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Archbishop calls Big Society vision ‘an opportunity’

Archbishop Nichols talks to another speaker at the conference (Mazur/

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster has praised the Government’s Big Society vision as an “opportunity” to build a stronger society.

His remarks contrast dramatically with those of Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, who said this week that the Big Society was a “painfully stale slogan”.

Archbishop Nichols told a conference of Catholic charities yesterday that the Government’s approach could lead to “greater solidarity” and release “energy for local initiative and enterprise”.

But he said this could not be achieved by simply the withdrawal of the state.

The archbishop said: “The risk is that [the Government’s agenda] is conceived in too mechanistic a way, and argued about solely in terms of what the state should or should not do, when in fact it is all the intermediate institutions which give society so much of its shape and identity, and which draw individuals into a deeper sense of connectedness with others.”

Archbishop Nichols praised David Cameron for referring to marriage as an institution that deserves support. He stressed that family stability and care of the elderly were crucial areas in which Catholics and Catholic charities could contribute.

The archbishop made his comments at a conference for Caritas Social Action Network, an umbrella group for Catholic charities in Britain.

He was speaking after the bishops’ conference announced plans to reform the network, giving it a stronger national voice and more powers to co-ordinate Catholic social action.

Last month the bishops asked the Caritas network “to consult widely in coming months, with dioceses, Cafod, and with others, to formulate practical recommendations for our next meeting in November 2011”. 

At their meeting the bishops said they would agree on a charter of recommendations for developing Caritas Social Action Network.

Yesterday Archbishop Nichols said that while the network had “undoubted” strengths, “voices from the ‘grassroots’ were largely unheard”, and its support for social action responding to local needs was “patchy”.

He said: “It seems to be the right time to time to consider developing a coherent Caritas network, at parish, diocesan and national levels, focused on social action to promote mutual support and relationships, and to strengthen national advocacy and a single voice.”