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Holy victuals bitter sweet for Great Southern Land

By Joanne Lau - posted Friday, 5 September 2008

Community ambivalence towards the Catholic Church as it staged World Youth Day Sydney 2008 was bereft of acknowledgment of the practical benefits of spirituality - not only to the Catholic faithful, but also in the political and economic context of the wider community.

One may think that the values of the Catholic Church are becoming increasingly singular, and removed from the values of Australian society by declining church attendances and inadequate priest numbers to sustain the Church. It was the New South Wales Government’s unprecedented policy intervention to stage WYD that was the catalyst for renewed interest in a stricter separation between church ideology, state and civic life.

However, the throngs of more than 400,000 jubilant faithful who turned out to hear holy teachings at WYD and the Federal Government's announcement, at the end of the WYD week, of Australia’s first resident ambassador to the Vatican, demonstrates the significance of not only the Catholic Church, but of religion, in shaping political and cultural views.


While these events are chapters within the history of Australia’s evolving relationship with religion, some Australians do not seem to appreciate the integration of these two worlds.

To understand the apparent disconnect between the importance in which Catholic faith is held, on the one hand, by the Australian government and over a quarter of Australia’s self-professed Catholics, and on the other, the strident opposition to the Catholic Church from some sectors, it is important to appreciate the interaction between Christian values at the national, institutional and individual levels of Australian society since European settlement.

Australians’ views on the role of religion in society vacillates between demanding a stricter separation of church ideology from public institutions to ensure the latter are religion free, and retaining structural separation of church and state while respecting expressions of spirituality within state institutions and civic life.

By the 19th century, the Church in Western societies had moved away from being an integral part of the bureaucratic machinery of state to become an important vocal non-government institution, among many voices competing to reach government policymakers and the wider society.

Today, Australia’s governments, at least publicly, recognise the public benefits in supporting a diversity of faiths (Christian and non-Christian) and philanthropic groups in nourishing civic values and providing a wide range of community services. The church-state relationship exists within the constitutional protections of freedom from discrimination on the basis of faith, and prohibiting the Commonwealth from establishing a religion.

The Catholic Church's prominence, its global outreach and its historical legacy offers a juicy, ripe target for opponents of both the institutional Church itself, and those opposed to Christianity and religion. The Catholic Church's societal standing has previously been tarnished by the shortcomings of its both its institutional ideals and its participants’ own misconduct. The revelations aired prior to WYD of the Church’s insular reaction to allegations, of sexual abuse, against Catholic members tarnished the Church’s reputation in the eyes of mainstream Australia. However, faith should not be discarded too hastily. The practical expressions of faith parallels the civic behaviours we aspire to in a democratic society, and share aspirations common to those pursuing greater protection for human rights, underpinning the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.


Unprecedented Federal and NSW Government support for WYD, was estimated to be in excess of $100 million from cash and in-kind logistical services. Both governments gave these contributions without public discussion and seemingly without fully appreciating the community’s reservations towards publicly funding a Catholic religious festival.

Community reservations towards the integration of faith in society may be attributable, in part, to the broader secularisation society - as witnessed by the growing ambivalence towards the Church by nominal Catholics. Catholic Church leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, have warned that Western mainstream Churches are moribund in times of liberalism and individualism rising. Some are concerned that the trend for a more liberal Church in line with prevailing social mores as seen in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions of Western Europe and North America, may paradoxically reduce the numbers of faithful.

A study of young Australians and their values on spirituality, The Spirit of Generation Y, found that the majority of young people would not challenge or constrain other people’s beliefs, beliefs are moral relatives, and are not necessary.

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About the Author

Joanne Lau is a writer. She is completing a Masters of International Development and Economics at the Australian National University. Besides writing, Joanne is a corporate policy official in the Commonwealth Treasury, and has spent her career working in areas such as public policy, tax, litigation, and competition law.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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