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Archbishop Nichols has got it right about the Big Society

Fingers crossed: let’s hope it all goes somewhere

By on Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster (Mazur/

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster (Mazur/

About a month ago, I wrote a blog with the following headline and subheading: “Our bishops supported Labour for so long that no one will listen if they criticise the Tories: In fact, from a Catholic point of view, the coalition is doing rather well”. Now, after three months of this government’s ministrations, Archbishop Nichols has given a Sunday Telegraph interview saying more or less the same thing about the government (though not, of course, about the bishops).
But before looking a little more closely at his views on what is already rather crassly being called “the Cleggeron”, I must interject a brief comment on something else he said: it was a criticism of the Vatican for not being more deferential to the media over clerical sex abuse: “The Holy See can do a lot better”, he declared,  “in its understanding of how the media perceives things and how important those perceptions are.”  The fact is that what we need to be saying to the media is that they HAVE JUST GOT IT WRONG (possibly willfully).

For the evidence is now piling up (largely unreported) that the Catholic Church is not only NOT a paedophile organisation, but that it is no more paedophile than  society as a whole, and possibly even considerably less so: according to evidence collated by Dr Thomas Plante of Stanford University for instance,  children who have anything to do with priests are between 1.6 and 4 times LESS likely to be abused by them than by other males in the general population, teachers and so on. THAT’S what the archbishop should have told the Telegraph (does he even know it?), and what we all need urgently to get into our heads (I shall return to this subject in more detail next week).

But to return to the archbishop’s views on Mr Cameron. We heard again about his nearly falling off his chair at the Prime Minister’s pledge to work for “the common good” (he thinks Mr Cameron got this from the Catholic bishops’ pre-election document Choosing the Common Good). He is, he says, “encouraged at the echoes of Catholic teaching emerging in the language of the new Coalition Government”.

I’m sure he’s right about that, though I doubt if the then leader of the opposition actually read the bishop’s document himself; after all, he didn’t need to: this kind of thing was part of his thinking long before the document appeared. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t come under Catholic influence: but I think the specific Catholic influence is much more likely to have been Iain Duncan Smith and his Centre for Social Justice, who when the Centre was set up five years ago called for a “blend of social justice and the common good” (lots about both in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) and called on governments to “reject the imposed-from-above, politician-controlled models of welfare” insisting that “Hope will flourish if government changes course and invests in self-helping… communities”. Anyway, fingers crossed. The archbishop is surely right to respond positively to Cameron’s Big Society: let’s hope it all goes somewhere. 

  • David Lindsay

    Archbishop Vincent Nichols is a formidable man. Just ask Alan Johnson or Ed Balls. And he is of course quite right about New Labour's (it was certainly not Old Labour's) hostility towards volunteering in general and church-based volunteering in particular. A consequence of having been formed by campus Marxism rather than by trade unions, co-operatives, credit unions, local government, Methodist chapels and Catholic parishes.

    His Grace, a contributor to Edward Leigh and Alex Haydon's The Nation That Forgot God, seems, like the Cardinal and several other bishops in Scotland, to be in much the position of someone like the late Alan Watkins in the 1980s: a despairing traditional Labourite who has become a fellow-traveller with the Right in spite of himself, and who remains deeply critical of it in very many ways, but who cannot tolerate what student Trots who refuse to grow up have done to his natural political home. The think tank and other connections of Frank Field, Kate Hoey and the now-Independent Lord Stoddart say very much the same thing about them. (Of course, there is the Right and there is the Right, as was also the case a generation ago. For example, traditional Labour more than echoes the anti-capitalist and anti-globalist streaks in Peterhouse, as was, and in Peter Hitchens, as is.)

    But we should all be wring to set too much store by the rhetoric of the Big Society. The volunteers with which politicians are most familiar are, or at any rate always used to be, their own respective party's activists. Blair and his court loathed us, for I was then one. Cameron has demonstrated similar disdain by letting it be known that he intends to replace the volunteer local chairmen of Conservative Associations with paid appointees of the centre.

    In any case, numerous of the Church's services and facilities would collapse if public funding were withdrawn. Voluntary donations of time and money are vital parts of the mix. But what would happen to those who depend on these services and facilities if no one volunteered?