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Turbulent priests: When politicians take on the Church

By Norman Smith
Chief political correspondent, BBC News Channel

media captionArchbishop Vincent Nichols: "The basic safety net to guarantee that people are not let in hunger has been torn apart"

Memo to politicians. Beware the men in cassocks.

They may not intervene in politics very often but when they do, politicians are best advised to think twice before getting into a scrap with them.

Henry II famously lost his rag with Thomas Becket and as we know that didn't end very happily.

Thankfully, things today have got a little less excitable.

Even so, there's no denying the ability of Church figures to rile and discomfort our political leaders.

Now the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, has told of how he has been "inundated with expressions of anger and despair" from those hit by the coalition's benefit cuts, which he says have left many people "destitute".

"Something is going seriously wrong," he warned in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, that this could happen in such an affluent country.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionArchbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has criticised the government

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, voiced similar concerns a few months ago claiming it was families with children who were being hit hardest by the government's welfare reforms.

Even his normally mild-mannered predecessor Rowan Williams took a stand against the previous Labour government over the Iraq war.

media captionArchbishop Nichols: Welfare system "seriously wrong"

All of which is as nothing compared to the virtually constant war of words between Margaret Thatcher and Church leaders.

Her premiership was marked by a series of running battles with the Church over inner-city riots, unemployment, the miners' strike - you name it.

Indeed even when Mrs Thatcher sought to cite the scriptures in her support - in her famous Sermon on the Mound speech to the Church of Scotland - when she suggested the creation of wealth was a virtue, they rounded on her for misinterpreting the Bible.

All of which is a major headache for politicians pondering how they should respond to such attacks from religious leaders.

image copyrightBBC News
image captionMargaret Thatcher had many run-ins with Church leaders

The difficulty is that it's just not that easy to swipe aside such criticism.

Church leaders are not like your average political opponent, the media, pressure group or annoying academic.

Attack them and you risk a backlash from their flock.

Worse, you appear to be rounding on people who are judged to be independent, well-intentioned and above the political fray.

It is the political equivalent of being rude about the Royal Family. It's just not good politics.

And there is the added problem that there is nothing we in the media like more than a good bust-up between the Church and the government.

Hit back and you guarantee the story will get banner headlines, with most readers instinctively siding with the clerics rather than the politicians.

So how should politicians respond when troubled by "turbulent priests"?

Well, maybe take a leaf out of the Bible.

To quote Matthew 5:39: "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."

More on this story

  • Catholic archbishop attacks welfare reform