Marriage, divorce, secularism and child support

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BY ANDREW HERSCOVITCH, Catholic Social Justice Commission

Catholic teaching maintains that marriage is for life, but there are questions of social justice to consider when couples part or divorce.

CATHOLIC teaching on the permanence of marriage is clear. Marriage is for life, just as Jesus said. In a secular society such as Australia, separation and divorce are common – including among Catholics.

The fragility of marriages is it­self a serious concern, but it also has serious implications for social justice. It would be irresponsible not to have a framework in place for minimising unfairness between the parties affected and protecting the broader interest of the community.

This is no simple task. People will have widely different views on what constitutes fairness, but the absence of a framework would tilt the scales heavily in favour of the stronger party to a marriage and impose excessive burdens on the community as a whole.

Child support is a crucial element of any such framework. Interestingly, Australia’s Child Support Scheme (CSS) has a number of features that sit well with the Church’s teaching on social justice. It provides scope in the first instance for the spouses to agree on the financial arrangements between them. It sets minimum standards for such arrangements so that the interests of the children remain paramount.

It encourages reconciliation where that is a realistic possibility. Where the parties cannot come to a mutually acceptable financial outcome, the minimum standards become the “agreement” by default. Australia’s CSS also pro­vides for a government agency to register agreements between the spouses and to collect mainte­nance for the children if that is the wish of the spouses or if a spouse does not meet his or her responsibilities voluntarily.

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Maintenance is taken into account when assessing the recipient’s entitlement to income support such as Parenting Payment. In so doing, it reduces the financial impact of marriage break-down on the community.

The CSS was started in the late 1980s. The “system” that preceded it left the determination and collection of maintenance largely to the courts. The amounts assessed were usually low and the amounts collected were substantially less, leaving the children’s carers out to dry and the community as a whole to carry much of the financial load. It provided little scope or encouragement for reconciliation.

By any measure it was at odds not only with Catholic principles of social justice but also with community expectations. It is food for thought that, often unknowingly, secular wisdom often reflects traditional Catholic values.

Please send comments on the article, or requests for further information about the Commission, to Social.Justice@cg.org.au.

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