a bad thing, whether from a secular, or a religious point of view. Its time religious organisations got out of providing public services fully subsidised by the state. And not just in hospitals, but schools, and aged care centres. Not because they are no good at it, but because they could use their energies better. Organised Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church, got into the provision of schools, universities, hospitals and health care, and social services from early in the Christian era. It did not begin with large buildings, large religious orders, or centralised church control of institutions around the Christian world. It was, rather, a practical manifestation of the fundamental Christian principle of loving thy neighbour. It was generally voluntary activity in one’s own neighbourhood, focused particularly on those, regardless of religion, in obvious need. Only during the past few centuries – in many cases only during the past century – have nation states begun providing and funding hospitals or health care or schools or other social services. The state was focused on central government, the maintenance of armed forces, and the administration of taxation.

That the state saw itself as having little role inspired groups to build facilities and provide services, with a sense of mission and duty. In Australia, the story of schools is a little different because state governments realised a need to promote universal education about 170 years ago. But when they did, Catholic leaders promoted the fear that public schools would promote protestant teachings or no religious instruction at all. To avoid this godlessness Catholics set up their own schools, at their own expense and, until about 1963, without state aid. Their struggle to do so was a substantial base of Catholic solidarity, even on religious issues and made their leaders, particularly the bishops, politically powerful, something they no longer are. As state aid developed, and systemic Catholic schools were funded on much the same basis as public schools, the differences between the two subsided. Catholic schools have religious instruction, but the ethical basis or religiosity of the typical student is neither particularly Catholic nor markedly at variance from the output of the public school system.

As the state became more involved in such services, some prominent religious figures began asking whether the effort of maintaining religious schools, hospitals or social services was worth it. Most of what was being done was being paid by the state, often on the cheap. The call was not for abandonment of the sick or the poor. It was for services with some specific Catholic value-add not provided at public expense. Or work in fields that the state was neglecting, or servicing badly, particularly among people in particular need. Why, for example, should the church be running aged care homes – sometimes at a profit, and with staff effectively paid by the state? Why very rich private schools, outside the diocesan system?

Catholic health and education is an enormous secondary public service, fully paid by the state. Its workers are not volunteers, particularly underpaid, or even particularly Catholic, by faith.

Around Australia, there are more people working professionally in Catholic health, education and social service provision, on salaries essentially but indirectly paid by the state, than work for the West Australian government. The gross budget of Australian Catholic health, education and welfare provision, almost all coming indirectly from public funds is much bigger than the Tasmanian government budget. Often the real Catholic work is being provided by unpaid volunteers, such as the St Vincent de Paul Society, or by nuns and groups who have discovered new roles for new problems and times.

In some respects, the non-Catholic taxpayer should not complain. They are getting generally public-quality services sometimes slightly more cheaply. But there are costs. Although most services funded by the state are on the basis that they are to be available to all (and the Catholic institutions have no problem with that), the Catholic service-providers sometimes insist on quirks of their own. Catholic hospitals won’t do birth control, IVF, abortion or voluntary assisted dying. In many schools, administrators demand the right to require that teaching staff conform to Catholic teachings on sexuality. These demands – under the guise of being freedom of religion – are often demands for the right to be bigoted and discriminatory. Another of the costs – shared with many state and other community bodies – is that of a legacy of serious physical and sexual abuse of children. For Catholics – even Catholics in Canberra – there is an extra burden of shame because the institutional church has, in many cases, reverted to abandoning victims, denial and evasion, and putting the interests of the institutions and the perpetrators ahead of the victims. If the diocese morally lost the Calvary debate on that alone, it would not be punishment enough for the attitudes of some of those in charge.

Ordinary Canberrans are not greatly inconvenienced by letting Calvary have its way on banning abortions and voluntary assisted dying. Such services can be provided in other hospitals, perhaps more efficiently, if the effect, by concentrating services is to build up higher levels of expertise. On the other hand, even fervent Catholics cannot be too smug about the Calvary policy. It is probable that it does not prevent a single abortion or act of euthanasia. It merely makes getting it elsewhere slightly more inconvenient. Just ostentatious virtue-signalling. Specific management styles may make Calvary a better (or worse) provider of some services, but there is nothing specifically Catholic about them. Most people working at the hospital, Catholic or not, are simple professionals, not thinking they are specifically doing God’s work. One might wonder why the Church bothers. Could not the money – and, more importantly, the committed work of people trying to make a special difference to the lives of others be better used elsewhere? Where could it make a difference? In, for example, extending the community services for children and mothers provided by bodies such as Marymead? Or services among aged Australians not in institutions?

Or disabled Australians not comfortably fitting into NDIS matrices? In community-based services working in novel and innovative ways of closing the gap? Or in education, employment and integrative services for immigrants, foreign students and refugees? Church agencies do work in these fields, but the resources going into them are modest compared with the money being devoured by running big hospitals and schools.

One does not hear many Australian Catholic leaders talking about the environment, or social justice. They are harping on about personal morality, and impatient with those who can’t, or won’t ‘get over’ the epic failures of leadership with clerical sex abuse.

Pope Francis has been preaching about human duties to the environment, and to simple and austere living. But he gets little active support, or public example, from his Australian stewards. Some, such as the late George Pell were actively involved in resistance to his teachings, particularly as to synods and his de-emphasis on issues of sexuality. The semi-schismatic American Catholic Church has now become a branch of the Republican Party, with many bishops more focused on preventing President Biden taking communion while having his views on abortion than on preaching love, tolerance and inclusion. The stance of many of the bishops has been explicitly opposed by the pope, the more so when the church is so silent on refugee rights, rifles, racism, and white nationalism.

The fact is that society is changing. It always has been. To a degree the churches make a virtue of constancy and permanent ideas and values. But mostly they have adapted to economic, social and cultural change, often changing their focus significantly as society does. But the Australian church seems trapped in a pre-Vatican 1950s, inclined to think that any shift in family, community or political structures is a challenge to its own moral authority. Or thinking that public morality and social justice are significantly less important than the avoidance of contraception and policing who gets communion.

Like Peter Dutton’s Liberal party, it seems to have become the refuge of angry old white men. Meanwhile the church is neglecting a far more idealistic younger Australia, focused on inclusion, tolerance and action on the environment and climate than on old tribal hatreds or the need to search out and sack any lesbian teachers. The old white men are focused on retaining property, including graveyards, and distributing as little as possible to the needy or those it has let down.

Calvary is not a beacon of Catholicism in action. Alas. Being made the symbol of church rights or Catholic identity is like raising the spectre of the graveyard at the back of the Tuam orphanage – that way we always did things that has made Ireland, in less than two decades, decide to abandon Saint Patrick. The local Catholic establishment would be better focused on the Sermon on the Mount.

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