In church documents scriptural stories are often used as decoration or to calm the horses when contentious issues arise.
The 2017-2018 Australian Catholic Social Justice Statement on the economy, Everyone's Business — Developing an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy, opens with one of the most intriguing of Jesus' parables: the landowner who hired new workers at each hour of the day but paid them all one denarius no matter how long they had worked. And was unapologetic about it.
The usual conclusion drawn from this parable is that God does not act like a good businessman but as a benefactor. But the statement notes that the denarius was then the living wage, which all workers, full-time or part-time, should be paid. The landowner was doing what he should have done. The appeal to scripture here is a burr under the horse's saddle.
The general argument of the statement, which resonates with Australian sentiment today, is that Australia is a wealthy economy in which too many people are marginalised. A moral compass is needed so that the economy serves all Australians and not vice versa.
The most vulnerable Australians include the lowest paid, often in part-time work, those living on income support, those at risk of homelessness, and Indigenous Australians. They are affected by the move to short term contracts and casual employment, by minimum wages insufficient to support a family, and by the refusal of many employers to contribute to superannuation or to pay due wages.
Because of high unemployment many people remain on social security for a long time. The benefits paid leave people beneath the poverty line and often have punitive and shaming conditions attached to them. Indigenous Australians are particularly disadvantaged by almost every criteria, face the abandonment of their communities and are subject routinely to fines and humiliation.
In addition, corporations take advantage of lax regulation to increase charges for necessary services, collude, avoid taxes and rip off clients. Such practices burden people with high costs and deprive governments of the revenue needed to support social institutions.
"The common good requires that we build educational resources that animate people to contribute creatively, health resources designed to prevent illness and limit sustained dependence on the community, and social and penal structures that help people overcome alienation and connect them to society."
In response to this litany of neglect and abuse the statement calls for a new view of the economy as the servant of people, and not vice versa. It echoes Pope Francis' trenchant criticism: 'Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.'
To ensure that the waiting time is shortened the statement calls for Australians to stop seeing people as tools of production to be used and discarded: to recognise that economic growth is not equivalent to sustainable growth; to ensure that the economy serves social equity; to make businesses responsible not only for profiting their shareholders but for serving the common good; and to include the marginal and vulnerable in making decisions that concern them.
The practical steps to be taken in enshrining this perspective on the economy include progressive tax reform to limit benefits received by the wealthy and to check avoidance; ensuring that banks and superannuation funds invest in productive activities that offer long term benefits; structuring social programs to help people find opportunities to contribute to society over their lifetime; building infrastructure for development through education and employment; and strengthening local communities to care for vulnerable people in society.
The topic of the statement is timely. It picks up public concern about gross inequality and about the indecency revealed almost daily by so many businesses. It rightly points to the need for a conversion that will enable us to see the defects of our present economic order and to make changes that will be beneficial. The examples of remedies proposed are mainly apt to purpose.
I would have liked to see in the statement more development of the appeal to the common good. One of the reasons why economic reform is so hard is that is seen commonly as a zero sum with winners and losers. It is regarded as inherently conflictual. So economic reform is seen either as the politics of envy or the rich copping their comeuppance.
The focus on the common good supposes that economic reform is cooperative, and must be designed to sustain both personal and communal economic growth. The common good requires that we build educational resources that animate people to contribute creatively, health resources designed to prevent illness and limit sustained dependence on the community, and social and penal structures that help people overcome alienation and connect them to society. Such public investment will save greater public costs for hospitals and prisons.
In a society where wealth is radically unequally distributed, the service of the common good will require measures of redistribution. But because the redistribution leads to a more sustainable and fair economy all will benefit from it. Perhaps the economically crazy landowner of the parable may have been on the right economic track after all.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
06 September 2017
I am surprised, Andy, that you didn't mention what has been sadly documented about big unions appearing to collude with big employers to reduce workers' pay and benefits for the mutual benefit of the aforesaid employers and unions. I mention one word 'Cleanevent'. That particular agreement involved the possible future Prime Minister. Both the late Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton were not clerics and not given to quoting bishops' statements but certainly had the handle on the traditional Catholic opposition to Monopoly Capitalism. Sadly, modern day Monopoly Capitalism seems to need the collusion of Big Unions. We have a very old fashioned UK style 'cloth cap' approach to industrial relations in this country. It is a great pity we don't have the approach the Scandinavian countries to the economy, education and training, poverty and equality etc.
07 September 2017
A great opinion piece Andrew ... thanks.
When I studied economics 50 years ago, I was taught that the economy was a very important component of our society. Thirty years later, with John Howard as Prime Minister, the economy had become our society. It was not long before everything of any value was 'monetised', which quickly resulted in our values, principles & concern for the public good going out the window. Today we live in a much simpler world made up of "winners" & "losers", & sadly our society is impoverished as a result.
Michael D. Breen
07 September 2017
How refreshing to hear a serious statement on a vital, essential issue. With such a statement the bishops can expect a serious backlash; particularly as they may be considered to be making a new bid for any contemporary moral high ground.
Two matters stand out for me, the pivotal matter of education and common good. Capitalists seem to consistently neglect the fact that the capital which manages the material capital is between the ears of the people. Develop that and you develop the whole system. Unfortunately universities have become part of the commodity economy and expensive schools deliver conferral of status and network. You have to question seriously their divisive effects.
And ah 'the common', commonweal, commonwealth. Such a life giving concept and assurance against the default greed factor. Ever since nomads started growing crops and enclosed 'my' land, property, air, grew we lose so many physical assets and much heart. When the 1% own so excessively much, sharing could just make their day and their salvation.
07 September 2017
Once upon a time the people who were employed in a business were called 'personnel'. Maybe bosses didn't like this term because it reminded them that their employees were people, so they changed it to
human resources'. Is that something we should have objected to?
07 September 2017
"Bishops call for an economy that serves all".
Re. Jesus Parable about the workers in the vineyard.
How strange, I have always taken a completely different interpretation of this parable, I am obviously wrong.
A homily I remember well is " you can ignore God all your life, but if you repent even at the 11th hour you will be saved." So how can I be so wrong over all this time- but I doubt that I am. Because the parable of the vineyard fits the homily exactly.
If I am wrong please advise. Ron H.
07 September 2017
I am reminded, in the cutthroat world of 18th and 19th Century Capitalism of the rise of the Quakers who emphasised honesty and fair dealing. Cadbury's pioneered decent worker accommodation and amenities at Bournville. They were also behind the foundation of many banks like Lloyds and Barclays, once again because they were honest. In this country Fletcher Jones and Staff (not Quaker founded) was into profit sharing. It had a huge woollen mill in Warnambool. There is so much that could be done in this country. It needs to be done from the ground up by people of both honesty and financial acumen. 'Statements' by bishops, political parties etc. are so much hot air if they have no practical fruit. One of the few churchmen who did anything practical for workers in the period I've spoken of was Cardinal Manning, who supported the London dock workers during their strike for a living wage. People thronged to his funeral. What about the funeral of the late Ronald Mulkearns? He had to be buried by stealth. And we wonder why Australian Catholic churches are emptying except for the 'rusted on' ageing faithful.
09 September 2017
" . . .more development of the appeal to the common good." - A consummation devoutly to be wished, Andrew.
Methinks the very concept of the "common good" requires re-establishing in an increasingly "me-and-my-rights" oriented society.
09 September 2017
Edward: The scenario is not as bleak as you suggest: for instance, I've witnessed the willingness of students to volunteer for activities such as school Immersion Experiences, Edmund Rice Camps and Fred's Van,outreach activities at the service of the needy. These may not be directly 'churchy' or devotional experiences as such, but they are certainly a leaven and a practical response to the gospel (especially Matthew:25). And if they do not initially proceed from sacramental participation, they often lead to it.
09 September 2017
A good start might be to resume referring to our country as the 'Commonwealth of Australia', not the abbreviated form 'Australia' as introduced by Gough Whitlam in one of his less enlightened decisions.
10 September 2017
To Ron Hill - far be for me to judge right/wrong ways of interpreting the parable of the vineyard, but I'd say your interpretation is actually the same as Fr Hamilton's. For me, being saved - the kingdom - starts here in earth. And the salvation of the wealthy depends on how well treat the vulnerable, And the salvation of the poor - well, being able to survive day to day would be a start.
11 September 2017
I think Fr H is right on this point: the Australian Bishops want to imply that social justice requires part of a day’s labour should be paid the same as a full day’s labour – something which is not part of Catholic social teaching (and which incidentally would force many businesses into liquidation, creating widespread hardship.) That’s why they’re anxious to deflect us from the literal reading of the vineyard parable, that it is precisely out of his *generosity* that the vineyard owner pays the late-hired (part time) workers the same as the early (full time) workers. Rather, they say, his generosity consists in “placing the human person … at the centre of his concern”. But right there the Bishops have tied themselves in a knot. Isn’t it Catholic social teaching that “placing the human person at the centre” is not merely *generosity*, which consists precisely in going beyond justice, but *justice* itself? Now: if the vineyard owner’s mindset were that of the bishops, he would have said to the complaining early workers something like: “Friend, I’m a just man! I gave those late workers the full denarius that I owe them!” But he didn’t. He says that he is giving to the late hired workers from what is his “own” — ie, not from something that is rightfully theirs in justice. Moreover, he said he was being generous. One can only conclude that, if the Australian Bishops are correct, then God (per the vineyard owner) has made a pretty basic category mistake when he spoke of His “generosity”, rather than His “justice”. So who’s right about the vineyard worker’s actions? The Australian Bishops’ Conference, or God? [P.S. Just curious: does the Australian Bishops’ Conference pay its part-time staffers a full-time salary? ]