Homily for Christ the King 2005

At the St John's College Closing Mass on Thursday night (10 November), I mentioned that one of the things which inspired me to seek the priesthood was a sense that justice was of great interest to the Church. It was not because I liked to pray a lot or thought myself just or good. Rather, I had got the idea that one of the things the Church was on about was justice and the dignity of all life and work. Now the Church has not always been renowed for being just in the way it operates, nor may it always be a just employer. And the Catholic Church is one of the biggest employers in Australia. Nevertheless, both scripture and tradition testify that seeking the justice of God is a core part of the Gospel message. So as and idealistic Year 12 student I felt in some vague way that I could be part of that message.

Specific Church teaching on social justice is only fairly recent. Commonly it is spoken of as beginning with Pope Leo XII's encyclical, "Rerum Novarum", in 1891. That title could be roughly translated to mean “Of Revolutionary Things”. The Pope belatedly, I suppose, was responding to the enormous shake up in the West that accompanied the industrial revolution and the other revolutions it spawned. The new industries had made the working lives of many mere slavery.

Times have changed a lot since then. Poverty itself is a relative term within Australia and it is also relative to the rest of the world. The conditions most enjoy today in the workplace are a far cry from the 19th century. But in a global village and a global workplace we are all interconnected.

The present proposals to reform workplace relations in Australia are part of a government response to that global economy. The Catholic Church has made submissions to the Government along with others expressing concerns and putting forward ideas. The Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations is the body which does this on behalf of the bishops.

As you would expect those submissions made from a Catholic body are based on the prinicples of Catholic social justice teaching. I will mention a few. A basic premise is that of the nature and dignity of work itself, and the role of all who work as participating in the process of creation. Economic systems and economic philosophies are not the starting point for a person of faith. A consequence of this is that people cannot be treated as commodities, as one amonst many of the components of production. (cf John Paul II, "Laborem Exercens" #16) 

A further principal which flows from this is that the work of human beings has a priority over the market. Work exists for the good of people. People do not exist for work.

Another implication is, as Pope Paul II repeated, that the right to private property is not an absolute one. It must be understood within the context of the right common to everyone to use the goods of creation. It is precisely in this context that just solutions are often so difficult: for example, the rights of shareholders vs the rights of workers vs the rights of a community. (cf John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, #14)

Of special concern to Catholic social teaching is the condition of the poor and unemployed in society. These are the ones who are most vulnerable to changes in the workplace and market. So the right to a just wage and ability to support a family are strong themes in Catholic teaching. For example, John XIII wrote in “Mater et Magister”, “workers must be paid a wage that allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfil their family obligations in a worthy manner” (#71). John Paul II went further to say that “in every case, a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socio-economic system” (John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, #19).

There are a number of other priciples of this Catholic teaching such as the right to form and belong to unions and the right to strike within just limits. I have just touched upon some of the principles of Catholic Social Justice teaching. The current hot debate about industrial reforms does mean we need to know of the great many riches within our tradition which should help inform us in our opinions and actions. After all we are people of faith. We are people of the covenant. People of a God whose justice and mercy is far beyond ours.

Our Gospel today (Matthew 25:31-46), once again reminds us that we can do no other than have a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, the exploited and the sick. The world will be made “right” or “just” or “fair”, only when the way Jesus treats the least in the community, becomes the norm of action for all. And it is these actions that will judge us.

(A discussion paper on the Commonwealth Government's proposed changes to Workplace Relations in Australia within the context of Catholic Social Teaching and the Church's collective and diverse experience as an employer can be downloaded here. Briefing Paper)

Fr Graham