Vatican: Pope condemns gay equality laws ahead of first UK visit


Pope Benedict XVI has condemned British equality legislation for running contrary to "natural law" as he confirmed his first visit to the UK later this year.

In a letter addressed to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, the pope praised Britain's "firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all".

However, he criticised UK legislation for creating "limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs". It is thought his comments relate to laws that came in last year preventing adoption agencies from discriminating against gay couples and also Harriet Harman's equality bill, currently going through parliament.

The pope, whose visit is expected in September, made the comments after hearing representations from English and Welsh bishops on their concerns about the place of religion in an increasingly secular society.

They told him sexual orientation legislation that came into effect on 1 January 2009 had forced the closure of half the Roman Catholic adoption agencies because the law making it illegal to discriminate against gay applicants went against their beliefs.

In his letter the pope said: "The effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed."

It is also thought the pope was referring to the equality bill, which narrows the special exemption enjoyed by churches allowing them to exclude people whose lifestyles do not fit in with the religious ethos of an organisation when hiring staff. The bishops cited it as another restriction of their freedom of religious belief.

The archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, who is in Rome, said: "It has been clear that he knows the situation and applied it to a move in legislation to look for equality."

The pope urged the bishops to make their voices heard and to defend the faith, saying Christian teaching did not undermine or restrict the freedom of others.

His remarks drew swift criticism from the National Secular Society, which said it would stage protests during the visit.

Terry Sanderson, the society's president, said: "The taxpayer is going to be faced with a bill for £20m for the visit – in which he has indicated he will attack equal rights and promote discrimination."


All of us deserve equality

The pope's attack on UK equality legislation is misguided. LGBT Catholics are entitled to freedom from discrimination too

It is no secret that when a pope delivers an address to a group of Catholic bishops he draws upon briefings provided by the local hierarchy and his papal nuncio for the country in question. While Benedict XVI's remarks are an unwarranted intrusion into the United Kingdom's internal affairs, it ought to come as no surprise that a central part of his speech to the bishops of England and Wales at the end of their five-yearly official visit to the Vatican should focus on the principles behind legislation dealing with equality and diversity. The bishops have allowed the partial and politicised anti-equality agenda of advisors to dominate their thinking and this has been transmitted to the pope. They have avoided any consultation with those who experience the inequalities which the proposed equality bill, the previous Adoption Act amendments and anti-discriminatory employment regulations have sought to address.

The past decade has seen attempts to claw back the reform of the renewing second Vatican council, called 50 years ago to blow some cleansing winds through Vatican windows and corridors. Conservative forces in the Vatican want the Roman Catholic church to rejoice once again in rigidity, rather than truly Catholic diversity. This retrenchment has led not to a strong unassailable fortress, a uniformly united church, but to a structurally dysfunctional body, identified by systemic abuse of power, subterfuge and dishonesty. This is manifest in the endless symptoms of sexual abuse, institutionalised misogyny and homophobia, along with attempts to suppress theological, liturgical and pastoral creativity in the local church. Surfing fundamentalist Catholic blogs confirms greater concern with lacy vestments than a commitment to be a church reading "the signs of the times", responding in solidarity to "the joys and hopes, the grief and anxiety of the people of our time".

This is the backdrop to those elements in the church who wish to maintain a church of privilege, rather than a servant church of the poor, the voiceless and marginalised. Have we not learned from the sexual abuse crisis, that an unaccountable arbitrary exercise of power leads to structures of sin, rather than structures of grace?

Equality and diversity are not the stuff of life in the Vatican state. In spite of constantly wielding back-room influence in European institutions and the United Nations, it is hard to find many international protocols embraced by the Vatican that relate to anti-discrimination. The pope and many of the bishops fall back on a simplistic analysis when faced with the demands of equality and diversity laws and regulations. They see the church and other faith communities in one beleaguered corner, under attack from secularist lesbian and gay activists besieging the ramparts. They deny their own fundamental teaching which sees lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people as part of God's created design, sharing in primordial human dignity and worthy of respect. Even in terms of their own teachings, they ignore the fact that LGBT people are not defined solely by their sexual orientation but may also be people of faith.

So it is that LGBT people of faith become the objects of oppression perpetrated by faith leaders who claim to have their pastoral care at heart. Religious liberty and freedom from prejudice and discrimination are rights for all, not just for some. They are inherent in that natural law which enables human beings "to have life, and life in all its fullness". They are free gift, not rewards for those considered worthy to receive them, or who struggle to earn them. A framework of personal sexual ethics lacks a constitutive element if it does not include the principle of justice, not just in the playing out of interpersonal relationships, but in the way in which the faith community relates to and upholds respect for its lesbian and gay members. Opposition to principles of legal equality contradicts the pragmatic pastoral line that the bishops of England and Wales have pursued for the church's lesbian and gay members.

Values of human dignity, equality and social justice which undergird the equality bill and other diversity legislation in the United Kingdom are not the monopoly of believers. This is why a body such as the Cutting Edge Consortium, of which I am a founder member, can bring together people of all faiths and none, activists of all shades, LGBT people and all who stand in solidarity alongside them, to affirm their commitment to human rights and the freedom of conscience, thought and religion. As such we celebrate human equality and social cohesion, common not only to people of faith, but to all who share a fully human vision of a transformed society. This is the good news we promote – can faith leaders hear it?