The Catholic Church has taken a most welcome initiative since the Pope’s visit to engage more on the question of social action drawin?g on Catholic Social Teaching.
This process was set in train at a meeting of the Bishops Conference in November. A conference followed in Liverpool in February titled Common Endeavour with a brief to underline both the relevance of CST and the practical contribution of the Church to define and build a new culture of social responsibility.
A seminar followed on 9 February at Archbishops House looking at Catholic Social Teaching and the philosophy behind the” Big Society.” The most recent event saw delegates from organisations involved in the area of social action, politicians and commentators drawn together to discuss Building a New Culture of Social Responsibility.
At the latest conference Archbishop Vincent Nichols Archbishop Nichols compared the implementation of Catholic Social teaching across the country to a vast number of corner shops. “We want to find a way of knitting them together,” said Archbishop Nichols, who urged developments that would see the Church speak with more authority based on its social justice work. He also indicated the Church would be prepared to take bold political stands on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.
These are all encouraging developments. Concerns about the process so far have been the skewing toward the government’s Big Society agenda. Archbishop Nichols though recently made it clear that the Big Society must not be a cover for cuts or people volunteering for work that would otherwise be paid.
The organisation being charged with carrying this work through for the Bishops Conference is Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN). The CSAN was founded to great fanfare in 2003. As part of the international Caritas family it was to carry out the work of social justice in the domestic sphere. The overseas role had been done by CAFOD for many years.
CSAN has had a somewhat disconnected evolution over the years. It is an umbrella organisation, representing 37 bodies working on social welfare issues. There has been some good work done in the areas like mental health and the elderly but the scope has been very much restricted.
There has been little liaison it seems with the National Justice and Peace Network, despite that body having originally put forward the idea of CSAN in the first place. Indeed, there was something of a spat between the organisations last July, at the time when the last chief executive of CSAN, Philippa Gitlin left.
How these two organisations co-operate together in the future when it comes to realising the Church’s overall aim for greater impact on social action could be significant.
If the NJPN want to receive future funding they are going to have to establish a stronger link with CSAN. It is clear that the Church is going to channel any money it has for this project of social action through CSAN. NJPN’s main funder over recent years, CAFOD, is increasingly reluctant to fund its work.
NJPN is also the one organisation to make links with the world of work and the trade unions. The organisation was one of a number on the recent TUC march against the cuts and for an alternative. It’s annual conference this year also focuses on justice at work. TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady together with former Labour MP John Battle and Labour MP Jon Cruddas will address the conference. Mr Cruddas and Mr Battle are also closely involved with the Bishops Conference in moulding the response to the call for social action from the Pope.
One criticism of the CSAN process is that it is incredibly top down. Lords, MPs and Church organisations officially involved in social work. There has been little from the grass roots in parishes, diocese and beyond.
The whole area of the world of work used to be a department of the Bishops Conference, this function clearly needs to be restored within CSAN. This must include links with unions and employers. There must be grass root input.
The aim of the Bishops Conference is clearly to beef up CSAN to become the domestic equivalent of CAFOD, with representation at parish and diocesan level. Indeed, Archbishop Nichols admitted as much when he said the bones of such a development represent the next step.
From CSAN’s point of view it needs a clear mandate as to what its role is to be. It will be difficult to become the domestic CAFOD for an organisation with such an umbrella structure. It will also have to build some important bridges, not least with justice and peace and other grass root networks. There also needs to be some confidence built up in its own ability to deliver.
The importance of grass root input will be crucial to the final outcome of this bold initiative from the Bishops Conference. At present the view of unions and others being directly effected by the cuts are not being represented in the CSAN forum. This could result in an unbalanced view in favour of the Big Society agenda being presented. If the debate is balanced up then the outcome is likely to be more representative.
Archbishop Nichols has been at pains to stress the importance of what is happening to the poor and most vulnerable in our society, so he would definitely want such a balance of viewpoints. CSAN need to move this debate forward in a more bottom up way, as well as developing its own organisation to take in functions like life and work. Only then can a proper analysis be conducted that will result in a decent response to the challenge to engage with the social action agenda.