February 24, 2015 / 5:08 PM / 2 years ago

Catholic head says will press government on 'shocking' poverty levels

A homeless man has a nap after chaining his bicycle loaded with his posessions to a post on Pall Mall in London October 23, 2013.Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) - The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England rejected calls from lawmakers to stay out of politics, saying on Tuesday he would keep up the pressure on government to tackle "shocking" levels of poverty ahead of a general election.

In a news conference to set out the Church's priorities ahead of the May 7 vote, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said he recognized and welcomed the efforts the coalition government had made to help the poor but that more needed to be done.

"It is shocking that in a society as rich as ours there are people, even people in employment, who are dependent on food banks and handouts," he said.

Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and the most senior Catholic in England and Wales, was speaking a week after the Church of England made a rare foray into politics by warning that British democracy was failing and the immigration debate turning racist.

That intervention riled several politicians who said the Church should stay out of politics. Nichols however said he simply could not accept that argument and that the church could bring a deeper level of understanding to the debate.

"My job is to keep putting forward the actual reality on the ground in many difficult circumstances," he said. "That is a contribution that our public life and our political life really needs."

The election, expected to be one of the tightest in decades, will be held on May 7. Two of the biggest issues are how the next government should tackle Britain's sizeable budget deficit, including cuts to welfare spending, and immigration.

Nichols also called on politicians to engage more people by raising the level of debate ahead of the election.

In a letter to Catholic voters, the Church also said its followers should consider their candidates' stance on issues including abortion, assisted suicide and other life issues before making their decision.

Reporting by Kate Holton; editing by Stephen Addison

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