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Padraic P. McGuinness, “Divine light glows dimly,”
The Australian, January 31, 1991, p. 13.

The Catholic Church in Australia clearly has a problem. It does not know where it is going or what kind of social doctrine it should espouse. It is confused, uncertain and apologetic.

This becomes very obvious from the draft statement Common Wealth and Common Good on wealth distribution, which has just been issued by the Catholic Bishops of Australia through the bishop committee for justice, development and peace.

This statement has been a long time in the making, and even now it appears as a “draft” for discussion among the faithful — and outside them, without the apparatus of reports, analytical studies and factual information which was supposed to appear (according to the draft) at the same time. I am told that this is now promised for March. Well, on the basis of the draft I am at least grateful that, not being an adherent of the Catholic Church, I do not have to try to make sense of just what social doctrines the bishops appear to be espousing, or determine just what a loyal Catholic should think.

Of course the Church and its bishops have every right to express views on social issues from a moral and religious point of view. That is one of the main functions of religion. Moreover, as with Bishop Peter Hollingsworth of the Anglican Church, most people would agree with the fundamental moral propositions — that poverty is an affront to human dignity, that children should be protected and cherished, that the sick and handicapped should be cared for. It is, however, when churches begin to advance social and economic theories, recommend specific institutional and social policies, and pretend that they can identify the means to lessen these evils by government action that they need to be questioned.

Mrs Kathryn Greiner, at the launch of the draft, pointed to one of its weaknesses. It has nothing to say about the problem of welfare dependency which, in modern developed economies, is a leading contributory factor to the perpetuation of poverty. It is a long way from the moral proposition that no one should be without a reasonable living standard to the social policy that no one should be without a guaranteed income which will remove any incentives to escape from poverty. Many aspects of the welfare system in fact deprive people of their human dignity, and corrupt them morally, as well as promoting the disintegration of the family, so necessary to the welfare of children.

But it is not as if the bishops’ committee has not been listening to criticisms of its positions. This is the source of much of the confusion in the draft. It wants to hold to a position which seemed clear and rosy a few years ago, but which is crumbling in the face of criticism and evidence. And in the process, any clear instruction to the faithful becomes a casualty.

Early on, we read: “The data assembled and presented in this document are susceptible of interpretations and evaluations in the light of different economic theories and philosophies, each of which may be quite legitimately held by any faithful Catholic. If some find themselves in disagreement with theories of this kind espoused in the text, they have no reason to feel that in holding different views they are in any sense failing in loyalty to their Bishops.”

That is to say if anyone believes, after indeed some serious thought, that the views expressed in this document are a load of codswallop then that is perfectly okay. You can still receive the sacraments. So much for moral instruction.

And, of course, much of the content of the document is a load of codswallop. It is a hotch-potch of all the stuff about income redistribution, wealth redistribution, the “preferential option for the poor” (a frequently repeated piece of jargon), Latin American liberation theology, anti-imperialism, women’s rights, and so on that grew out of the 1960s and 70s. It is what one might sum up as ABC social theory, all prejudice and feeling and precious little analysis or factual support. It is the economics of the warm inner glow.

From this there are some strange leaps of logic. Thus, the committee says, “we declare our support for the social security system as it has developed in this country, in the conviction that it is based on justice, not simply on benevolence.” This rather begs the whole question of what should be done about improving or redesigning the social security system so as to lessen its harmful side effects. They just want more of the same.

The central theme of the draft is, of course, that the distribution of income and wealth in our society is inequitable, much more so than is just or fair, and that something must be done about it. Well, yes — but the real question is what and how, and what effects will this have on the long-term welfare of the whole community. One of the most elementary points to deal with is the trade-off, often described, between efficiency and equity.

The draft does refer to the issue of wealth creation (as a result of criticism directed against some earlier statements), but merely says that: “we are sceptical about claims that the increased production of goods automatically leads to a fairer and more just distribution of the wealth resulting from that increased output. Over a long term, it may well lead to a raised standard of living for the community as a whole, but history does not show that the so-called ‘trickle-down’ process either eradicates poverty and disadvantage or results in a more equitable society.”

Well, the one thing that is perfectly clear from history is that economic growth has lifted the standard of living even of the poorest. That is the point of supporting wealth creation. Why is it better to have greater equity instead of higher living standards in absolute terms for those at the bottom of the pile? This is an ethical question the adherents of this view simply do not confront. The draft lamely adds: “It has to be recognised, of course, that some respected commentators think otherwise.”

In fact the whole document demonstrates a sloppy disregard for evidence (just to refer to the very worthwhile work done by economists such as Fred Gruen or Peter Saunders is not enough). Thus after a standard whinge about Latin American indebtedness, without any discussion of changing views in Latin American countries about economic policy, the draft goes on: “It has also to be recognised, however, that the economies of some nations, mainly in East and South-East Asia, which were previously categorised as Third World or ‘developing’, have improved dramatically in the same recent period.”

It then claims, wrongly, that such growth has not led to a reduction in inequality of income distribution, has been accompanied by “human rights abuses” and “has not so far resulted in a truly equitable distribution of riches”. True, as of every other economy in the world in history — but are the poorest members of those Asian countries better off in absolute terms than they used to be? The answer is yes. So the Asian model is surely to be preferred to Latin American political theatre.

It is a pity that this document is such a poor rehash of old propaganda. The issues it deals with are of the utmost importance, and any human being ought to fervently desire an improvement in the lot of the poor and the disadvantaged, and feel desperately the need to improve the conditions of Aborigines especially. But to do something effective requires difficult and conscientious analysis, not wailing and breast beating. To sacrifice the poor to sloppy thinking and silly politics is, in my opinion, immoral.

Recommended reading for readers:
A Modest Member of Parliament [Bert Kelly], “What the MP could say to the Bishop,” The Australian Financial Review, May 12, 1972, p. 3.

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