But they need to listen to new and independent voices if they are to succeed, says Francis Davis Next week the bishops of England and Wales will meet in full plenary in Leeds. They will receive reports on the work undertaken to date in response to their call for a deeper culture of social responsibility. They will reflect together on the possibility of a new and enhanced Caritas agency to strengthen our relationship with the Church’s global federation for social welfare, Caritas Internationalis.
As such, they could take the first and defining steps towards a new direction for Catholic civic engagement for the decades to come. And yet because of limitations in the advice they are receiving the bishops risk being nudged in charitable and public directions that will put them at risk and lower the sights of Catholic institutions. This would be deeply regrettable at a time when social needs are increasing. Before they go further the bishops need a wider consultation led by new and independent voices.
From the perspective of those who lead the bishops’ domestically focused policy work their recent conference in London was the culmination of a successful process assessing Catholic social engagement. And yet outside the confines of a small group of Catholic charities close to the bishops’ department of Christian citizenship and responsibility it looked more of a well-meant muddle. For example, statistics were hurriedly gathered together from London and then released to the national press as to “the scale of the Catholic charitable contribution”. They showed scarce understanding of how those figures read. This is disappointing because across the country at the most local level are wellsprings of the innovation that Archbishop Nichols made an effective case for encouraging during his contributions to the London conference. In locality after locality there are path-breaking contributions to mental health, financial inclusion, social need and social enterprise led by those at the parish, deanery and diocesan level. In many cases these bodies have found traditional Catholic agencies with varying overheads, and a tendency to protect their own staff and legacy income at the expense of local action, as frustrating as they do Government bureaucrats. No wonder that many have never been contacted by “national” bodies, some of whom may dream of fresh central fundraising on any decision to create a beefed-up “Caritas national office”. For this reason, it was notable that it is the outstanding diocesan financial secretaries who founded a thriving national Catholic mutual whose surpluses heavily funded the papal visit while it is also diocesan financial officers who are exploring innovative “social finance bonds” to increase the Church’s care for the elderly without recourse to grant or legacy income.
More creatively still, in November 2009 Gordon Brown singled out St Cuthbert’s Catholic community college in St Helens for a national award and particular mention. In the same year as the Archdiocese of Liverpool had called St Cuthbert’s “outstanding” the college took some underused parts of its buildings and converted them into an affordable hotel and hostel. On the one hand, this new social enterprise generated income for the college. On the other, it extended the range of ways that the institution and its students might train and learn from their experiences of serving others. In Northampton diocese one school is looking at a comparable opportunity working with blind youngsters, while in the Diocese of Shrewsbury a deacon is charged with pursuing opportunities for “Catholic social enterprise” from the school in which he works. This is the stuff of the future, for whoever is in power in Whitehall after 2015 will be looking for the re-design of welfare services on shared campuses so that scarce resources can have most effect. Learning from the social business parks trailblazed outside Britain by, for example, Focolare, our community could be at the forefront of such a civic revolution. And yet, astoundingly, the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales specifically asked to be excluded from the core of bishops’ deepening social engagement remit and many Catholic charities are frightened of even asking the “innovation” question.
Perhaps the biggest challenge here is to which part of the global Caritas family the bishops are advised to look for inspiration. Those attending recent events have been pointed in the direction of the tiny head office function of Caritas Austria as a case worth considering. This umbrella body is often on television denouncing government policies as a “prophetic strategy” to defend the poor. Yet it faces several restraints which are less often shared with British audiences. First, while accessing policy networks in Vienna because of the Church’s standing, Caritas Austria’s HQ has been relatively weak at protecting the Catholic ethos of its actions. Second, the national office only has credibility because of the dense (and financially large) networks of Caritas branches at diocesan and parish level whose social innovations are so outstanding that they attract international attention and emulation from well beyond the Church. Third, many in Austria have come to judge that the best way to change government policy is to invent a real-life example of what the change could look like and then ask decision-makers to visit, rather than to lambast them from the media treetops. No wonder, then, that Caritas Austria right across the country has established a “big society” bank for the poor and a national social action day with corporate, rather than state, partners.
Of course, as the bishops meet they could be advised that those who have expressed grave concerns thus far are “the same old Right-wingers” or the “begrudgers”. Real reservations could be turned into a mere joke over drinks. But this underestimates the integrity of too many. As the bishops debate their next steps they should be keenly aware that they now operate in a society where innovative Catholic practical action is more crucial than ever but where its most creative potential options are little understood even by those who advocate it from national offices.
Any decisions the bishops make next week are in danger of having foundations of sand. Not enough work has been done to get to the real bottom of current debates, a defendable view of the scale of Catholic charities or to work together across the boundaries of education, charity and other social needs. This risks setting the bishops back rather than launching them forwards. They need new ideas, more time and more concrete local engagement. Otherwise a moment of huge opportunity will sadly put them at risk.
Francis Davis co-founded Catholic City Centre Care Southampton which today employs eight staff and hundreds of volunteers 20 years after its launch. He has published widely on the work of Caritas