- Trying to square the circle
The opening days of the Synod on the Family have revealed distinct differences of opinion between the participants. How can their commitment to church teaching be matched with compassion for those who struggle with it?
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Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols has defended his recent criticism of the Government’s welfare reforms, arguing that he was not naïve and was merely “stati[ng] facts”.
His warning last month that benefits cuts had left people destitute was based on testimony from priests on the ground, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday.
“To see … before our eyes, knocking on your door, a family in destitution, in a country as wealthy as this is a disgrace. That should not happen,” he said.
He argued that the current welfare system needed reform but not in a way that left people in poverty.
“I sit and listen to my priests and they say that they, through the food bank, put three days’ food in front of a woman with her children and she burst into tears because she hasn’t eaten for three days. That’s not a fantasy, that’s human lives.”
He said that priests reported that the benefits cuts felt “punitive”, a criticism that was echoed today by the right-of-centre thinktank, Policy Exchange.
In the first intervention on the issue by a major right-wing organisation, Policy Exchange said in a report said that almost 70, 0000 jobseekers had had their benefits withdrawn unfairly and as a result were reliant on food banks.
The Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster said that others had spoken out against the reforms since he first made his comments a month ago. He welcomed news that an independent parliamentary inquiry, chaired by the Anglican Bishop of Truro, was to look into the causes of food poverty, and said that he would continue to meet with priests to discuss the issue.
“I know we can have a conversation with government officials on that line,” he said.
In his homily for a Mass on Friday welcoming him back to Westminster Cathedral after the consistory at which he was made a cardinal, Nichols preached that Christians must respond to poverty and he looked forward to working with others “who share those same concerns”.
“[If we live according to Jesus’ teaching] our eyes will not be closed to the drama of poverty in our midst. We shall see the crucial importance of the ethical dimensions so keenly needed in the creation of wealth. These are the two realities which so characterise this great metropolis of London,” he said.
In The Guardian today the Anglican Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, defended the 27 CofE bishops who signed a letter to The Daily Mirror criticising welfare reform. Church leaders were right to comment because they often engaged with poverty, he said, in a column that criticised “an increasingly harsh line over benefits sanctions” and the so-called “bedroom tax”.
Above: Cardinal Nichols, pictured shortly before Friday's Mass, demonstrates a very English Catholicism from under an umbrella marking the 2010 papal visit to Britain. Photo: CBCEW