Britain's leading Roman Catholic cleric has stirred a debate about destitution and welfare in the United Kingdom after he denounced benefit cuts by the government coalition as a "disgrace."
Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, in a weekend interview with the Daily Telegraph newspaper, said that the need for reduced spending on benefits is widely accepted, but the government's reforms have destroyed even the country's "basic safety net."
This was followed Thursday by group of more than 40 senior church leaders including Anglican bishops, Methodists and Quakers, who accused British Prime Minister David Cameron in an open letter of creating a "national crisis" of hunger and hardship.
In his interview 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."
Nichols who will on Saturday become one of 19 new cardinals created by Pope Francis said, "For a country of our affluence, that quite frankly is a disgrace."
Prime Minister Cameron countered Nichols Wednesday in an article in the Telegraph admonishing the Catholic archbishop.
He said the Archbishop of Westminster's criticism is "simply not true" arguing that the change in the benefits system, led by the minister responsible Iain Duncan Smith, who is a practising Catholic, was about "doing what is right" and not simply "making the numbers add up."
"Let's get the facts straight," said Cameron.
"Yes, we made the difficult but correct decision that benefits shouldn't go up faster than wages, but the safety net remains in place."
The prime minister said, "Of course, we are in the middle of a long and difficult journey turning our country around.
"That means difficult decisions to get our deficit down, making sure that the debts of this generation are not our children's to inherit.
"But our welfare reforms go beyond that alone – they are about giving new purpose, new opportunity, new hope – and yes, new responsibility to people who had previously been written off with no chance."
The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who belongs a different party to Cameron said he had a "huge amount of respect" for Archbishop Nichols, but "to say that the safety net has been removed altogether is an exaggeration."
But then he Christian leaders who signed a letter in the mass circulation Daily Mirror newspaper Thursday including the Anglican bishops of Durham, Manchester and Leicester, as well as Quaker and Methodist leaders came with their own critique of the effect of government policies.
"We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must 'heat or eat' each winter, harder than those faced by families whose wages have stayed flat while food prices have gone up 30 percent in just five years.
"Yet beyond even this we must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation by cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions."