Bishop John McAreavey: Churches and human rights organisations have common cause in ensuring social policy reflects our values

16 May 2014

“The spread of food banks across the island of Ireland is an indictment of our society; individuals and families should not have to rely on charity to feed themselves and their families.”

Bishop John McAreavey, Chair of the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference has called for social policy, North and South, to reflect the generosity that has been so evident in our local communities throughout the economic crisis of recent years. He made the appeal in an address to the Conference of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Designate and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on the theme ‘A Human Rights Approach to Tackling Poverty and Social Inequality’.

Emphasising the important links between Catholic Social Teaching and the development of thinking and practice in the area of human rights, Bishop McAreavey stated that churches and human rights organisations have ‘common cause’ in working to address poverty and social inequality.

Acknowledging that political leaders, North and South, recognise the contribution of churches to social justice, Bishop McAreavey expressed concern that “that there can be an over-reliance on Churches to provide a safety net when people are failed by inadequate social welfare provision.”

He continued: “No one wants to see a situation where people are trapped in benefit dependency, but there must be adequate safeguards in place to ensure that people can achieve an acceptable standard of living, in which their basic human rights are protected.

A powerful illustration of urgent social need can be seen in the spread of food banks across this country, many of which have been established by churches and faith-based groups. The spirit of giving that inspires such initiatives is a powerful example of solidarity at work. The individuals and organisations who are running them are to be commended for taking action to address injustice. However I would want to stress that their existence is an indictment of our society; individuals and families should not have to rely on charity for food. Food banks cannot be allowed to become a long-term institution.”

Turning to the role of education in addressing social inequality, Bishop McAreavey stated: “It is a source of particular regret that, in Northern Ireland, the divisive system of academic selection is still failing so many of our young people, as well as schools and teachers. We need to realise that what is happening here is not only academic selection but also a social selection that exempts some schools from the responsibility to support those with the greatest economic, social and educational needs. Other schools face the challenge of supporting pupils whose sense of self-esteem will often have been seriously damaged by a process that brands them as failures at such a young age. This is why the Catholic Bishops in Northern Ireland have made a commitment to moving away from academic selection as the basis of entry to post-primary schools – as a matter of justice.”

On the subject of migration and social justice, an area which has been a particular focus for Pope Francis since the beginning of his Papacy, Bishop McAreavey stated: “The experience of emigration in so many families and communities in Ireland, with all the challenges that brings, should make us acutely sensitive to the needs of those who immigrate here; yet we still have a long way to go before policy in this area conforms to the highest human rights standards. It is a particular source of regret that migrants in recent times have suffered increasing instances of hate crime and racial abuse. We welcome the commitment of both police and political leaders to address this injustice as a matter of urgency.”

Taking inspiration from the unequivocal commitment to the eradication of social inequality, expressed in the Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Bishop McAreavey concluded: “There can sometimes be important differences in understanding and approach between churches and secular human rights organisations on certain issues, such as our understanding of the nature of marriage and the duty to protect the right to life from conception until natural death. This should not, however, cause us to lose sight of the fact that there are many issues on which we can make common cause. This is particularly the case in the areas of poverty and social inequality. Through what we bring from our respective fields of expertise and experience, we compliment, support and enrich one another.”


 For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678