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Austen IvereighApril 07, 2011

[London] Yesterday in Westminster around 200 Catholic bishops, charity directors, politicians, Lords, academics and thinkers gathered under the ponderous title of 'Renewing a sense of social responsibility' to consider how the Church in England and Wales should respond to a new era in the economy and politics.

The agenda was not that categoric; but it was obvious from the themes. How should the Church prepare itself -- structurally and intellectually -- for the coming years of savage cuts in public spending which will have a disproportionate impact on the poor? As the state shrinks, and a new Government commits itself to invigorating civil society after the dirigiste Labour years, how does the Church bring the wisdom and prophetic power of Catholic social teaching to bear on the Government's 'Big Society' agenda?

Wedging her speech between a 48-hour visit to Pakistan and root canal surgery, Baroness Sayeed Warsi, Conservative Party chairman, came to sell the Big Society idea while praising the Catholic Church's role in it. She called for a  “responsibility revolution" assisted by "a smarter state, and an empowered society".The Big Society, she said, was not just about volunteering and philanthropy, but also about opening up public services to local control and devolving decision-making. The Big Society, she said, "provides the principles to move away from a big bossy state to an energised, citizen-owned, engaged country".

There was plenty more like that. And much of it rings well in Catholic ears. But while it was packed with bouquets for the Church and Catholic social teaching, the speech seemed oddly abstract following a devastating presentation by Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

In a series of dramatic graphs, he showed what the next five years in the UK will bring: the biggest fiscal deficit in 60 years, the largest in the OECD bar Ireland, will be met by the largest spending cuts since the war, at a time when household budgets are being squeezed by rising taxes and welfare cuts. In order to fill the almost £100bn spending gap, the Government will slash spending by at least 10 per cent across the board over the next five years, with the biggest budget cuts in areas like social housing. And because Government will no longer be able to spend to conceal the rise in social inequality, the gap between rich and poor is set to be greater than at any time in the last century. Politically and economically, we are in unchartered waters.

Baroness Warsi regretted that the Big Society vision was being implemented at a time of such severe cuts. It has led to criticism from the left that the Big Society agenda is merely ideological cover for shrinking the state. But while there were some yesterday who believed that, most didn't (as Ed Stourton, the BBC presenter chairing the event, established by a show of hands): it is a far bigger, richer idea -- and one that potentially chimes with Catholic social teaching on subsidiarity.

Yet the difficulty is obvious. How can civil society be invigorated at a time when funding for the initiatives which invigorate it is being slashed? Church charities, too, are being strongly affected: there was plenty of anecdotes from the floor and the panels about projects haivng to be closed. Yet church charities are more protected than others: nine out of ten of them receive less than 40 per cent of their support from the state. That means that in five years time Catholic and other faith charities are likely to play a relatively larger role; they'll still be standing while other NGOs created by state funding have gone to the wall.

This should lead to a bigger political influence. To meet that challenge, the disparate, locally-embedded, diocese-based  Catholic charities -- the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, likens them to corner shops, close to communities but not knowing much about each other -- will need to come together to a greater extent. An umbrella exists: the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) was the organiser of yesterday's conference. But it is a loose federation with little name recognition. That is clearly set to change. After Easter, the bishops will be meeting to consider how to create a tighter model for CSAN, so that gets the kind of recognition achieved by the Catholic overseas agency CAFOD or Catholic Relief Services in the US.

A presentation by the head of Caritas Austria, Christoph Petrik Schweifer, helped light the path. With 11,000 employees, 27,000 volunteers, and a brand name so strong that people in Austria who don't want to help others say, "I'm not Caritas, you know", the bishops clearly see this as a model to follow. Caritas Austria has been able to influence laws and act as a powerful advocate of the poor because of its strong presence in society.

In a revealing remark, Archbishop Nichols said that when the Church speaks on social issues, the words are perceived as coming from an ecclesiastical authority and therefore don't have the same impact. Credibility, he said, was crucial when speaking on social issues: Caritas Austria, he said, was listened to because the work it did with the power was so visible.

There were plenty of interesting ideas and points from the audience. Philip Blond of ResPublica, who is credited with being the intellectual author of the Big Society idea, said the Church should involve itself less in welfare than with "economic development", helping to create the kind of civil economy which exists in Lombardy, Italy, where the Church's networks of trust enable poor communities to be recapitalized.

Many spoke of the need for the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching, which contains the architecture of a flourishing society and economy, to be better known by both faithful and politicians. As the state is reshaped over the next few years, the question of what the state should do and what it should stay out of -- which is at the heart of the question of subsidiarity -- will become more pressing.

Others spoke of the need for Catholics to dig deeper into their pockets, committing 2.5 per cent of their income to charities.

Jon Cruddas, a Catholic Labour MP, said the political debate over the next few years would be between a "liberal" and an "Aristotelian" view of the big society, the first intent on bolstering the local and the individual (freedom from the state), the second more concerned with creating a good or virtuous society -- with the Catholic Church, he implied, strongly defending the latter.

Apart from revealing a strategy to unify the Catholic charitable sector in the UK to give it a national voice in politics, there was little concrete to come out of the conference. But coming on the heels of two previous meetings -- one of academics and writers in London in February to sketch the interface between CST and the Big Society, the other involving Catholic charities in March in Liverpool -- it is clear the Catholic Church is getting ready for what is likely to be a new, expanded role in national social and public life.

It's partly the fruit of the "Benedict bounce" -- the documents that begin these meetings quote from the Pope's call to British Catholics last September to take a greater stand -- and partly the fruit of a particularly propitious (if also alarming) political moment.

But one thing yesterday made clear. British Catholics feel confident for the task. They are proud of their works and the treasure of Catholic social teaching, and are ready for the greater role that comes with them.  

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