Pope Benedict XVI’s condemnation of British equality legislation designed to protect gays and women in the workplace has deepened the battle lines between the Vatican and secularists, who demand that taxpayers not foot the security bill for his newly announced September visit.
“I am sure many others feel the same resentment as we do at the National Secular Society at funding the presence of someone who wishes to impose a reactionary agenda of social change on us,” said the group’s president, Terry Sanderson.
The society said it would stage a film festival during Benedict’s visit, featuring “The Magdalene Sisters,” about Catholic nuns’ harsh care of teenage mothers in Ireland, and “The Boys of St. Vincent,” about sexual abuse at a Catholic orphanage in Canada. Other protests are planned.
It’s not the only conflict between Britons and the pontiff. Benedict recently surprised the Church of England by inviting traditionalist Anglicans who oppose women priests and bishops into the Roman Catholic fold, and riled Muslims four years ago by quoting a medieval description of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman.”
The 82-year-old Benedict, who was the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer before succeeding John Paul II in 2005, has put a firm, conservative stamp on his papacy. Reinvigorating the faith in an increasingly secular Europe has been a central mission of his papacy.
In an address to English bishops on Monday in which he confirmed his planned visit, Benedict said some British legislation had imposed “unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.” Benedict did not make a specific complaint about equality acts past or pending, but complained that the law had in some cases violated “the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.”
On the ground of natural law, the Roman Catholic catechism also condemns homosexual acts as “intrinsically dissolute.”
Many critics in Britain saw the pope’s comments as a criticism of labor legislation — both existing and proposed — and also interpreted it as denouncing the notion of hiring women, transsexuals and gays in the church.
The issue of homosexual rights brought the church into collision with British law, which holds that no organization can discriminate against gays. That applies to adoption agencies, even Catholic ones, who were refusing to place children with gay couples.
In response, five formerly Catholic agencies cut their ties to the church so that they could continue to operate.
The Catholic church, along with the Church of England, also raised concerns about a current equality bill. Existing equality laws offer an exemption for church officials such as priests. The new measure initially attempted to change the definition of who was exempt, but the government backed down in the face of protests that the proposed change was ambiguous.
Benedict’s remarks fanned debate about the conflict between secular and religious agendas.
“What the pope, together with other religious leaders such as the (Church of England) bishops sitting in our own Parliament are actually seeking, is for religious people to be allowed to discriminate against others in employment, services, education and many other areas, unfettered by the laws that everyone else in society must abide by and respect,” said Naomi Phillips of the British Humanist Association.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown would not comment directly on the pope’s remarks but said Tuesday that Benedict had “acknowledged the U.K.’s firm commitment to equality for all members of society.”
But there was a protest from Stephen Hughes, a European Parliament member from Brown’s governing Labour Party.
“As a Catholic, I am appalled by the attitude of the pope. Religious leaders should be trying to eradicate inequality, not perpetuate it,” said Hughes, who urged the pope to ensure “that existing EU legislation is properly applied in the Vatican.”
Increasing numbers of Britons disagree with the Catholic church’s view on homosexuality. The latest Social Attitudes Survey found that 36 percent thought homosexual acts were usually or always wrong, compared to 62 percent who thought that way in 1983.
The pope’s views on homosexuality and his opposition to women priests match those of many in the Church of England’s 77 million-member Anglican Communion, which is on the verge of schism over gay clergy.
In October, the Vatican roiled the Church of England by making it easier for Anglicans upset over women priests and gay bishops to join the Catholic Church while retaining many of their Anglican traditions, including married priests. The Anglicans’ spiritual leader, Archbishop Rowan Williams, wasn’t consulted and was informed only at the last minute.
The Vatican denies that it is actively recruiting Anglicans and said its unprecedented invitation was merely a response to the many Anglican requests to join the Catholic Church.
On Tuesday, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, pleaded for the church’s place in contemporary debates — a major aim of Benedict, who has praised the space religion receives in American society.
The pope “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,” Nichols said in a BBC interview.
“It’s a reasoned voice and I think he has every right to express the concerns of many.”
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