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Corporatised Religion

Written by: John G. on 21 April 2021


The deaths of 46 aged care residents at St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Melbourne suburb Fawkner raised failures and financial and operational arrangements in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Covid deaths at other church homes in Sydney, the Dorothy Henderson Lodge run by BaptistCare and Newmarch House run by Anglicare, suggest these may not be aberrations but systemic failures. They also raise the issue whether behind this lies the entwining of religious enterprises in corporate capitalist systems of purchasing labour power and production and sale of care services. 

If St Basil’s and the others are aberrant individual failures, then further regulation and a tight system of compliance auditing by competent independent inspection authorities would be the response, if one trusted a capitalist government and others to create such improvements for people. History identifies that such trust would be misplaced.  

Where these are the product of systematic failures, even the supporters of this economic system accept solutions that require a rebuild of the system to effect necessary change. 

Judgement of bad apple failure or systemic problem can only be made by examining the manner of service delivery by church run operations more generally than those of St Basil’s and Greek Orthodox Church. 

Major religious institutions have extensive operational “commercial” arms. Most operate as Legal Trusts which provide no transparency as to their financial and operational affairs. Some are more centralised while others like the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches operate through thousands of separate operational enterprises. Their charitable arms sometimes provide public operational and financial reports.  Below are insights into a couple of church operations and their nature gleaned from publicly published reports. 

Wesley Mission’s Commercial Operations 

Wesley Mission produces a public annual report. 

Originally operating from one Sydney church it has broadened to a limited extent with 85% of its staff now Sydney-based. The public accounts provide an opportunity to look into this church’s operations as a service providing enterprise in this capitalist economy to see how much institutions have been drawn into capitalism. Relevant details are outlined here: 

Wesley Mission’s operations, workforce and finance by the numbers

Wesley’s revenues in the 2020 financial year were just shy of $230 million, including income from sale of services of $117.5 million and government grants of $97 million. Donations and legacies were less than $8 million or 3.5% of the church’s total income, a tiny amount of church operations.  

The cost of purchasing labour power directly was at least $163 million though the accounts don’t exclude that being larger. Surplus for the year was $9.6 million. 

It has a huge asset base of $489 million, with liabilities of $269 million, the bulk of which is care residents licence agreements of $173 million. Wesley Mission’s net capital value is $220 million. 

It had 2,251 employees, 813 full-timers and 938 part-time and 500 casuals, 73% women and engaged an army of 4,592 volunteers for 92,598 hours proudly boasting they saved $4,231,729 in wages. The voluntary labour represented just 2.5% of all labour power used by the church in their operations. 

The figures involve the church operating service provision by purchasing labour power from 2,251 wage workers for $163 million supplemented by volunteer labour equivalent to 10 full-time staff. In addition, some ‘clients’ were employed in packaging and other industrial production,

The tiny portion of both income and labour derived by donations in all forms, as against the 97.5% of labour-power purchased for the provision (production) of services, reveals how deeply the church has been integrated into the capitalist system of production, purchasing labour power for its production.

The integration includes the alienation of the labourer from the product of that labour, the commodity of care. 

Fundamentally the Wesley Mission is operating as a capitalist with 97.5% of its labour power purchased, employing wage workers. 

Religions as Capitalists

There is no basis for expecting any difference with larger institutional churches. In fact the big bazookas of church capitalism are the Catholic Church with its extensive school network and its massive St Vincents operations across the whole country as well as Diocesan Trusts , the Anglican Church of Australia Trust Corporation, the Presbyterian Church of Australia Property Trust, Uniting Church Trust Association Limited, and other religious groups running schools and limited care services also ending up in capitalist relations purchasing wage labour.   

The Catholic Church, one of Australia’s largest employers  
An internal Catholic Church research paper on employment, “Our Work Matters” published in November 2017, identified that the Catholic Church purchased labour power from approximately 220,000 people by compiling data from 3500 agencies or 99.5% of its affiliated organisations. 
The total combined employed Catholic workforce amounted to 1.8% of Australians selling their labour power.  This gives some idea of the scope of the integration of this Church alone to wage labour purchasing in Australia. It was a bigger employer than the big 4 banks combined, all local government across the whole country, just 23,000 short of the Commonwealth public service,  and more than the Woolworths group at the time. 
77% of the employees of the Catholic Church are female. 84,801 of the workforce was full-time, 92,700 part-time, 40,301 casual with some whose status was not confirmed. Pay and conditions of 89% are covered by enterprise agreements and awards. 
These numbers exclude priests, brothers and nuns, who number just another 7,988 in the Catholic workforce apart from the Bishops. 96.4% of the labourers utilised by the Catholic Church are not religious officers. Just 5.3% of the Catholic workforce is utilised in pastoral parish and diocesan activity. 
The Church purchased the labour power of 194,823 wage labourers in its education, health, aged care, and social services provision. That was 94.7% of the labour force whose status was identified that the Church utilises. 
The Catholic Church overwhelmingly operates as a capitalist in purchasing the labour power it uses to produce services.
The Wesley Mission and other religious-run service operations are purchasing wage labour to produce services, commodities, sold in aged and disability care homes, contracted to government for provision of shelter for the homeless, teachers at religious schools, etc. To the aged, disabled and homeless, the staff and others are carers, not engaged in capitalist production as productive labourers. However, to the religious institutions they are employees, wage labourers producing commodities – care, education, etc. 
The religious institution exchanges a part of its capital for their labour-power to produce the services, as does a capitalist in metal manufacture exchange part of its capital for labour power to produce manufactures, for instance. 
The religious institutions are thoroughly integrated into the capitalist mode of production. 
Notoriously, religions are tax-exempt and their charitable and not for profit arms operate tax-exempt, while the case of St Basil’s sees millions transferred to the Church, supporting leaders living in luxury. The tax exemptions largely remain though religious enterprises are thoroughly capitalist in their mode of operations, and they have accumulated enormous financial, land and other assets. All assets are the accumulation of values, representative of accumulated commodities, the products of labour previously engaged in production of commodities.
Those assets represent the religious institutions’ accumulation of past labour exploited from wage workers as surplus value. We can conclude churches generally are now exploiters of labour on a grand scale.

Bosses luxury lifestyles accompany capitalist mode of production. 
The relations of production of the Catholic Church are reflected in the sumptuous lifestyles of some of its leaders. The former Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart lived in an upmarket Kew mansion, pictured above, valued at $3 million when listed for sale recently. This was a downgrade on the Archbishop’s residence for decades until the 1980s, Raheen, now the home estate and mansion in Kew of the billionaire Pratt family.
The church also spent $872,000 on a beach house with bay views in Dromana for Archbishop Hart, which he now personally owns after buying it off the Archdiocese for $1.12 million in 2017.
So much for vows of poverty.
The scandal in aged and other care across the land following hard on the heels of exposure of abuses in Church-run orphans and children’s homes, as well as their educational institutions, involves religious institutions and other capitalists all engaged in a capitalist system of labour power purchase to provide services and thereby profit, accumulating capital. 
This is a systematic failure in production of services for the people. It requires systematic change, a rebuild of the care and other service provision. 
By the nature of the capitalist system, with its army of wage labourers tending to eliminate from the field any other alternative means of securing labour power necessary for producing goods or services other than by the purchase of labour power as capitalist not consumer, religious institution have been drawn into the capitalist mode of production. 
Capitalist competition’s tendency to drive costs down runs services down
The outcome in capitalism is competition’s tendency to drive down costs, reduce staffing levels, reduce spending on facilities and inputs like food and medical services. Religious institutions are thoroughly integrated into that capitalist mode of production in their care and educational service provision. 
The costs are borne by the people. 
The catastrophes at St Basil’s, Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge, as well as Greek Orthodox leaders reported adoption of capitalist lifestyles, is the tip of a very large iceberg in the care, education and social service provision industries run by religious institutions.  The case of the Catholic Church workforce confirms that systemic problem with the mode of production of these services. 
As these incidents and the aged care industry are investigated, more of these capitalist characteristics will be exposed. 
To resolve the catastrophic tendencies at stake in the provision of care services, much more than tinkering within capitalist service provision will be needed.
It confirms the need for an independent working class program for the well-being of the people with independence and socialism driving the elimination of the trends capitalism sets in train, ruining the lives of people.  



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