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Social Issues at WYDO8?

Reprinted from the St Vincent de Paul Record, 28 October 2008

What happened to urgent social issues at World Youth Day, 2008?

 By Bruce Duncan, C.Ss.R.

The World Youth Day events around Australia in 2008 proved a powerful experience for many, and the happy informality of the tens of thousands of young people became infectious in Sydney, irrespective of people’s religious beliefs.

Rock stars would have envied Pope Benedict’s ability to draw such vast crowds, but many church personnel were perturbed that a great opportunity was lost to demonstrate how intrinsic to the Gospel was concern for peacemaking, social justice, and ecological sustainability.

The irony is that many younger people are passionately concerned about such matters, as Bono and the U2 rock group can attest with their mobilising of younger generations about hunger and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) .

Yet the main World Youth Day events failed to highlight Jesus’ message in the Last Judgment parable that God will judge us on how we have responded to the needs of the poor, sick, hungry and imprisoned. Jesus meant to shock his hearers: piety is worthless in God’s eyes if it ignores one’s social responsibility, since God identifies intensely with people in distress.

World Youth Day 2008The World Youth Day events offered an unprecedented chance to demonstrate how directly religious beliefs bear on urgent social issues: social equity, world hunger, the energy crisis and global warming, the MDGs and peacemaking, all issues critical in the eyes of the Pope.

True, Benedict congratulated the new Australian government for its apologies for injustices against our indigenous peoples and commended Australia’s role in international peacekeeping. Later he added that ‘non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity.’ But these crucial themes then vanished from centre stage, though many smaller events on the margins dealt with such issues, especially those organised by religious orders or social agencies like Caritas or Vinnies.

The neglect of the Church’s own social justice teaching was doubly puzzling, since Benedict has spoken often on world poverty, climate change, the food crisis in many countries, along with threats from nuclear weapons, cluster bombs and the flourishing arms trade, including in small arms.

Benedict frequently discusses these issues with world leaders. To French President Sarkozy on 12 September he highlighted the role of religion in helping address social justice, protecting the environment and human rights, and peace and reconciliation among peoples.

He wrote to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in June, urging renewed determination to achieve the MDGs. And at his meeting with President George W Bush on 13 June, the Pope raised the topics of the food crisis and the MDGs, globalisation and the recent economic setbacks, along with threats to peace.

Benedict in April renewed calls to cut military spending – currently at $US1.3 trillion a year, nearly half by the United States - and direct the savings into economic development. Even five per cent of this amount could help lift hundreds of millions out of hunger and grinding poverty.

Before the UN General Assembly meeting of September 25, Benedict again appealed for urgent support for the MDGs. The head of Caritas International, Cardinal Rodriguez, welcomed the additional $US16 billion pledged for the MDGs, but contrasted this with the rapid allocation of $US700 billion to moderate the US financial crisis. More substantial funding for the MDGs would help save the lives of up to 10 million children a year who die unnecessarily from the results of hunger and poverty.

The side-lining of the social dimension at World Youth Day reflects a growing tension in the churches, between those focused on internal church matters and piety, and those engaged with wider issues of social wellbeing.

There is widespread concern in Christian circles that some religious leaders are not doing enough to promote their churches’ social teaching. One has only to consider the lacklustre response by church leaders to the long debate over the invasion of Iraq. Some bishops did speak strongly, but others remained silent or made token gestures. And in some of the largest dioceses, justice and peace commissions remain tiny or have been down-sized.

Nevertheless, concern for peace and justice remains normative for Christians. On Social Justice Sunday on 28 September the National Council of Churches distributed a statement, ‘Faces of poverty’, and the Catholic bishops, ‘A rich young nation: the challenge of affluence and poverty in Australia’.

Australians of many beliefs will be interested in Pope Benedict’s forthcoming document on globalisation. He will presumably stress that concern for social justice is an essential part of the Church’s mission, and must not be downplayed as if it were a secular rival to the Gospel.

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• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.