The work of the Catholic social service agencies deserves a higher profile, argues J A Hyland.
ASK most people it they think any social care service.s arc offered in England and Wales by the Catholic church and it is likely that apart from citing isolated instances of work done by nuns they will reply in the negative. This is an understandable but quite mistaken impression. The main reason is that, unlike the other major denominations the Church of England with its Children's Society or the Methodist-affiliated National Children's Homes the Catholic social work agencies do not operate as a single national body.
In common with most of the other Christian voluntaries, Catholic social care began by focussing primarily on child care. In the latter part of the nineteenth century in most of the major urban areas, large institutions for Catholic children were developed. They were usually opened on the initiative of a local priest or bishop, who would seek the assistance of religious orders of nuns to take on the task of managing the homes.
Each diocese, and in a few instances a group of neighbouring dioceses, took on responsibility, under the direction of its bishop, for organising its child care services.
These were often called, in keeping with the general concept of child care at the time, Rescue societies. As well as providing residential child care services, most of these agencies undertook adoption and fostering work, very much on a par with Barnardos and other voluntary child care organisations.
There was unfortunately some competition between the Catholic agencies and the other voluntaries to ensure that children were correctly placed, and so brought up in the religious persuasion of the child's parents. On one occasion this led, in 1889, to Dr Barnardo and Cardinal Manning becoming involved in a legal battle over who should be rightfully caring for a particular child. The point was made for both sides that they must restrict their activities to their own denomination.
The Catholic network of caring institutions accommodated large numbers of children up to and beyond the 1948 Children's Act. It was also actively involved in the approved school service and there were in the 1950s (in various parts of the country) nearly 30 Catholic establishments for Catholic boys and girls.
With the change of climate in the church following Vatican II it has moved away from its position of exclusiveness. If they were alive today Cardinal Manning and Dr Barnardo would be much more likely to take each other to dinner than to court. The Catholic agencies do still retain a special interest in offering services to the Catholic community, who do much to fund the work, but they now offer their services, as far as they are able, to all who need them.
Each bishop takes a vow at his consecration to serve the poor and needy of his diocese. Many choose to do this, in part at least, through the diocesan social work agency. There are 17 such agencies throughout England and Wales. The majority are still child care focussed.
Catholic agencies make up a large proportion of the registered adoption societies in the UK and for some of the smaller agencies this is their sole work. Most agencies are members of the Catholic Child Welfare Council which is a loose federation, serviced by a secretary, seeking to advance and develop common concerns.
Many of the larger social care agencies have extended their work from child care to other areas of social concern. Liverpool Catholic Social Services is the biggest of these. It provides residential care for the elderly, the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, as well as continuing to offer a comprehensive range of residential and field work services for children and families.
This expansion of activity has partly arisen because of the availability of redundant children's provision but also from a recognition of the need to respond to other client groups. Haying entered upon this work there is a commitment to do it to the highest possible standards of practice.
All of the agencies obtain some of their funding from donations from the Catholic community. Most obtain the largest part of their income from fees paid by the local authority or Department of Health for the services provided. This is equally true of the majority of the other voluntary bodies. The Catholic agencies are handicapped in their fundraising by not having a national profile, as for example the NSPCC or National Children's Homes.
There are of course some merits in having locally owned and managed agencies. There is the potential to link into the generally active parish networks that exist in each diocese.
The social work agencies are not of course the only channels of Catholic action to aid those in need. Many religious orders offer residential care for children, the mentally and physically handicapped, for the elderly, for the mentally ill, the homeless and for those terminally ill.
: In an_increasingly economically harsh environment the work of the Catholic agencies has an important contribution to make. This is not, however, limited to good works, but also to the promotion of the philosophy of a just society in which all are recognised as equal before God no matter what their colour, creed, sex or social status.
It is perhaps surprising that a church that has been known for its structured and orderly approach should be so diverse and loosely federated in the way in which it manages its social care agencies and activities. Yet despite its low profile, it is making a powerful contribution to caring for those in need and its potential for making an even greater contribution is considerable.
J A Hyland is director of care services with Catholic Care North East.