The state aid debate of recent years has raised some issues that have, until now, largely been neglected. One of these is the extent to which the Catholic education system, which relies heavily on the public purse, is fulfilling its own objectives.
The Catholic education system was established with two main ambitions: to pass on the word of the church to future followers and to eradicate poverty among its followers. Documents from within the church raise questions about both objectives.
Let's deal with both questions separately.
First, adherence to the Catholic faith is falling. The Australian Catholic Record reports the fact that only 8% of 15- to 24-year-old Catholics regularly attend mass. The 2004 National Church Life Survey tracked a further decline in religious observance among Catholics (as well as all major Protestant denominations).
Archbishop George Pell believes "religious confusion" among young Catholics is worse than for other Christian youth. The Archbishop was commenting on findings of a Generation Y report that found that by the age of 29, a quarter of all Catholics had left the church.
The Pope himself has stated that mainstream Christianity was dying more quickly in Australia than in any other country.
A February 2006 survey by Dr Luke Saker, a Perth Marist Brother, found that almost all graduates of Catholic schools then studying at university with the aspiration to teach in Catholic schools regarded the church as "irrelevant".
At the same time, the Catholic newspaper Archdiocesan Record mused that the extent to which Catholic schools in Western Australia were "fulfilling the reasons for which they were established — the Catholic education of students — is open to question".
This rekindles the memory of conservative B.A. Santamaria's description of Catholic schools as places of "doctrinal confusion, moral relativism and a widespread loss of faith".
In fact, Michael Furtado reports in an October 20, 2006, Centre for Policy Development article that in many regions of Australia, Catholic schools now register between 30% and 70% non-Catholic enrolments.
Secondly, the alleviation of poverty among the flock is clearly no longer a primary motivation.
A recent book, The Catholic Community in Australia, by Bob Dixon, the church's chief researcher, states that Catholics in Australia today earn more than non-Catholics.
The book's findings also include the fact that 57% of Catholics have jobs compared to 53% on non-Catholics and 70% of Catholic households are buying — or own — a home compared to 56% of the rest.
On top of this, access to Catholic schools by Catholic students is not as automatic as you may expect. As the head of the Catholic Education Commission in Victoria, Susan Pascoe, admitted, "Access to Catholic schooling for Catholic students from low-income families declined between 1996 and 2001 due to the rising costs of attending a Catholic school".
This is despite the fact that the federal government's avowed policy of huge handouts to private schools was supposedly to induce decreases in private school fees. So much for the alleviation of poverty as a motivating factor!
Cardinal George Pell, at the 2006 National Catholic Education Conference in Sydney, disclosed the fact that 43% of Catholics in Australia are educated in state schools. (According to Pell, this figure included 69% of Catholic students from families with the lowest third of family income.)
"Catholic schools are not educating most of our poor, especially at the primary level … predominantly our schools cater for the huge Australian middle class which they helped create", Pell said.
These facts beg the question: should the Catholic Church still be receiving public money to run its school system? If it's not fulfilling its own aims, why should the state be expected to advance its cause by way of state aid?
Here are some more facts.
Each year, the Catholic Church turns over more than $15 billion. If it was a corporation it would rank in Australia's top 10.
The church is not required to file income tax returns, nor pay tax on commercial businesses, nor pay capital gains tax on the sale of assets, nor pay land tax, nor local government rates on school property.
The church owns an insurance company, a mortgage broking business, a multi-storey car park in Melbourne's CBD, a vineyard and also controls more than $4 billion in superannuation funds.
The church holds in excess of $100 billion in property and other assets. In Wagga alone, the church owns land valued at a tick over $10 million (although this figure is for unimproved capital value, which means that its holding is a multiple of that figure). There is no doubt that the Catholic Church is the biggest developer in Wagga. It owns and develops land on an ongoing basis, investing in one large tract even before it develops the previous one.
The church law clearly states that when transferring or selling church property to someone else, "The church's social mission must be taken into account … so that it furthers the work of charity within society".
Recently, in some countries, the church has found it necessary to sell off property to settle a string of claims that priests sexually abused children. Is this a charitable function? For that matter, is acting as a property developer a charitable function?
Of course, the definition of charity can be problematic. Schools such as Reddam House, in Bondi, and Sydney Grammar have already arranged for creative accountants to turn the schools into the not-for-profit arm of for-profit organisations. This way they continue to receive stupendous federal government subsidies.
Under current arrangements, the federal government gives 73.7% of its recurrent funding to the 32% of students enrolled in private schools and only 26.3% of recurrent funding to government schools. Even with a change of government, these figures would still apply — at least for now.
Member for Riverina, Kay Hull's constituents will have noticed that she doesn't even mention in her newsletters the embarrassing sums of taxpayers' money her government handed out to the Catholic education system.
When the first Catholic school was established in New South Wales in 1826, the church had its hand out for state aid — and received it. At that time there was no state system of education in the colony.
Today, the Catholic school system receives obscene amounts of public money. But its original objectives appear to have become redundant. Where's the justification in public money being doled out to a private organisation that doesn't even fulfill its own objectives?
None of this questions the right of Catholic schools to exist. The challenge is to their right to ask for public money.
[Greg Robinson is president of the Wagga Teachers' Association.]