Chris Whitehouse heads The Whitehouse Consultancy, is an Isle of Wight councillor and a Papal Knight of St Gregory.
It is a legitimate role for a Christian church to hold up a mirror and invite society to take a good look at what is reflected there with a view to prompting a national debate on key issues. Cardinal Designate Archbishop Vincent Nichols certainly did that with great effect through his in-depth interview with Benedict Brogan of The Daily Telegraph.
The Archbishop’s warning to party leaders to avoid playing to fear, to resist the urge to whip up antagonism on issues such as immigration, is as much sound political advice as it is a voice of moral reason. Surely as a Party we can do better than pander to extremists. We allow UKIP’s ugly, under-belly of racism to set the national agenda at our Party’s and our society’s peril: we simply cannot afford again to be seen by our vibrant immigrant communities as the nasty party.
We should listen to our nation’s major employers: encouraging economic predictions that the UK may be on target to be the second largest economy in the West, and the largest in Europe, are founded upon the assumption of net immigration of around 140,000 people per annum to deliver the motivated, skilled and comparatively low cost workers that are essential to economic dynamism. Moral principles of compassion for neighbour match economic reality and business need.
Archbishop Vincent’s insistence that the Catholic Church should be a welcome voice contributing to national debate even in our secular society is absolutely justified. Catholic participation in the life of our country enriches it for all. Through its schools, charitable works, its mission to the most vulnerable and its exhortation to Catholics to be active in public life, to be the leaven in the dough, the Church is at worst a responsible corporate citizen and at best a driving force for good. Its voice should be heeded, as a legitimate one of many, even by those who do not share the faith.
There is no system of public bureaucracy that cannot be improved, and it is simply to state the obvious for the Archbishop to point out that administrative process and accountability for public money risks on occasion failing the most vulnerable and those in most urgent need. Iain Duncan Smith is working on this and can be proud of the intentions that lie behind his reforms – providing for the needy whilst introducing real incentives to those who need encouragement to return to work. Iain need lose no sleep at night over his record to date.
It was notable that the Archbishop also acknowledged the economic reality – that given the scale of the economic collapse we cannot other than review our spending priorities – and there are many who consider that the annual working age benefit bill of £94 billion could do with some trimming yet and who would observe that our welfare system also supports many millions who are actually in work.
The Archbishop has a gift for a sound-bite that many political leaders would envy: his assertion that the welfare safety net has been “destroyed” was always going to secure headlines, and I am glad it did, though I don’t accept that it is the reality today, any more than it was prior to the reforms. The net remains in place in so far as a flawed bureaucracy can ever maintain it effectively, but, as always, there are and I fear will remain, cases which slip through that net.
Archbishop Vincent’s righteous anger at the proliferation of food banks is perhaps a little misplaced. Many (though certainly not all) of those using food banks are not what we would traditionally consider to be “destitute” in the true sense of the term. Many, particularly families, find themselves in a situation, typically through unemployment, where the income stream to support the existing lifestyle has collapsed. Make no mistake, this is devastating for those involved, but typically they have homes, clothes, public services and utilities, a wide range of electronic and communications devices, and are a long way from being on the streets.
Food banks are not the State at work. They are private, charitable initiatives through which local people have come together to provide instant, practical support and assistance to those who find themselves in need, not necessarily destitute. In many cases those involved may have a religious motivation, in others a sense of secular compassion; one could even argue that they are an example of the Big Society at work.
The good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) did not trouble to ascertain the income and assets of the victim of the robbers on the road to Jericho, he stepped in immediately and gave him the help and support he needed.
Perhaps the Levite who passed by on the other side of the road had well intentioned thoughts about lobbying the authorities to put in place a stranded traveller intervention scheme, but it was the Samaritan who showed the love of neighbour that Jesus was promoting, meeting the needs of the moment.
We should take heart from the proliferation of food banks, the charitable spirit that lies behind them, and the fact that they give support to those in need without fear, favour or imposing a tax burden on others who may have their own struggles with which to cope, hidden behind the façade of affluence, the hard-working, over-taxed poor.
Catholics throughout England and Wales were delighted by the news that Archbishop Vincent is shortly to receive the red hat of a Cardinal, and that the particular favour of Pope Francis for that appointment was demonstrated by the high position on the list of announcements that were made. I am sure we all hope that he will continue to speak out, to be a challenging voice unto power and authority, and that he will ensure that Catholicism is a vibrant and effective force in our nation’s public life as well as a force for social good in continuing to encourage the charitable works of its millions of adherents and of others.