Vincent Nichols, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in England and Wales, says the government has torn away the safety net for the poor and hungry, creating a “dramatic crisis”.
In an interview with the Telegraph, cardinal-designate Nichols said: “People do understand that we do need to tighten our belts and be much more responsible and careful in public expenditure.
“But I think what is happening is two things: one is that the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart.
“It no longer exists and that is a real, real dramatic crisis.
“And the second is that, in this context, the administration of social assistance, I am told, has become more and more punitive. So if applicants don’t get it right then they have to wait for 10 days, for two weeks with nothing – with nothing.
He added: “For a country of our affluence, that quite frankly is a disgrace.”
The Catholic archbishop’s comments follow criticisms from leading Anglican clergy.
The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, accused clerics including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York of ignoring the concerns of ordinary people after they signed a letter claiming that capping benefit rises would have a “deeply disproportionate” effect on children.
Mr Duncan Smith, who is a practising Catholic, said: “There is nothing moral or fair about a system that I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency.”
Cardinal-designate Nichols is one of 19 senior clerics chosen by Pope Francis to be elevated to the Roman Catholic clergy’s second highest rank.
The promotion means he will be granted a place at the conclave which will elect the next pope.
Reacting to his comments, a DWP spokesman said: “The benefits system this Government inherited was broken, trapping the very people it was designed to help, with around five million on out of work benefits and millions of children growing up in workless households.
“Our welfare reforms will transform the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities with Universal Credit making three million households better off and lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty.
“It’s wrong to talk of removing a safety net when we’re spending £94bn a year on working age benefits and the welfare system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so they can meet their basic needs.”