Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Caritas developments welcome if justice is at the forefront

Caritas developments welcome if justice is put at the forefrontThere was some surprise expressed recently at the sight of a job advertisement to become the director of Caritas (Westminster) on a salary of £45,000 to £50,000 per annum. The post holder will “lead the Caritas work within the diocese with the aim of enabling the Catholic community of Westminster to respond appropriately to those experiencing poverty and social exclusion.”The role it would seem is the first step in creating a Caritas network across the country, the equivalent of CAFOD on the domestic front. The impetus for this development came from the Pope’s visit to the UK when he challenged Catholics to engage in the social responsibility agenda. Following the challenge, Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) became the vehicle for this development. The engagement initially was with the government’s Big Society agenda. A series of conferences were organised to discern the way forward in terms of social engagement.The underpinning of this process was the development of CSAN as the domestic CAFOD. It was always the intention that CSAN as an agency of the Bishops Conference for England and Wales would take up this role within the larger international Caritas family from its inception in 2003. However, this never really happened. CSAN came about as a result of the merging together of the Catholic Agency for Social Concern (CASC) and the Catholic Child Welfare Council. It has 37 fee paying members varying from Housing Justice and the Cardinal Hume Centre to the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Services, the Irish Chaplaincy and the St Vincent De Paul Society. The membership represents a considerable concentration of expertise in the area of social welfare and social action. CSAN’s declared aim is for” the relief of poverty in all its manifestations in England and Wales. It promotes social justice and its members and partners.” Over the years since its formation, CSAN has done some valuable work, notably on elderly people, dementia and social care but it could never be said to have fulfilled the role of becoming the domestic CAFOD.Under its new chief executive Helen O’Brien the organisation has been much more willing to speak out on matters like housing, workplace injustice and the criminal justice system.Much of the credit for the growth of CSAN has to go to the support given to it by Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols and Archbishop of Southwark Peter Smith. They have led in promoting the organisation as part of the Church response to the Pope’s call.Now with a separate Caritas organisation developing in Westminster, following on the earlier developments in Salford Diocese, the whole organisation looks set to spread out across diocese. Mrs O’Brien confirms that there will be CSAN road shows going around the diocese, with an event a month, over the next couple of years inviting people to get involved. How Caritas then develops will depend on the individual diocese.Mrs O’Brien stresses that there is not a corporate model with well paid directors and support staff lined up to do the work in every diocese. “How it works in each diocese will be different,” said Mrs O’Brien.Concerns though have been raised about the new development, especially from justice and peace activists. They fear that an organisation that they effectively laid the seeds for, in the case of CASC, now looks set to take over and could side line their activities. Resourcing is a key concern, though yet to be proven. Only 12 of the 22 diocese have paid J&P workers, many of these part time – including Westminster. The director of Caritas in Westminster will also have an administrator, fieldworker and a secretary making up his or her office.Another concern is that the new Caritas organisations will be all about charity and forget justice. There is already much for the existing Caritas members to do in picking up the pieces of a society being hit by the government’s cuts agenda. This is a vital part of social action work. However, it is as important to question the root injustice of policies hitting the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. It would be wrong to simply become another part of the charitable service sector.Overall, the developments with Caritas are welcome but only if they work with people like the National Justice and Peace Network rather than sideling them. How resourcing works out and whether the Caritas developments at diocesan level are from the grass roots up rather than in corporate style top down will also be key to the likely success or otherwise of the venture. Justice must also be at the centre of the Caritas calling.Any initiative on social action from the Church must be good news. It is in accordance with the Church’s social teaching on working for gospel values. Also from the viewpoint of the world of real politic it gives the Church a bigger say in the public square of debate in society. A Church that contributes to social welfare to the extent that happens via Caritas in many other European countries is far less easily sidelined by those with anti-faith agendas.

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