LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholic leaders across the UK have condemned a decision to cut the overseas aid budget by nearly a third.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak made the announcement on Wednesday, saying it was necessary in light of the worst recession the country had seen in 300 years.

The Conservative Party had promised to keep the UK’s pledge of giving 0.7 percent of GDP in development aid during their 2019 election campaign. The chancellor said that target will now be lowered to 0.5 percent due to the “unprecedented crisis.”

However, the move drew a rebuke from the head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster said “a clear measure of a nation’s greatness is the manner in which it responds to the needs of its poorest.”

“If we truly wish to be a great nation, then cutting the overseas aid budget is a retrograde step. The great tragedies of forced mass migration and human trafficking must be tackled at their source. Carefully targeted and well-managed overseas aid programs are an essential part of this effort. In the face of these catastrophes, this is no time to reduce the UK’s contribution or effort,” he wrote in a Nov. 27 letter.

“Promises were made by all parties on aid spending at the last election. In these extraordinarily difficult times, we should not now step back from our responsibilities to the world’s most vulnerable people, especially as combating the spread of COVID-19 will necessarily mean richer countries supporting poorer ones in purchasing vaccines for their people and helping to roll out mass vaccination programs. Combating COVID-19 is an international endeavor and we cannot neglect those countries that benefit from our aid. I hope that compassionate and wise counsel will prevail,” Nichols said.

CAFOD, the development aid agency of the bishops’ conference, also condemned the decision.

“At a time when international solidarity and cooperation across borders is needed more than ever, it is deeply alarming that the government has chosen to turn its back on the world,” said Christine Allen, the CAFOD director.

“Aid spending on tackling global poverty must not be treated as a charitable favor to the world, but as Britain’s moral duty. Britain became one of the world’s wealthiest nations due to its long history of colonization and use of fossil-fueled industrialization,” she continued.

The CAFOD head acknowledged the unique situation presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, but said it was no excuse to cut aid to the world’s poorest nations.

“We recognize the economic challenges we face at home, but when the government has increased spending on defense, there can be no argument to reduce spending on the means to tackle conflict and its causes,” Allen said. “Yet despite our wealth, this government has decided to take money from the world’s poorest.”

The Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF), the official agency of the Catholic Church in Scotland, also condemned the government’s announcement.

“The news comes amidst a recent warning from the World Bank that extreme poverty will rise in 2020 for the first time since 1998, with the coronavirus expected to push a further 115 million people into that category, undoing decades of progress to reduce poverty and hunger in some of the world’s poorest countries,” said a SCIAF statement.

“The government has made its decision before a much awaited Integrated Review is complete which demonstrates haste and a lack of proper consideration to poorer nations or indeed its own reputation as a country that has been at the forefront of international aid and foreign affairs,” it continued.

“UK aid has been a lifeline for communities ravaged by war, hunger and climate change and has provided a force of stability to people experiencing unimaginable levels of poverty. Their lives have been made much worse by the onset of one of the biggest pandemics in history and today’s decision will push people already living on a knife edge further into hardship,” SCIAF said.

The Scottish aid agency noted that every crisis hits the world’s poorest people hardest and the coronavirus and climate change crises are no different.

“This is not the time to turn our backs on extremely vulnerable nations. We can and must work as part of a global world community to combat the hugely damaging effects of the major crises we are facing,” the statement concluded.

Meanwhile, Ireland Catholic aid agency Trócaire said Sunak’s announcement was “a shocking U-turn on a manifesto commitment.”

“It sees the UK turning its back on the world’s poorest people at a time when they need support urgently. Trócaire urgently calls on the UK Government to reconsider its position,” the organization said on Twitter.

“The UK aid budget has already been cut by nearly £3 billion ($4 billion) this year. This further drastic cut will remove lifelines for the most vulnerable people,” Trócaire said.

David Alton, one of the most prominent Catholics in the UK House of Lords, complained that reducing the 0.7 percent commitment means that “promises already made will now be broken – without any indication of how these cuts will be managed or prioritized.”

He also said the announced reduction was actually more than it seems, noting “this is happening in the context of a cake which has already significantly shrunk because of the economic downturn. Its already 0.7 percent of a much smaller cake.”

“It would be crazy if, in the middle of a pandemic, we endanger our life saving health programs. And what will happen to programs aimed at preventing conflict and the horrendous increase in the number of fleeing refugees – with over 70 million people displaced worldwide,” Alton continued.

He acknowledged he has been “deeply critical of the failure to exercise sufficient oversight of some of the programs in countries like Pakistan and Nigeria – and have challenged examples of corruption, mismanagement, and how the money is sometimes spent.”

“But these are all reasons for getting value for money not for turning the clock back – and that we have a duty to play our part in helping others achieve the prosperity with which we are blessed,” he said.

SCIAF’s Director Alistair Dutton urged the government to rethink the decision.

“The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, wants us to believe that slashing aid is necessary due to the cost of the pandemic. This is simply not true,” he said.

“This week the UK government has already announced plans to increase the defense budget by £16.5 billion ($22 billion), dwarfing the £4 billion ($5.3 billion) savings from cutting aid today. Were the defense budget only increased by £12.5 billion ($16.7 billion) – an eye-watering sum in any year – this latest cut could have been avoided,” Dutton added.

“So, don’t be taken in by the Chancellor’s claim that we can’t justify the aid budget.  We can.  But we’re choosing not to,” he said.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome