Thursday, 14 April 2011

Catholic social action conference

Archbishop of Westminster makes the opening speech

On Wednesday 6th April, we attended a conference entitled 'Building a New Culture of Social Responsibility' hosted by the Caritas Social Action Network and the Catholic Bishops Conference held at 1 Birdcage Walk. This was a conference on the subject of the contribution of Catholic Social Action in the changing economic and social context and amid the Big Society rhetoric.  
We got there early to help out with the registration of the conference participants. We recognised lots of names and faces including colleagues from the Bishops Conference, people we have met before from CAFOD, the Cardinal Hume Centre and other conferences we have been to, as well as political legends such as Baroness Shirley Williams, BBC Radio 4 Today programme's Ed Stourton who chaired the whole event, and Philip Blond, the thinker behind the Big Society philosophy.
After coffee and registration, Archbishop Vincent Nichols made some introductory remarks, welcoming the conference participants and setting the conference in the context of the bishops' work on deepening social engagement, the conference in Liverpool in February 2011 and the seminar held at Archbishops' House on 9th February 2011.
Helen O'Brien, Chief Executive of CSAN, spoke about Caritas in the UK, before Christoph Petrik-Schweifer, Secretary General for Caritas Austria, gave some input on Social Action and Caritas' structures abroad. Caritas Austria is a well established network, and many felt it was one to be aspired to. Interestingly he described Caritas Austria as a service provider to local authorities. 
Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, set the day's discussions in their economic context. He explained why we are facing the biggest fiscal deficit and the largest period of cuts in sixty years, which he predicts will have "immense and immediate consequences". Paul's talk explained clearly what the cuts will mean for charities and community groups.

The Rt Hon Baroness Warsi

After mingling with the attendees over a coffee, The Rt Hon. the Baroness Warsi, Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without portfolio gave an address on the 'the Government Perspective' focusing on the contribution of Catholic Social Action in the changing economic and social context. 
Her talk centred on four points of social responsibility. Firstly as a massive change in how we think about Government and society, learning from the work that faith communities are doing both at home and abroad, an opening of opportunity to unlock new civic energy through public service reform and finally a need to understand that these priorities are intrinsically linked. You can read her talk online, and watch the video to hear about her concept of the Big Society, her praise of Catholic endeavours and the need for change. While her talk was biased towards a Conservative perspective, it was still interesting to see what a Minister thinks about the work Caritas is doing and where it fits in.  
The Panel takes questions from the attendees
Delegates then took the opportunity to raise their concerns and begin a debate during a panel discussion with Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Jon Cruddas MP, Joanna Killian, Chief Executive of Essex County Council and Bridget Doogan Chief Executive of St. John  of God Hospitaller Services.   
The discussions revealed the views of the charities, the point-of-view of the MPs, as well as helpfully setting Catholic Social Teaching in context of society today.  
Archbishop Peter Smith ended the conference with a summary of the day’s events, thanking all who attended and spoke. He even dabbled in some 'political discussion' himself.  

Jo-Anne Rowney & Naomi Brandon
Public Affairs Interns

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