The Catholic Church’s most senior figure in Britain has been accused of ‘scaremongering’ and ‘whipping up gay marriage fears’ after hitting out at the Government’s plans to legalise gay marriage.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, was told his comments were ‘unacceptable’ and MPs warned of him fuelling prejudice on an already sensitive subject.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the cleric said that the coalitions proposals were a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” and the idea of redefining marriage, would “shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world”.
Tory MP Margot James, the first openly lesbian Conservative MP, condemned O’Brien’s use of ‘apocalyptic language’, while Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said the government’s consultation on gay marriage was not aimed at forcing religious groups to endorse same-sex marriages.
He told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “We’re not seeking to change religious marriage and we’re not seeking to impose it on religious groups.What we are saying is that where a couple love each other and they wish to commit to each other for their life then they should be able to have a civil marriage irrespective of their sexual orientation.”
Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, a former equalities minister, said she thought it was right to have same-sex marriages.
She added: “I don’t want anybody to feel that this is a license for whipping up prejudice. What you’re talking about is individual people and their personal relationships, their love for each other and their wanting to be in a partnership or getting married. I think we should support that.”
O’Brien has a reputation as a robust defender of traditionalist Christian teaching and in Sunday’s column said: “Since all the legal rights of marriage are already available to homosexual couples, it is clear that this proposal is not about rights, but rather is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.
“Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father.”
He added: “Imagine for a moment that the government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that ‘no one will be forced to keep a slave’.
“Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right?”
The Cardinal has become the latest of several senior clergy to denounce what he calls the “madness” of the government’s backing for marriage to include homosexual couples.
He accused ministers of attempting to “redefine reality” and “dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage”.
In January the Anglican Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, also insisted governments did not have the moral authority to redefine marriage.
‘Civil marriage debate’
Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone will launch a consultation later this month on how to make civil marriage available to same-sex couples.
She has said she wants to challenge the view that the government does not have the right to change marriage traditions.
“It is the government’s fundamental job to reflect society and to shape the future, not stay silent where it has the power to act and change things for the better.”
Many church leaders believe gay marriage would represent a further significant step in marginalising traditional religious values in society.
Civil partnerships were introduced in 2004 to give same-sex couples the same legal rights as married couples, but the law does not allow such unions to be referred to as marriages. Civil partners are entitled to the same property rights, the same exemptions on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits as married couples, but do not have the same status under English law.
Until now it has been banned for civil partnership ceremonies to include religious readings, music or symbols and forbidden for them to take place in religious venues, regardless of the views of the building’s owners. In Scotland, which has its own legislation, some church parishes offer blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.