The “Big Society” is a fundamental policy of the coalition Government. Here, Catholic Social Teaching expert Stratford Caldecott shows that it is built on Catholic principles.
David Cameron says it is his “mission” in politics to make the Big Society succeed – although opponents claim it is being wrecked by spending cuts, or even that the whole idea was motivated by the need to reduce government spending in the first place.
But there seems little doubt that, from well before the election, the Big Society was the Big Idea in Cameron’s mind.
The BBC recently reported that the PM had told social entrepreneurs that the initiative would get “all his passion” over the five-year Parliament.
The government has also set out details of a Big Society bank to fund voluntary projects. But it isn’t just about volunteering. A “Localism Bill” has already defined numerous ways in which the Coalition aims to encourage local and regional initiative, as part of an intended reduction in bureaucratic red tape and centralized management.
These policies are radical and far-reaching. What many people don’t realize is that they are rooted in Christian and even specifically Catholic social teaching.
You can find the basic principles outlined in a little book I wrote for CTS some years ago called Catholic Social Teaching: A Way In. This was based on a course I had the pleasure of teaching at Plater College, the Catholic Workers’ College (now closed).
There are now numerous organizations and web-sites devoted to the large body of Catholic teaching, which was given a boost by Pope Benedict’s encyclical on the subject in 2009, Caritas in Veritate (also available from CTS). The Pope’s encyclical dealt with the subject of human development and globalization.
He pointed out we tend to forget the importance of “civil society”, which lies in between the Market and the State. The development of civil society is part of what the Big Society is about – organizations and networks that help build up the life of society for reasons other than making a profit or simply obeying the law. The family is the basic structure of civil society – others would include clubs, societies, NGOs, and (of course) churches.
Respect for the Person
In my booklet I quoted the English expert on Catholic social teaching, Roger Charles SJ:
“civil society is… founded on respect for person and family, a morally responsible citizenry knowing its rights and fulfilling its duties, built up though a network of voluntary organisations, social, political and economic, and based on respect for morally responsible freedom.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it! The question is, can the government get a Big Society to flourish at a time of massive cuts in social services, widespread unemployment, a rising cost of living, and a decline in religious adherence? Have the real roots of the recent financial crisis been addressed? Has the government taken on board other equally important elements of Catholic social teaching, such as the critique of consumerism, the concern for social justice, and the sanctity of the unborn? These and other elements of the teaching make up a coherent whole, and one part of the teaching won’t work if the others are not integrated with it.
For more on Catholic social teaching, see my blog at http://theeconomyproject.blogspot.com
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