The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster today attempted to defuse a row that threatens to overshadow the Pope’s forthcoming visit to Britain by claiming that Benedict XVI was merely giving voice to what many people felt when he attacked this country’s record of promoting equal rights for gays.
Surprise at the Pope’s remarks was giving way today to more determined opposition to his views, with the National Secular Society vowing to set up a Protest the Pope campaign to hold demonstrations during Benedict’s visit this year.
Aware of the growing controversy, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, in Rome leading the 34 other bishops of England and Wales on anad limina, or five-yearly visit to see the Pope, said that Benedict XVI was only saying publicly what many devout people believed.
“I think [the Pope’s] words will find an echo in many in our country who are uneasy that perhaps one of the unintended consequences of recent legislation is to drive religious belief and practice into the sphere of the private only,” the Archbishop said.
He was speaking out after the Pope said that recent legislation in Britain ran counter to natural law, and imposed unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.
The Pope’s remarks were intended as criticism of the Equality Bill, which is going through Parliament, and of the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which require Catholic adoption agencies to consider gay couples as potential adoptive parents.
The Equality Bill will forbid the church from discriminating against gay applicants for secular jobs.
Archbishop Nichols, regarded as spiritual leader of the five million Catholics in England and Wales, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that the Pope had a right to express his views, which he denied were party political.
“The way in which our public life is organised is something to which everybody has a right to contribute,” the Archbishop said.
“He is certainly not getting involved in party politics… but he wants his reasoned voice – formed by the treasures of the Christian heritage which is deeply embedded in our culture – he wants that voice to be heard.
“It is a reasoned voice, and I think he has every right to express the concerns of many,” the Archbishop added.
Even though they had discussed such issues with him during their visit, the strength of the Pope’s remarks caught the English and Welsh bishops by surprise – just as his offer of an Anglican Ordinariate to welcome to Rome disaffected members of the High Church wing of the Church of England did late last year.
The latter led to the Queen sending an emissary, Earl Peel, her Lord Chamberlain, to talk to the Archbishop Nichols and find out exactly what was intended by the “conversion” plans.
Archbishop Nichols is the most politically astute Catholic bishop for generations, but all his considerable skills are being put to the test by the unpredictability of the Pope.
The Archbishop’s conservative leanings are in sympathy with those of Benedict XVI, but he needs to remain on good terms with the leaders of Britain’s established Church and its Supreme Governor, the Queen.
His attempts to defuse a political row are unlikely to succeed for long, given that the bishops themselves are shortly to issue their own pre-election document, which will build on more than a century of Catholic “social thought” to reiterate many of the points made by the Pope.
Catholic unease at the Government’s Equality Bill is shared by the Church of England, whose bishops have helped to inflict defeats on the proposed law as it passed through the House of Lords.
Secularists are already planning a series of marches against the Pope wherever he goes when he visits Britain in September.
The National Secular Society today threatened to bring together gay groups, victims of clerical abuse, feminists, family planning organisations and pro-abortion groups in a new group, the Protest the Pope Coalition, to be launched later this week.
“The taxpayer in this country is going to be faced with a bill of some £20 million for the visit of the Pope, a visit in which, he has already indicated, he will attack equal rights and promote discrimination,” said Terry Sanderson, the society’s president.
“We have a petition online where people can make clear their opposition to the state funding of this visit.”
Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner, was also among those planning online petitions against the visit. “[The Pope] seems to be defending discrimination by religious institutions and demanding that they should be above the law,” Mr Tatchell said.