A day after the departure of Pope Benedict XVI from Britain, his senior archbishop, the unofficial head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, told a BBC interviewer that the English bishops had supported legalizing homosexual civil partnerships.
Attempting to defend the Catholic hierarchy from accusations of being opposed to the homosexualist political agenda around the world, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster hastened to assure the BBC’s Huw Edwards, “That’s not true.”
“In this country, we were very nuanced. We did not oppose gay civil partnerships. We recognized that in English law there might be a case for those. What we persistently said is that these are not the same as marriage.”
Nichols was appearing as part of a panel to discuss the outcome of the papal visit, with Diarmaid MacCulloch, a homosexual Anglican and Oxford professor of church history, Tina Beattie, a Catholic academic known for her dissent from the Church’s teaching on abortion and marriage, and Lord Christopher Patten, a Catholic diplomat who had been appointed by the government to organize the papal visit.
Nichols went on to imply that Pope Benedict himself holds the issue of marriage as a low priority, saying, “I think it’s very interesting, and I don’t think for one minute it’s accidental, that when the pope wanted to raise this question, [in his address at Westminster Hall] where are the moral standards on which we base our activity, he chose as his example the financial crisis. I think that’s very important and not to be overlooked.”
In response, a panelist said that the reason Benedict did not bring up the issue of homosexuality was that “he could not get away with it in this country. The moral mood has shifted here.”
Tina Beattie said that it was remarkable that the pope used the example of the financial crisis, because “the Church usually interferes most vociferously” with British politics in the areas of sexual morality.
Again Nichols said, “It’s not true.”
“The times we interfere most in British politics are either to do with poverty or to do with education. The media is obsessed with certain questions. But if you want to know what we’re really passionate about, it’s about the fight against poverty and the education of young people.”
MacCulloch said he was “pleased to hear” Nichols’ answer, and agreed that the English Catholic Church “has rather taken its own line on this, not the Vatican’s line.”
“There is always a certain independence in the English Catholic Church and it’s good that that should be so.
Nichols has been under steady criticism from some prominent Catholics in Britain for his support for the former Labour government’s plans to increase sex education in schools. The plans, which were partly drafted with help from the Catholic Education Service, would force religious schools to provide information to children on how to obtain abortions and contraceptives, without parental knowledge or consent. The plans would also have required that homosexuality be presented as a normal, morally neutral “variant” on human sexuality.
John Smeaton, head of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and a leading voice in the fight against the government’s sex education guidelines, said that Nichols’ statements have undermined Pope Benedict’s urgent call for Christians to defend Christian ideas in the public sphere.
“It is not just the case that there is something ‘missing’ in what Archbishop Nichols says,” Smeaton wrote. “In the context of that interview, and in common parlance, to ‘accept the reality’ of something is to accept it as a fact and then move on.”
Smeaton cited two other recent occasions when Nichols told media that he does not know if the Church would some day accept homosexuality.
Smeaton said that put together, Nichols’ statements are “fatally undermining (as distinct from denying) the security and even the legitimacy of” Catholic teaching on the nature of human sexuality.
Nichols is widely perceived in Britain’s Catholic community as a “conservative” who has defended the Catholic adoption agencies that were closed due to the government’s Equalities legislation. Smeaton wrote that he has been criticized for being “too hard” on Nichols, who, it was claimed, is “rather conservative and orthodox” on homosexuality.
Nichols’ assertion that the existence of homosexual civil partnerships could be acceptable to Catholic teaching was belied by his own colleague, Archbishop Peter Smith, formerly of Cardiff and now of Southwark, who said at the time of the passage of the Civil Partnerships Bill, “The government has effectively established same-sex marriage in all but name.”