The Big Society starts small

Prof Philip Booth writes for the Catholic Times

So often when Catholics express a wish to help the poor, their emphasis is on the role they believe the government should play. By way of example, I recently received the annual message from a leading Catholic charity. About half the expensive, glossy leaflet was critiquing the various government spending cuts. It also made unreasonable claims about proposed schemes to require people receiving welfare benefits for three years to undertake some work for the community – echoing Archbishop Rowan Williams’ claims that such requirements would send people into a downward cycle of despair. Similarly, Cafod spends a rapidly growing amount of its budget on campaigning on climate change and for more government aid for the under-developed world – much of that aid is channelled through agencies such as Cafod of course.

Such charities do still stress individual responsibility to donate money and time. And, it has to be said, our Bishops are increasingly doing so. However, it is perfectly legitimate for two Catholics to take the same view on the supreme importance of charity whilst taking a different view on the role that the state should play in poverty relief. As such, charities should tread carefully. Catholic social teaching reserves these matters for prudential judgement and we are called to look at the evidence in coming to a view. Certain fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching can be applied but it is not wise for charities to divide their supporters by taking partial stances on such matters.

As it happens, there is a good case for taking an increasingly sceptical view of the success of the state in reducing poverty. The signs of the times do not favour the welfare state. This year, the government will spend over half of national income and problems of worklessness and family breakdown have often been encouraged by government welfare spending.

There is an alternative to government assistance for the poor. Solidarity, in Catholic social teaching is a virtue which involves a firm commitment to the good of all. This is not the same as income redistribution by the state. In Caritas in veritate Pope Benedict reiterated the message that: “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.” In his 2009 World Peace Day message he pointed out: “[I]t is timely to recall in particular the ‘preferential love for the poor’ in the light of the primacy of charity, which is attested throughout the Christian tradition, beginning with that of the early Church.”

In the marvellous encyclical Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict, in many senses, hit the nail on the head and summarised succinctly what many modern political and economic scientists have come to realise: “There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help”. In other words, the real needs of those whom the welfare state seeks to help are personal and particular and must be dealt with by intimate, loving and personal concern. This is, of course, precisely what our Catholic charities - as well as much Catholic social action at local level - practise.

Perhaps we have relied on the state to do so much because we worry that voluntary charity can never do sufficient. Philanthropy, however, is far better at catering for the real needs of the poor. As Pope Benedict indicated, in order to deal with the problems of poverty, we have to get down to the grass roots. In pure economic terms, too, charities are more effective than government action. Private charities are directly accountable – day-by-day – to those who give their money and time. People will not waste their freely-given resources on a charity unless it achieves the desired r