My parents have been volunteers for the St Vincent de Paul Society for as long as I can remember.
They help organise the parish “giving tree” each Christmas, where people leave gifts for those who might otherwise miss out, marked “Boy 4-5 years” or “Older lady” or similar.
Vinnies volunteers unwrap the presents to make sure they are appropriate, new and not broken before re-wrapping them and distributing them to needy families.
Two years ago Mum came home quite upset, explaining that someone had wrapped an empty box and put it under the tree. “Who would do that?” she lamented.
It really pains me to say it, but Vinnies has become that empty box: an exterior that looks like a gift is being offered but, on closer examination, lacks substance.
“Rather, I’m speaking of those who are increasingly trying to divorce the society from its Catholic ethos, the real “gift” it has to offer both its clients and the wider Australian society.”
I’m not talking about the rank-and-file volunteers like my parents; the salt-of-the-earth parishioners whose charity work is an extension of their devout Catholic faith and for whom conference membership is about common prayer and spiritual input that is then expressed in person-to-person acts of charity.
Rather, I’m speaking of those who are increasingly trying to divorce the society from its Catholic ethos, the real “gift” it has to offer both its clients and the wider Australian society.
Many of the society’s employed “experts” are convinced that its Catholic identity is not only unnecessary for its good works, but may be a disadvantage.
Some of these control or at least influence the society’s finances and policies.
Part of this is evident from the branding itself. The days of the “St Vincent de Paul Society” seem long gone, replaced with “Vinnies”, an anodyne name that doesn’t immediately alert people to the society’s Catholic nature.
It is also seen in the ordinary members who feel alienated and powerless in their own organisation; who risk being driven out of their volunteer positions if they do not toe the line of “the professionals.”
The most recent example of the “hollowing out” of the society’s inspiration has been its response to the series of religious discrimination bills put forward by the federal government.
Announcing the bill back in 2019, then-Attorney-General Christian Porter said that it would ensure “organisations like St Vincent de Paul can make decisions in areas such as staff based on the faith of that organisation”.
The society issued not one but two media releases, rejecting the idea that it would ever use a religious discrimination bill to require staff or volunteers to be Catholic.
“Fast forward two years, and the society has put in a submission to the current inquiry into third draft of the religious discrimination bill, directly opposing the ACBC’s publicly expressed position on the bill.”
Despite the Rule of the St Vincent de Paul Society requiring certain office holders to be Catholic, the society asserted that certain roles “which have particular responsibility for overseeing [the society’s] mission and Catholic ethos are usually filled by Catholics but may also be filled by people who share basic Catholic beliefs.” The “basic Catholic beliefs” necessary were not specified.
Fast forward two years, and the society has put in a submission to the current inquiry into third draft of the religious discrimination bill, directly opposing the ACBC’s publicly expressed position on the bill.
In its submission, the society rejected the need for religious discrimination protections, saying that only a small number of volunteer positions were required to be filled by Catholics—though it does not appear from the submission that any of the 3000 employees are required to be Catholic.
The submission goes further to express concerns that the bill would allow religious schools “to refuse to hire staff who do not affirm or support their beliefs.” This puts the society directly at odds not just with the Bishops but also with the national, state and territory Catholic education commissions, and the diocesan schools systems.
Equality Australia – the same-sex marriage lobby group—is quoted twice in the society’s short submission. In contrast, no mention is made of anything the Australian Catholic Bishops or education authorities have had to say on the matter.
I’m not sure how many of the society’s 60,000 members, many of them faithful and devout Catholics like my parents, would agree with its leadership aligning itself with Equality Australia against the Bishops and the schools.
I would hazard a guess that most of them have no idea it is occurring and will be horrified once they find out. It will only add to their feeling that the society has been “stolen” from the rank-and-file members by people who do not share their commitment to its spiritual goals.
This isn’t about being naïve as to the difficulty in recruiting Catholic staff for some positions, nor is it to deny the important contribution of many non-Catholics to the work of Church agencies.
The Church in Australia employs more than 200,000 people and there are only about 600,000 practising Catholics in this country, a proportion of whom are too young or old to be employed; others are doing other important jobs outside the Church.
“The mission of our Catholic organisations is not separate to their Catholic identity … They best fulfil their mission when they continually affirm and uphold their Catholic identity, including in their key staff.”
It would be impossible for Catholic organisations to insist that all its staff were practising Catholics, and impractical even to reserve employment to baptised Catholics.
However, if a Catholic organisation does not actively attempt to recruit a critical mass of Catholic employees, especially for leadership roles, or if it insists that the religious beliefs of an employee do not really matter to its mission, then there is a point where the Catholic identity of that organisation is weakened and it ends up offering nothing different to any secular NGO.
The mission of our Catholic organisations is not separate to their Catholic identity—as Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasised. They best fulfil their mission when they continually affirm and uphold their Catholic identity, including in their key staff.
Take that away and we have no more to offer than an empty box, covered in beautiful gift wrapping.