18 Feb 2014

UK’s top Catholic defends criticism of welfare reforms

Do criticisms of the government’s welfare reforms by Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the country’s highest-ranking Catholic, represent a shift in the church’s position?

Archbishop Vincent Nichols’s criticism of the government’s welfare reforms are not political, he said today, but are simply a thing of human decency, adding that something is clearly going wrong when some people are being left “hungry and destitute”.

The cardinal-designate caused controversy at the weekend when he called the government’s cuts to welfare spending a “disgrace” in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

Today, the archbishop told Channel 4 News he understood the aims of the coalition government’s cuts but felt he needed to point out what he said were unintended consequences of those reforms.

No sudden shift

He said the aims of the cuts to welfare spending were “perfectly understandable” but added: “What is beyond my understanding is why a programme of reform needs to result in people who, when they are given some food, burst out into tears because they haven’t eaten in three days.”

His intervention comes ahead of his visit to Rome this weekend, where he will be elevated to the rank of cardinal.

Observers said there was nothing unusual about his remarks and that they do not herald a sudden shift in the Catholic church’s teaching.

Ed West, deputy editor of the Catholic Herald, told Channel 4 News: “The [Catholic] church in England is very much to the left [on economic and social welfare issues] of all three parties and I think that is shared by the hierarchy of the church, if not all Catholics.”

The [Catholic] Church in England is very much to the left [on economic and social welfare issues] of all three parties. Ed West, Catholic Herald

West said Nichols’s comments were “certainly him” but that “the Vatican overall does share [the same] view to a certain extent.”

He said it was no secret that most bishops were “very pro-Labour in the run up to the 1997 election”.

“Vincent Nichols is quite careful about what he says but there have been lots of agencies that have been very critical about government cuts,” he added.

“The problem is when Nichols or the church does talk about economic issues it’s mostly ignored by the press.”

West recalled that the Catholic church under Cardinal Basil Hume had been very critical of the Thatcher and Major governments’ cuts to welfare spending throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Conservative stance?

Prior to his elevation to archbishop, Nichols was considered to be on the liberal side of the church, but there was a perception that he had moved towards a more conservative stance in the past decade in order to rise within the hierarchy.

Previous interventions by the archbishop have also attracted criticism. The last Labour government and the Catholic church famously fell out over the 2006 equality act. Nichols declared his opposition to the legislation saying it contradicted the Catholic church’s moral values.

He also supported unsuccessful efforts to have Catholic adoption agencies exempted from sexual orientation regulations.

To suggest that the church sits back and is preoccupied with sex, I’m afraid, is a media perception, not the reality of Catholic living. Archbishop Vincent Nichols

In a 2011 interview with the Daily Telegraph, he criticised the government’s “Big Society” programme, saying Catholics were afraid the coalition was “washing its hands” of its responsibilities to communities and expecting volunteers to fill the gap.

“It is all very well to deliver speeches about the need for greater voluntary activity, but there needs to be some practical solutions,” he said.

“At the moment the Big Society is lacking a cutting edge. It has no teeth.”

He added: “Devolving greater power to local authorities should not be used as a cloak for masking central cuts.”

Focus on poverty

Since his election last year, Pope Francis has been keen to make the Catholic church focus on the issue of global poverty.

In October, the Pope said the church must strip itself of all “vanity, arrogance and pride” and humbly serve the poorest in society. In the same month he suspended a German bishop from his diocese for the construction of what many locals viewed as an extravagant new bishop’s residence complex.

Central to the investigation into Bishop of Limburg Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst was the huge €31m (£25.5m) price tag. The bishop defended the spending, saying the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because the buildings were under historical protection.

The Pope has also made global poverty the central theme of his message for lent, which begins on 5 March.