Social Justice Sunday is coming up (September 28) and to mark the occasion the Australian Bishop's Conference have released a statement entitled A Rich Young Nation: Affluence and Poverty in Australia.
A lot of it is harmless or even useful: a warning against consumerism for example.
But here is the problem. Rather than just articulating the principles of Church teaching, it tackles the means to achieve these ends. And in doing so, treads on highly debatable, highly political ground. Take this paragraph for example:
" This is reflected in attitudes to taxation. Many people feel that increased taxes will threaten their quality of life. [And that is surely true!] Additionally, because many who are relatively well off regard themselves as struggling, they can feel entitled to demand significant financial assistance from government in the form of benefits or tax cuts. [First, poverty is relative. We all judge what we have and haven't got by comparison to those around us not some abstract standard. And secondly, there is surely a big difference between increased benefits and tax cuts, not least in their economic effects! Conflating the two is misleading.] It remains a concern that electoral pressure to promise massive tax cuts can restrict a government’s ability to fund social services adequately and meet properly the real needs of the community..." [And this statement is the real problem - because the answer doesn't have to be that government should do it all! This is a political question, a matter of economic debate, not something bishops should be pronouncing on.]
Now I, like the bishops, agree that growing income inequality in Australia is a worry. I actually agree with them that this is a role where the Government can and should act (though not necessarily with a massive spending programme).
But I don't think they should be the ones saying so!
The Church's role is surely to teach us that our duty is to help the poor, to articulate the principles that underpin our faith. It is right for them to point out that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
But it is surely not right for them to attempt to dictate the particular means of achieving the end where the appropriate policy instruments are not at all clear cut, and most especially on issues that go to the very core of the political divide, and on which the bishops have no particular expertise.
This is the sort of thing that undermines the bishops' authority when they speak out on the things that really are within their area of competency.