Cardinal Vincent Nichols: Tolerance isn't enough for a good society

The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, outside Westminster Cathedral, London (Fiona Hanson/PA)PA

Newly appointed Cardinal Vincent Nichols says Christians must "go to the peripheries" and seek justice, noting that to transform lives we have to be more than just tolerant towards one another.

He was speaking as faith and community leaders from around the country met in London for the launch of the 'Good Society Project'; an initiative born from a partnership between Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) and Church Action on Poverty.

Following David Cameron's much-ridiculed attempt to promote the 'Big Society', CTBI and Church Action on Poverty want to open up dialogue about a Good Society instead, and what it looks like to encourage good values and real relationships within community.

The project aims to "make a contribution to the wider debate concerning the role of the Church, and faith more generally, in seeking the common good," and has engaged in conversations with faith and community groups all over the UK to give people who are working at a grass-roots level across Britain a voice in how social justice is best sought.

At the launch, Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, gave an address in which he hailed Pope Francis' assertion that Christians must "go to the peripheries" as of the utmost importance, adding that "it's in the peripheries that you will meet the person of Christ most clearly".

"In those least endowed, least possessed, with power, you meet Christ, and the truth of human nature and what we're called to be," he said.

"The Good Society is one that recognises, shares and builds on the fundamental truths about the human person...It's a window to the transcendent."

Cardinal Nichols also spoke with Christian Today about his vision to see the Church at the heart of community, and his belief that through seeking to build society on good values we "get a glimpse of God, and a glimpse into the real depth of the human character".

CT: Can you explain what a "good society" means to you?

VN: A good society, I think, has to be founded on a real lasting appreciation of truth and goodness, and in the end beauty as well. So that's a very kind of classical approach, but a society that isn't prepared to ask the fundamental questions like: what are human beings for?; What is the truth of being human?; What is our true purpose?, won't create a good society in the end. It might be a functional society, it might even be a society that handles problems fairly well, but I think people want more than that from life, because we are built for a deeper and wider purpose.

And similarly, I think a good society has to have a conversation, and has to have some principles about what genuinely is good. And therefore it has to have an ethical basis; a society that is through and though relativistic is going to find it difficult to pull together and pursue the common objectives that improve people's appreciation of themselves, and of each other and of the life they lead.

A good society gives stability from one generation to the next – which is what people want – and gives stability in the confidence that there are some values that we all share.

CT: How have you been involved so far in the project?

VN: As a Bishop I've got 230 parishes in my care and in all of them people are out there trying to make a contribution, and I think this project from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland is really commendable because they've gone to great trouble to listen systematically to what people are doing.

They've listened in different places in the country, and they're trying to get local character, and they've listened thematically as well – so what are the issues around hope? What are the issues around poverty – and I think it's a really good piece of work that helps to make sure that the many, many people who are here, and all who have a part in wanting to see our society develop and deepen its sense of purpose, it helps to keep us all related to the reality on the ground.

CT: What would the impact be if all the churches in the UK united for a good society?

VN: I think some of the richness of Christian life in this country is not to be minimised in the search of what people sometimes call unity but what quite often actually means uniformity. So there's something about the diversity of Christian life which is enriching, and in a way is to be celebrated. And that is particularly true when it comes to the response to the world around us.

Therefore I think it's the networking, it's the coming together, that is precisely what Churches Together in Britain is designed to do. Not necessarily to fashion a doctrinal unity or a unity of worship, but to help them to see how their different strengths, all of which are rooted in and bound to Christ as the Lord, how these things can work together and bring another vibrant service to our world.

CT: And finally, what excites you about this project?

VN: Just walking into this room this morning [the Cardinal Hulme Centre in Westminster] there are all sorts of new faces, and therefore clearly CTIB has cast the net widely, and there's a great burst in there and a great sense that this is an important moment.

I think most of us would sense that our society is waking up to some of the more fundamental issues that we have to tackle; to the fact that people living in destitution is not right, to the fact that we need some shared values, ethical values, that we really do believe in and 'do as you like, do as you please', the whole 'be tolerant' thing, isn't enough to build a good society.