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Are families chasing what they really do not want?

SYDNEY (SE): The Australian bishops describe the modern economic environment as being not family-friendly in a 21-page message released on September 21 to coincide with the celebration of Social Justice Sunday, which was marked in the Land Down Under on September 23.

Launched under the title, The Gift of the Family in Difficult Times: The social and economic challenges facing families today, at the Leone Ryan Auditorium on the North Sydney campus of the Australian Catholic University, the bishops ask who is consuming who in today’s consumerist society.

“The market is interested in individuals as workers or consumers,” the bishops say.

“The great irony of the consumer culture is that we can be duped into thinking that we freely consume, when in fact it is we who are consumed. Families can end up striving for the opposite of what they want,” the statement reflects.

What the bishops mark as an even greater irony is that Australia, which used to glory under the tag of The Land of the Long Weekend, has now become one of the hardest working countries in the developed world.

“For well over a century, Australia pursued the goal of the eight-hour-day, safeguarding time for relaxation and rest,” the bishops note.

However, in today’s world, an average work week has shot well past the sacred 40-hour ideal and this, added to commuting time, the need of many bread winners to work a second job and the proliferation of casual and irregular work, has eroded this hard fought for right.

In addition, great strides in the world of technology, once hailed as promising a revolutionary increase in leisure, have seen the family time of 80 per cent of workers with company-provided telephones or computers, invaded by work demands.

Advances in transport have also invented the fly-in parent, who has to work away from home and jet-in for short breaks at occasional intervals.

The bishops quote studies showing that four out of five workers are unhappy with their hours and want more time for family and rest.

Six out of 10 say that their spouse and family are their greatest source of happiness, while only three out of 10 cite good health, networks of friends or religious life.

The bishops note that interestingly, only one out of 10 puts money, job satisfaction or having a nice place to live at the top of their priority list.

Yet they point out the irony of the commercial environment operating in such a way as to absorb the bulk of parents’ time and energy chasing money, work and housing just to survive.

This also results in guilt feelings. “The guilt felt by many of these parents is enormous. They are faced with the impossible choice between spending time with their families and making ends meet,” the bishops note.

They say the great contradiction is that, as a nation, Australia agonises over budget surpluses, but does not ask how much time is spent on the core responsibilities of love and care.

Political-speak can also be antagonistic. “Politicians talk about mum and dad investors and working families as a way to identify with real economic aspirations and struggles of families, but the risk is that these slogans can mean family life is perceived in purely economic terms.”

The bishops say that this type of thinking can redefine the family home as a financial asset rather than a dwelling.

In presenting the message at the launch, Bishop Chris Saunders said, “The year of Grace is a time for us all to heal relationships, deepen our unity and forge a future full of life in Jesus Christ—exactly all the things we all hope for in our own families as they grow and change.”

He continued, “Change after all is what family life is; families are the environment in which we are born, mature and grow old, and it is only through grace that we can adapt to this change.”

The statement quotes from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. “Love is always patient and kind, love is never jealous, love is not boastful or conceited… It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

“Families have a calling to embody this culture of love, which is so often sought, but rarely found in the rush of the working week or the false promise of consumerism. Each is called to be a prophetic witness to the love so eloquently expressed by St. Paul,” the statement says.

The bishops renew their call of the International Year of the Family (1994), “Australian governments have a special responsibility of care entrusted to them by the community… Families, as the essential element in our society, need to be given due consideration before the imposition of government policies or legislation. Responsible government means placing the interests of Australian families at the heart of all government decisions.”

The bishops note that although successive governments have required Family Impact Statements to accompany all submissions presented to the Federal Cabinet, the process is in-house and can easily be seen by the public as lip service only, an empty gesture.

The bishops are calling for these discussions to be published and made available to the public, so people may understand the criteria governments use in prioritising the needs of families, especially disadvantaged families in society.

The bishops say, “We believe the lived reality of families highlights a lack of charity and justice in our society. Their circumstances show us what needs to be done to create a more inclusive society. The resilience of their love and loyalty through the most difficult of times reflects the gospel accounts in the trials endured by the Holy Family.”

They say that the example of the Holy Family tells us that the family is the greatest gift to any society and its greatest asset, which must be cherished and nurtured as a top priority.

“With the Holy Family as our inspiration, we see all families are a gift and are graced with the ability to share in the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time,” the bishops say.

They conclude by reflecting, “As the family of God, we are called to bring the saving presence of God’s kingdom into this world, here and now… to reach to and to be of service to each as any have need.”