Justice, Belonging and the Common Good

Helen O'Brien

This talk was first given as The annual Dearing Lecture to the Cathedrals Universities Group (CUG) on 30 October 2014.


Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today, and for offering me, prior to today, such a welcome with background thoughts and reports from the Cathedral Universities Group. It has been inspirational and fascinating to see the sum total of what your institutions achieve, and to realise the coherence of your mission, values and purpose. This offers the potential for such a strong voice in the ‘public square’. And it also creates an impressive force and potential for effecting change - educational, academic, theological and social.

I see that you are embracing that capacity and doing just that.

I hear that you wish to be challenged to consider how more may be achieved – so I hope to suggest to you some new possibilities for engagement.

The heart of what I want to say in the next minutes is that belonging in our present society is hard, indeed impossible, for many people, and that in seeking justice with and for them we have a great task ahead. That task is of influencing and working for change in the moral fabric of society itself – for the common good we might say: And also accepting that each of us, and especially the young people, the students, have a life-long responsibility and mission to that end.

This is in recognition of the focus of the Cathedrals Group not only as academic, educational institutions concerned with capacity for the acquiring of knowledge, the developing of competences, critical thought and a thirst for learning – vital as all that is. But also, and here we look longer-term, as places of community, of belonging, where faith life and the sense of the spiritual and of mission is nurtured and supported. As a practitioner in Caritas and the diaconal work of the Roman Catholic Church, my focus is on the people – the students, the poor and vulnerable in our communities, and society itself.

Setting the scene and facing the challenge

I am here as a Catholic, Chief Executive of CSAN, Caritas Social Action Network which is both an agency of the RC Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and also part of Caritas Internationalis, which sits as part of the Holy See and, I believe, in the heart of the Pope. Being a part of this expression and witness of the Church’s mission is, of course, both privilege and challenge.

I intend today to speak a little about who we are;

  • to consider the issues and realities around belonging in our society and the evidence around it, taking the perspectives of unemployment and in-work poverty;
  • to look at some examples and models which suggest further work
  • and finally propose some solutions and challenges.

We are a vibrant and passionate network of 42 member charities and organisations who are situated nationwide and are united in their commitment to serve the most vulnerable people in society from a foundation in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching – a belief in the human dignity innate to all persons, the principles of compassion, justice and solidarity, and the unremitting commitment to the common good. Our service is heartfelt.

The member organisations serve those in need, in poverty - viewed broadly as social, spiritual, relational, educational, and financial poverty - who include:

  • children and families;
  • older people who may be lonely and isolated or living with dementia;
  • those seeking asylum or refuge – who may be victims of trafficking or other abuse;
  • people who are unemployed or in low-paid work;
  • those who are homeless, disabled or unwell:
  • those who are victims of crime, as well as prisoners and their families.

The activities of the network include running residential care homes and nursing homes, street support for the homeless and ex-offenders, running temporary accommodation, day centres or transition homes, skills training for employment, counselling in schools and elsewhere, foodbanks, benefit advice and support groups of many hues and in various locations including our parishes.

The CSAN network offers a holistic and encompassing approach, operating from the simple vision of a world where each person is both valuable and valued. Importantly, we work with people of all faiths and none and value greatly the ecumenical partnerships and friendships, and also the inter-faith work which is developing both at the ‘grass-roots’ in parishes and often as part of our advocacy and public policy work.

This brief character mapping of CSAN is familiar territory for you. The Cathedrals Group, as you proudly announce, has a commitment to serving the public good that springs from your faith-based values. And the commitment to education is far broader than academic achievement – important though that is. You prepare students for flourishing lives, successful careers and social commitment – capacious and stringent objectives. It is the latter, the playing out of social commitment in today’s culture, which I am considering today.

Looking at the vision of Lord Dearing, the inspiration for these lectures, in this perspective his influence is writ large in the robust mission work of these universities. The call (from his1997 report Higher Education in the learning society) to Higher Education to:

  • Sustain a culture which demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones


  • Be part of the conscience of a democratic society, founded on respect for the rights of the individual and the responsibilities of the individual to society as a whole

is absolutely pertinent and crucial for the health of society today .

CSAN, as you would expect, works for both social action and social justice. In our tradition, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s Encyclical Caritas in Veritate affirms this mission of the church. We must engage in social action works and also we must engage in social justice for we should not seek simply to give to people what is theirs by right.

‘If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them…Justice is the primary way of charity’

We are called to work in justice to challenge those structures in society which disenfranchise the person from a full life participating in society and his or her human flourishing. This is at the heart of what CSAN aims to do – weaving together both of the principles which are at the heart of the gospels – those of mercy and justice.

Where Pope Benedict spoke to us all by means of an encyclical, Pope Francis spoke recently by means of an exhortation which is addressed to us in the Church.

This is ‘Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel’. He is calling us to action, to a rich witness of our faith and, also I think, to indignation. The world needs reform and it is our job, each and every one of us, to take responsibility and get involved. As part of this he moves forward the structural justice argument:

Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual’.

The recent Synod on the Family in Rome gives us some clue of how Pope Francis leads important conversations around faith, belief and human behaviours. Cardinal Nichols reported that Pope Francis set a tone, of peace and courtesy which enabled open and rigorous discussion. There were clearly wide disparities of view, and these were by no means concealed, but the conversation is continuing and will resume formally – with some new reconciliation expected.

So far I have inserted the threads, at the levels of values and mission, of a mutual concern, held by CSAN’s network and also by the Cathedral Universities Group, for:

  • heartfelt and passionate institutional action at the side of those, preferentially, who need more specific help
  • the work of justice in challenging structures of inequality and unfairness
  • the place of conscience and individual rights and responsibilities

and also proposed in addition

  • the necessity to seek to build new convictions and attitudes

Belonging – some evidence

That said I am going to look at the evidence – of failures in belonging, and of unfairness – usually institutional - in dealing with those in need.

The statistics tell a difficult tale of Britain today:

  • Britain’s richest 1% have accumulated as much wealth as the poorest 55% of the population put together (ONS)
  • The household disposable income for the richest increased last year, but fell for everyone else (TUC)
  • 3.7 million children are in poverty in 2013, that is 1:4, and, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies, under current policies there will be 600,000 more in 2015/2016 (IFS)
  • Foodbank use is increasing exponentially with a million people using foodbanks in 2013/14 and 350,000 in 2012/13. Also increasing are the diseases of malnutrition such as rickets. (Trussel Trust) (Faculty of Public Health)

Work, regrettably, is not a sure way out of poverty.

  • A record 5.2 million UK workers are now in low-paid jobs, up by 250,000 since last year (Resolution Foundation)
  • 66% of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one member works
  • There are now more people in working families living below the poverty line (6.7 million) than in workless and retired families in poverty combined (6.3 million) (JRS)
  • 1:4 employees on minimum wage are still on that rate after 5 years (Resolution Foundation)

Poverty itself is clearly a fundamental factor in exclusion. 

There are many people who feel that they don’t belong, who feel alienated: who look around them and find that they cannot participate in the life which most people enjoy. In this country that implies a certain standard of living – to be able to have a stable, decent home, food and warmth, an occasional holiday: To be able to afford the costs of transport to work, necessary household goods and shoes for the children: And computer access, now seen as a basic tool in all Government welfare support and formal dealings.

The key statistics are computed in recognition that relative poverty is a real and reasonable measure. It counts those whose income is less than 60% of the median income. It represents how we feel, how we see ourselves, how others see us – in other words how we fit into society.

A surprising number of people are unable to meet those modest conditions in our society today:

  • Those who are homeless, often struggling with chaotic life and health or addiction problems
  • Those who become unemployed, with no or little savings or capacity within the family to soften the blow
  • Those who are underemployed, self-employed, or on those zero-hour contracts which are exploitative – precarious employment conditions
  • Those who are simply and long-term on low pay

There are others who are struggling with static pay against a background of rising costs; or those whose pay is brutally reduced as the contract regime is introduced; asylum seekers in various types of bureaucratic stasis who are not allowed to work yet have no access to public funds, many of whom are frankly destitute; and those outside society almost by definition – the victims of trafficking for example.

But I am looking here at those in familiar domestic situations who no longer belong. How are we dealing with them and the evident issues of justice? We have been taking evidence and listening to their stories.

Out-of-work poverty. This is a story of new poverty, dependence and shame

I met David at Brushstrokes, a project of Father Hudson’s Society in Smethwick, an area of high deprivation in West Birmingham. David is in his early sixties and had been coming to Brushstrokes to use the foodbank and for benefits advice. He has a heart condition and, when I spoke to him, was awaiting major surgery.

David had worked for 37 years without a break in employment, 20 years of this was spent at the Rover plant working in vehicle operations. (These men were the kings of the Midlands) When he lost his job David had to go on to Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and when he became ill and could no longer search for work he moved on to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

There were delays in setting up David’s ESA and he was awaiting back-payments, he and his wife were unknowingly subject to the Bedroom Tax and have therefore ended up in rent arrears for the first time in their life – over £600 and growing. David is now suffering from anxiety caused by the financial stresses that have developed since his benefits stopped. 

When we spoke to David he told us that he had been seeking work for a number of years but he felt his age had been a barrier. Being unemployed had affected his self-esteem and mental health. Now he is embarrassed to tell friends he is out of work, and feels ashamed to ask a charity for help, or to use a foodbank. When he spoke to us, he was upset and anxious; he intimated that he has considered suicide.

David said he has found the benefit system complex, characterised by poor communications and bureaucracy. He is often asked to provide proof already given and changes to his benefits are not efficiently communicated. As one of our CEOs said ‘the system belongs to the decision-maker’.

David was keen to tell us that he knows about the skivers, there are people like that, but he is not one of them. He has worked all his life until made redundant – and then his skills were no use, and then he got ill….. he would rather work.

He said to us that he does not wish for an extravagant life, just to pay his rent in full and buy himself and his wife enough food to live on. He seemed to have distanced himself from his family, but said 2 out of 3 of them were in a similar position – that is just enough money to scrape by but no spare for holidays, or savings or pension. He did not want us to take his photograph.

There are people like David in our towns and cities who, in the grip of poverty and shamed by their dependent situation and the perception of them as scroungers, are isolated from their community and even family. There remains little sense of control over their own lives when sanctions and decisions appear arbitrary and human conversation reduces to ‘the computer says no’. Not me, or the supervisor, but the computer!

These are not refugees or asylum seekers who have sought help in our country yet are excluded from public funds and support. That group was originally the client group for Brushtrokes. However the charity has seen a 30% increase over the past 18 months of people needing food – mainly British men.

They are, to use their own description, ‘normal people’, local people. David used to belong, but now feels excluded.

But the problem is not just the system, or even the amounts which are available. The de-humanising of the system is the problem; the lack of authentic human exchange and the disregarding of genuine issues, such as language, or lack of computer skills which can and do result in failure to progress, loss of benefits, huge delays and therefore alienation and, simply, hunger.

The benefits system and its operation was a character in David’s story.

The next story takes the market-place as the character to watch – how do people fare in a relatively unregulated contract scenario. The power dynamics are equally telling.

In-work poverty – this is a story of insecurity and perverse effects

In-work poverty is now a reality in the UK, a reality which undermines the assumption or assertion that employment is a guaranteed route out of poverty.

People in work are finding it increasingly difficult to meet essential costs due to stagnant wages, freezes to working benefits and rising costs of living. The foodbanks, the current face of the Churches long tradition of providing food aid to those in crisis and need are multiplying in response to the current situation. But also the profile of the people needing support has changed with the in-work poor now amongst the most vulnerable.

There tends to be a stereotypical view of the poor, exacerbated in the media, and regrettably in some politician’s speeches, which portrays the poor as ‘scroungers’ who are in this position through fecklessness. This is simply not the case, or certainly not the case for the vast majority. Volunteers involved in food assistance often express surprise at the number of seemingly ‘ordinary people’ needing help. Low pay, inadequate hours, temporary contracts, and zero-hour contracts have all contributed to this trend and have led to a widening-out of the category of people who are vulnerable and in need of support. A combination of these factors has created a labour market which is insecure and uncertain making it impossible to plan and budget appropriately.

The Catholic Children’s Society Family Centre in Tower Hamlets helps many families from working households on zero hours contracts.

Andrea and Marcus and their two small children are currently living in a two bedroom private rented property for which they pay £400 rent per week. Marcus is employed on a zero hours contract which means the number of hours he works and money he earns varies from week to week.

As a result of this unstable employment the family has accrued rent arrears, which means most of their income goes on paying back that debt. Very little is left for food and essentials. They have now been given orders to leave their property due to the arrears.

Andrea cannot see any other solution for her and Marcus other than for them to split and for her and the children to move in with her parents. This is something she desperately wants to avoid because she wants to keep the family together and does not want this to be an example of family- living for her children.

We know that the issues of relational poverty are a foundational factor is so many of the other forms of poverty. This seems to me to be the ultimate loss of belonging – the break-up of the family unit and potential damage not only to present well-being, but to a secure and loving future. The power within the free market for the employer to impose such contracts where all the benefit lies in the flexible use of a workforce and very little to the worker with no control over his working life is quite contrary to the precepts of the common good.

The issue of workers’ wages is and the dignity of work is, of course, a long-standing concern for the churches. We celebrated recently the 125th anniversary of the Great London Dock Strike and the ‘Cardinal’s Peace’ – in that case Cardinal Manning – what a wonderful legacy. That strike, together with the patient negotiations, achieved the Docker’s tanner. One of the notable stories of that time was the solidarity between the Catholics and the Jews, and another part of the story was the Salvation Army which produced 9,000 loaves and set up soup kitchens to feed the strikers. The press, said Lord Maurice Glasman at the Anniversary Conference, was disgusted as it was the first time since the reformation, they said, that there was joint action between Catholics and Protestants. Well at least some things change.

This was a key moment in our history, not least because it was in part the inspiration for the first modern social encyclical, ‘Rerum Novarum, of New Things’. The distinctive contribution of Catholic Social Teaching at the time needs to be understood in the light of the thinking about capitalism. What CST proposed, to much ridicule, was

‘that there was a possibility of leading a life, a good life, that was neither liberal nor Marxist, neither exclusively individualist nor collectivist, but built upon the reconciliation of interests which at first required the recognition of conflict and tension’.

Well this binary environment still pertains. This reconciling of interests – the common good – is still an urgent need today.

The CEO of St. Antony’s Centre for Church and Industry, a CSAN member, Kevin Flanagan (a proud graduate of Plater College) was also speaking at the conference. He had a very interesting anecdote around the zero-hour contract which I have mentioned in relation to Andrea and Marcus. Kevin questioned a potential Minister of State for Employment if there is a change of government next year.

I asked her a question, he said, about whether a new government would ban zero-hours contracts in public procurement contracts. The answer was that it’s a matter of choice for people’

That was exactly what the dock managers had said in justifying conditions in the dock strike in 1889. It’s a matter of choice.

It’s also, I think, a matter of who has the power to make a free choice.

Now, I don’t mention in-work poverty to undermine or detract from the success of your, the universities, and our CSAN’s, success in training and forming people for work. That is a key route to human dignity. And it is a cause to celebrate that unemployment is reducing. But the picture is complex, and we need to be able to achieve a coherent view of society and a fair sharing of its goods. There are estranged interests and imbalances of power, in the economy, in the operation of the state and in society, such that the conditions are created which allow many people – too many people- to be left behind in relative poverty.

It was not an insight particular to CSAN, but as we were investigating and reporting to the APPG, the All Party Parliamentary Group, on foodbanks we noted that:

‘the fact of foodbanks is a symptom of a deep rooted, multi-faceted problem which requires significant structural change to tackle the underlying causes. Therefore, the effect of policies on areas such as housing, employment, welfare benefits and localisation need to be assessed in terms of their inter-action and cumulative effect on individuals and families, as well as the primary effect on social participation and costs’

These estranged interests call urgently for us to take on the task of reconciliation, of seeking the common good, or we will remain forever in emergency mode, pulling people out of the turbulent stream while failing to stop their falling or being pushed into the head waters.

But there is hope – grounded in the practice of charity

It is clear that the Cathedral Universities Group is very successful in embedding the mission and values in its academic life, its pastoral life and in its provision for supporting students into work. The necessary skills and attitudes for employment, and the broadening of horizons, are particularly answered by the major focus and structures around student volunteering in charities and local community. Your students are great volunteers, working with many charities encouraged and supported by the curriculum and the Support and Accessibility work. Indeed, you, the universities, win awards regularly for this work with the recent British Quality Foundation’s 2014 UK Excellence Award won by Chester ‘Student Support Team’ a prestigious example. It is a tribute to them and to you, and also to the values of the Cathedrals Group expressed in the practice and the behaviours of individuals – important for an authentic identity.

A small study in Chester ‘Where Are They Now’, concluded that ‘the work they do with us stays with them, resonating much later across their personal, social and professional development.’

Our members, too, recognise that their work could not take place without the crucial support, time and expertise of the volunteers within their organisations – and none more so than the Society of St Vincent de Paul. The SVP is an international Christian voluntary organisation which offers practical assistance and friendship. The SVP in England and Wales has more than 10,000 volunteers who in 2013 gave around a million hours of service to more than 90,000 people in need. This outstanding contribution was recognised earlier this year by our Prime Minister who awarded the SVP a ‘Big Society Award’ – given, rather appropriately, in the year in which the SVP are celebrating the 200th anniversary of their founder’s birth – Blessed Frédéric Ozanam.

Indeed, it was when he was a student himself in Paris at the Sorbonne University that he formed the first SVP group. Blessed Frédéric, along with 6 other students, gathered to form a group called the Conference of Charity, with a simple purpose – to become servants of the poor in Paris, just as Jesus Christ had been servant to the people of his time. That same night he and some friends pooled what money they had and bought firewood for a poor family. And, of course, many SVP groups continue to flourish within our universities and elsewhere.

But, as well as this hands-on, practical expression of the charity and mercy at the heart of the gospel message, Blessed Frederic also recognised the role of Christians in being a voice for a just and fair society. Blessed Frederic was known for his role as an advocate of the Church in fiery debates at university – challenging the structures which were part of the cause of poverty in his society. He recognised that full witness to the truth must be expressed through both speech and action – through a commitment to mercy but also a commitment to justice.

The CUG students today continue in that tradition. They learn to help the less fortunate, and to enjoy those opportunities along the way. There is still a world out there that they are eager to challenge and eager to change. In this they truly offer hope.


So, with that brief and necessarily incomplete picture of need and structural injustices surveyed, and recognising the potential in the values and identities of the universities and the well-formed empathies of the students, how might we further develop the inclination toward the common good?

  • If we wish to enable people to belong, authentically, in our communities
  • If we want to unearth and unseat injustice in our structures and in the way as a society we treat people, in particular vulnerable people
  • If we want, therefore, to change minds and hearts for the long-term

What should we do?

Lord Dearing’s vision in the vision document was at the level of the HE sector sustaining a learning society –

  • yes, inspiring individuals;
  • yes increasing knowledge and understanding;
  • and yes serving the needs of the economy;
  • But also playing a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society.

He envisaged HE and industry, commerce and public service all engaged together in a values-led compact to improve society as a whole.

Your academies which already embrace the mission of being a force for good in your localities and placing students in work-places and charities alike, are well placed to enable students to go that one step further – to encourage and resource students to recognise and play out a life-long participation and responsibility in civil society.

In other words, I should like to suggest not simply whole-life learning as the norm, but whole-life mission.

We need the tools for this work, of course. But what better place to learn and practise than in the university?

Let me mention a movement which is gathering momentum and may be instructive in this context, ’Together for the Common Good’, which is probably well-known to many of you and in particular Liverpool Hope. It began publicly with a Conference in Liverpool: it is an independent group of thinkers, practitioners and theologians working to encourage Christians of different traditions, fellow faith communities and secular allies to work together and become agents of change for the Common Good. It is building a new, broad coalition to re-imagine cultural and political life and build a commitment to the flourishing of all people.

It is founded in the memory of the partnership between Archbishop Worlock and Bishop Sheppard in Liverpool in a particular moment of history which, for a time, transfixed the nation. One of the founding members of the new movement, which seeks to learn from those years and move into effective action and reflection now, is Jenny Sinclair, daughter of David Sheppard and now a Roman Catholic.

Their research and insights are fascinating and game-changing, I believe, and there are many common interests and possibilities which may be explored between such institutions as ours and that coalition.

I want to give you a few hints about one particular model which is being developed at the moment, and which may form one of the inspirations for this work of developing mission, and also a way of changing mindsets and hearts in a form which respects human dignity and the common good. It also seeks purposefully to engage estranged interests, which are so instrumental in preventing coherent solutions to today’s problems.

The model is for a conversation in the common good, and suggests that the practice of the Common Good is a way to unlock even apparently intractable problems. The language which we have, that of social teaching and thought, can be employed to challenge the prevailing negative narrative – that of skivers and scroungers, of immigration as an evil – which darkens our community debate. The developing model offers a conciliatory conversation experience – and that is both high aim and difficult to fashion. But the pilot, in which I was engaged, gave hope that it may be achieved. What, it is claimed, makes it distinctive from the works of charity – important though they are – is that as a concept centred on justice and reconciliation it is more transformational than charity alone.

The model is in development and may be subject to proprietory interests – so I won’t discuss it in detail. But some issues pertinent to this discussion were clear :

  • that language and understanding the language used is important
  • that power dynamics are important
  • that there could be no moving towards reconciliation and solutions until and unless conflict had been surfaced. Conflict was good!

The potential was there to address the silos of interests, the tension between estranged interests, and the possibility for the language used to underpin the common good. It was careful not careless.

This is sophisticated and if developed and well learnt, would be a tool and an attitude which could serve for life.

And indeed, as we in CSAN are developing tools and resources based in the values of Catholic Social Teaching which are going to be piloted in schools and parishes this year and next. It is a three pronged programme linking formation in CST, with parish needs discernment, with liturgical resources, and supported by toolkits from CSAN members, examples of a variety of successful projects which could be replicated in parishes and in schools, offered in solidarity.

There is a clear potential for formation in CST, or social theology to be considered in our Christian Universities in partnerships with charities and movements and local churches. This idea of a careful, structured conversation – which is a feature of the Institutional church - for practising CST and the common good into a most practical life, could well be part of a flexible portfolio of social action and social justice offered in the universities building on the curriculum successes already achieved.


I leave you with one quote, and some challenges. The quote is from Jenny Sinclair from a paper delivered at Liverpool Hope University

‘The privilege of education should presuppose participation and responsibility in civil society. A university that integrates a culture of public service and a virtue ethic in its curriculum can, in partnership with other institutions, become an effective force for the common good.’ Liverpool, August 2014

Some challenges

How can we enable students to take up the call to which their values, both inherent and learnt, impel them so that they embark on a life-long mission seeking justice and the common good?

Can Cathedral Universities Group embed, as part of the student volunteering experience, the testing out of new ways of working – models, toolkits, organising, and relationship development – suitable for future leadership in local communities in justice and social issues?

Can the Cathedral Universities Group create the ambience and the space, and develop the curriculum and the partnerships, which send out students-  eager to challenge and eager to change – readied for that task by holding the skills, tools, attitudes and ethics to support that challenge.

An education in the common good indeed.

© Helen O’Brien


Helen O'Brien is Non-Executive Director of The Salvation Army UK Board and a Trustee of Together for the Common Good. From 2010 until 2015 she was Chief Executive of the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), the official agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales for social action in England and Wales.

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