[Rimini, Italy]. Here at the annual "Meeting" organised by Communion and Liberation (CL) -- see previous post -- there are three regulars from Britain: professor John Milbank (pictured), pioneer of the "radical orthodoxy" movement and one of the UK's leading experts on Catholic Social Teaching; and two of his "disciples" -- Adrian Pabst and Philip Blond. Blond, the intellectual of the hour at the moment in British politics, is director of a new thinktank, ResPublica, and author of the hugely influential book Red Tory. It was his thinking which nourished the British Prime Minister's flagship idea of a 'Big Society'.
One striking fact about these three is that Pabst is Russian Orthodox, while Milbank and Blond are Anglicans. Yet these three have done more to promote the thinking behind Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate -- the idea of a civil economy -- than any British Catholics. They have been coming to Rimini for four years, at the invitation of CL's Fondazione per la Sussidiarietà which, as its name suggests, pomotes the Church's vision of a vigorous civil society.
Milbank's talk yesterday asked a series of challenging questions about the Big Society which Blond, who arrived today, wasn't around to hear.
Milbank and Blond both argue that both the unfettered free market and the excessively powerful state have undermined the bonds of relationality and mutuality on which a healthy civil society depends.
Has the British centre-right coalition government abandoned the economic liberalism of the Thatcherism or is it genuinely willing to go in the direction of a "Catholic third way" -- seeing civil society as more important than the state and the market? Milbank wondered. Cameron, he acknowledged, speaks very passionately and compellingly about the need for a Big Society; but does this mean more than reducing the size of the state and asking the rest of society to pick up the slack? And is he willing to check the power of the market? "The question of Cameron's attitude to the market is an open one," he said.
He also signalled concern about the extent and speed of the cuts in spending which the Government has introduced. "If the cuts are made too swiftly," he said, "they reduce the capacity of civil society to take up the slack." By moving too fast on cuts, Cameron risks undermining his overall intention, allowing big money to move into health and education. There is a battle within Government, Milbank noted, between "neo-liberals and communitarians".
Milbank is critical of the Churches in Britain for abandoning civic engagement -- as an incarnational faith, he argues, Christianity's fruits need to be seen -- but he noted the irony that, as church numbers fall, it is the Churches which are nonetheless driving the resurgence of civic action in the UK. Only religious people, he went on, are capable of creating the ethos that leads to new civic projects and structures. In the same way, even while church attendance is low and falling, church schools are more popular than ever. "Religion seems to be irreplaceable for motivating children," he noted.
Milbank signalled a further challenge to the Government. Will they be willing to give the Churches the kind of freedom their schools and charities need to witness to their values -- even when these values appear to contradict what some groups assert as their "rights"? Can the state unleash civil society -- allowing, for example, for the creation of schools -- while still controlling curriculums, and forcing, for example, Catholic adoption agencies to close because they will not allow gay people to adopt?
This evening, Philip Blond spoke on the Fondazione panel, fizzing as always with ideas and huge ambition. "We want to change the terms of the debate", he said, calling for "a society of free association, which challenges the monopoly and vested interests of both statist bureaucrats and free-market capitalists". He wanted to see, he said, "a market that dispenses equity and justice".
Blond noted in passing that the Big Society idea -- which he described as the "signature policy" of Cameron's Conservatives -- "was formed by conversations in Rimini" and went on to praise CL for "creating the social capital which makes real capital".
I wonder how many British people realise that the flagship policy of their Government came about, in part, because of a Catholic festival in a northern Italian seaside town.