The changing landscape of Catholic social work



Social service organisations are a key element of the Church in action. Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, emphasised that, with proclaiming the word of God and celebrating the sacraments, the works of loving service are an indispensable part of the Church's mission.

Man with broken shackles, sillhouetteThe structure of these services within the Catholic Church in Australia is diverse. CatholicCares and CentaCares operate in most Australian Dioceses, and the St Vincent de Paul Society operates within most parishes. There are bodies such as Jesuit Social Services and Good Shepherd Australian New Zealand that build on the work of religious congregations. Services run by the Maronite, Melkite and other churches, and parish-based organisations add to the collective endeavour.

All of these social service organisations are working to support vulnerable people in need, and to build a more just society. On any given day, throughout Australia they are delivering services as diverse as emergency and stable housing, family and relationship services, mental health support, homelessness services, community building, and disability and youth services.

Some agencies are also providing chaplaincy services for those in prison, in youth justice or immigration detention, in hospital and beyond as well as providing assistance to Indigenous Australians and recently arrived communities. The list of services offered is as diverse as the list of needs is long.

But there is no room for complacency. Catholic social service agencies are facing many challenges from a number of the disruptions at play in our postmodern society. These have to be addressed if the agencies are to continue their work with those on the margins, and their indispensable contribution to the mission of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council serves as a beacon: it reminded us that 'the Church has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel'. The 'signs' that church based social service agencies are grappling with at the moment, and which are challenging their ability to deliver their services, are many and varied.

The sexual abuse and catastrophic failure of leadership laid bare by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex abuse has had a profound impact, not only for victims and survivors, but for all parts of the Church. Nothing can erase the damage that has been done, but an inadequate response now would rub salt into the wounds of victims and of all stakeholders.


"These issues are too complex for each organisation to address alone. The network of shared endeavour and the culture of collaboration that exist across the Catholic social service sector are among its strongest assets."


Relatedly, the Church's diminished standing in civil society — for example, calls for dismantling of tax concessions for the Church, are heard more frequently as the community becomes more distant from the Church, and undervalues what the Church provides to society.

Radical changes in government policies and funding mechanisms with emphases on client choice and market mechanisms to govern the provision of services present another challenge. The move from community-based responses to individualist approaches is highlighted by the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and client-directed aged care funding mechanisms.

Then there is the pace and pressures of innovation and changing technology — services need to respond to calls to form innovative and cost-effective partnerships to support initiatives such as new housing models and fresh approaches to addressing family violence.

Less of a disruption than a changing reality that must be adapted to is the changing nature of our communities and of their needs. We are a growing population and an ageing one. New suburbs are emerging around major cities, and the ethnic make-up of our suburbs, Church congregations, and our prisons is evolving rapidly.

These challenges are demanding, but springs of hope are evident across the sector. Church social services agencies need to bring their collective wisdom and experience to re-orientating their works for this challenging future.

These issues are too complex for each organisation to address alone. The network of shared endeavour and the culture of collaboration that exist across the Catholic social service sector are among its strongest assets. Leaders from across the country regularly gather, committed to responding to the Gospel call to stand with those who are in need, and are joined in these gatherings by people from many other parts of the Church and beyond who share the passion and commitment to the promotion of human flourishing.

If such forums didn't exist, we'd need to create them in order to constructively reflect on the challenges that loom on many fronts, and on our mission, in order to identify the springs of hope that are to be nurtured and expanded.



Denis FitzgeraldDenis Fitzgerald is Executive Director, Catholic Social Services Victoria. The next Catholic Social Services national conference, Hearing, Healing, Hope, is from 21-23 February 2018 at the Catholic Leadership Centre in East Melbourne. Details


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Existing comments

"The network of shared endeavour and the culture of collaboration that exist across the Catholic social service sector are among its strongest assets." This observation might stimulate other sectors of the church to reflect on their own situation, identifying areas of duplication and waste that expand bureaucracies at the expense of front line services. A useful principle is that you decentralise the "front of house" and centralise the "back of house".
Brian Lucas | 20 February 2018

A great shame that all the good work and help goes unnoticed, what a blaming general overall Society we have become!! Whatever the problems, they can be resolved with patience and understanding; When will our population start to praise instead of criticise??? Media has a lot to answer for!
Glenda Burke | 20 February 2018

'The Second Vatican Council serves as a beacon: it reminded us that 'the Church has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel'.' A major sign of the times is escalating climate change and an inadequate response from so many. Do your parish buildings have solar panels on the roof? Do your priests promote Pope Francis' encyclical 'Laudato Si! ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME'? With the world heading for about a 4 degees Celsius rise in temperature, some Pacific Islands already going under and the prospect of millions of climate refugees, it's time for us all, and our parish leaders, to take more responsibility with climate action! And please vote for political parties that are really serious about reducing carbon emissions!
Grant Allen | 20 February 2018

Thank you Denis for your important article. I"m sure you are already doing it but is there any data available that demonstrates what your organisations are offering on behalf of governments, and what would be lost if these organisations and programs withdrew their services? This information should be shared widely so that people are aware of the extent and reach of the supports being provided to society in general ... and what could happen if funding of these programs and services stopped. Are there possibilities for collaboration between different faiths (intra- and inter-) that would see increased strength in commitment and capabilities? Is there the capacity for faith and secular welfare agencies to collaborate better? Are the providers looking after their staff properly? What is the situation re volunteering in and for these Agencies? Has anyone ever invited a health/welfare bureaucrat or CEO out on the road to see what it's like on the ground? Does anyone who deals directly with government ever put a 'wish list' on the table as part of robust discussions and negotiations, and the necessity of being challenged? Many questions ... never-ending needs ... Where does business and community come into the equation?
Mary Tehan | 20 February 2018

As a practicing Catholic who has worked in and understands the financial structures of Catholic Social Services and who now runs his own independent disability support service, I urge the Catholic Church to rethink what it consider Catholic service delivery. My family run organisation provides much more efficient and effective service delivery to the disabled than our Diocesan body yet the threat of the big boys using their networks and political strength to crush us is a constant threat. Individual choice should not be seen as a threat, and neither should be the true subsidiarity of free and independent Catholics living out their vocation in their communities.
jules | 23 February 2018

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