Who does the caring?

I recently read an article (Why We Shouldn’t Lose Faith in Organized Religion) which was a discussion between New York Times writer Tish Harrison Warren (an Anglican priest) and Eboo Patel. Patel, a Muslim American, is seeking to improve America’s democracy through cooperation across religious differences. I recommend the article to you but thought that the points they make were worth sharing in our local context.

Patel mentions that when he is speaking publicly about religion, he is usually asked rather negative things such as,“what do you think about the Catholic Church and the paedophile crisis?”. He mentions that these kinds of questions seem to come from people who believe themselves to be (and probably are) well educated. He goes on to posit that to be well educated you must of course know all the bad things about religion.

However, as Patel goes on to point out “Catholic sisters just keep doing what Catholic sisters do, which is taking care of poor people”. These are not bad things; they are very good things. What he is saying is that faith-based organisations keep doing the things that governments or even secular organisations shy away from doing.

Australia is a little different to the United States of America but nonetheless, our society still turns to religious communities to do the caring. Faith-based organisations provide more than two-thirds of the education in NSW. They provide social services and aged care on a huge scale across the country. And many people in the Hunter were born at the Calvary Mater Newcastle Hospital which was established and still is run by a Catholic organisation.

On the matter of faith-based hospitals, we have recently seen the ACT government take over the Calvary run hospital in Canberra. No doubt the ACT government will run a fine hospital, but the care will ultimately have a difference, because it has to – its reason is different.

Civic cooperation, as Patel calls it, allows people of many backgrounds to work together, even in a space operated by a faith-based organisation. This happens every day, and it works.

Some people would be surprised to know that Catholic schools in NSW have only 56 percent Catholic students. That means the other 44 percent are not Catholic. It works.

I was interested to recently hear Noel Pearson talk about the work he and his organisation are doing. Noel Pearson is not only a proud indigenous man but by his own admission is a man of faith (Lutheran). He is motivated for his people but without trying to dimmish that he retains his faith.

Religious pluralism is a positive thing. Our society works better with it. Our faith-based organisations have a history of being entrepreneurial in their own areas. In so many places of need, they built hospitals, schools and aged care facilities long before government did. Look around our local area, and you will see it – Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Adventist and so on.

As a society we can’t keep tearing down faith-based institutions unless there is something better to replace them. Simply focussing on what faithbased organisation get wrong and delegitimising them is a poor model of social change when there is only government left to replace them. That’s not societal change for the better.

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Sean Scanlon

Sean Scanlon is the Chief Executive Officer of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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