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slowly becoming clear. It began to take further shape last week at a conference of leading Catholic agencies, and many smaller ones, at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. It would be foolish to put a precise numer- ical value on the bodies present, but they must have represented tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of volunteers and tens (possibly hundreds) of millions of pounds spent annu- ally on services to the common good, especially for the needy. It was a mature and thoughtful gathering, largely lay-led, a sign of a new growth in well-tilled soil. The potential is unlimited, the mood optimistic. No resolutions were passed, but the tone and success of the two-day meeting signalled to the organisers that a near consensus has emerged in support of it. The beginnings of mutual trust, without which the initiative would founder, were there. A collective identity is being forged. The name being given to this new initiative is Caritas, though its exact shape is yet to be defined. But the Caritas brand name is known worldwide, and models of success elsewhere are there to be imitated. Delegates were assured that whatever anxieties the Vatican may recently have expressed regarding the Catholic identity of Caritas Internationalis, the global body, such fears did not apply in England and Wales.


What emerges for the Catholic Church in England and Wales will be as unique as its history and circumstances dictate. Some of the agencies concerned are local, some dioce- san; some are church-sponsored, with bishops on the board; some are virtually independent. They all value their traditions, their identity and autonomy. There have been understandable reservations, but there is also great goodwill. What defines a body as Catholic was and will always be a delicate and at times contro- versial issue, but the mood so far is to be tolerant and inclusive of the different ways that Catholic identity has been defined. It does not necessarily mean “under church con- trol”. It is more an X-factor, a je ne sais quoi that expresses a set of values about human dignity. There was widespread agreement that Catholic Social Teaching has to be the basis of those values, and also that one import - ant aim of all this effort should be to make Catholic Social Teaching much better known. After the bishops launched their initiative


last November, there followed a series of meet- ings, culminating in a public session in April. The existing agency of the bishops’ conference, Caritas Social Action Network, has taken the lead in this difficult “herding cats” process, but it seems inevitable that it will eventually be replaced by whatever comes next. Its rela- tionship with its components and with the bishops remains to be defined, and success will depend on trust. The important new ingredient that became visible at that April meeting was the need for what is called “advo- cacy”. It means, among other things, influencing policymaking by Government. Some agencies do it already. The combined pressure of all the agencies at once will be a sight to behold.


Throughout this process, the role of one man has been crucial. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who addressed the Twickenham meeting as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, has given the initiative his personal support and leader - ship from the start, and this is undoubtedly one reason it has progressed thus far. It has not been his way to impose a blueprint, and he too is manifestly feeling his way forward. His position is made more delicate because of the political context.


Whatever anxieties the


Vatican has over the Catholic identity of Caritas


Internationalis, such fears need not apply in England and Wales


Many of the social-welfare agencies under


the Catholic umbrella have been hit hard by the Government’s spending cuts, and many of them would undoubtedly like to see church leaders expressing their hurt and anger more forcefully. That is tempered by the fact that many of these agencies are unfamiliar with the skills of political lobbying, and by a recog-


nition, albeit sometimes grudging, that the Prime Minister’s commitment to his Big Society agenda seems sincere. Mr Cameron may not use the word, but he understands the concept – from Catholic Social Teaching – of subsidiarity. So they are not yet ready to dismiss the Big Society as just a cover for cuts. But Archbishop Nichols was certainly speaking for them on Thursday when he declared: “The growth of subsidiarity cannot be achieved simply by the withdrawal of the state.” His recent criticism of the Big Society programme for “lacking teeth” pleased those who are confronted every day with the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. This was advocacy, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, a reminder of the role in national life in defence of social justice once played by Archbishop Nichols’ Victorian predecessor, Cardinal Manning. But times have changed. In a more equal and more secular society, the opinion of bishops (or even cardinals – or Archbishops of Canterbury) can easily be dismissed. Caritas is intended to fill the need for a gen- uine advocacy for social justice on behalf of the poor, which carries weight in the public square because it knows whereof it speaks. Indeed, it has a unique opportunity to become the voice of the Big Society itself. It will be impossible to ignore.


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