By Magnus Linklater (THE TIMES, 24/01/07):
The dilemma that confronts Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly over the Roman Catholic Church and its stand on homosexuality has the making of grand tragedy. Conflicts of personal faith and public duty are the kind that appeal to French playwrights in particular — Corneille, Racine, or perhaps, more accurately, the ardent Catholic Paul Claudel. They would have warmed to the theme of a man and a woman, driven by deep convictions, confronting the harsh requirements of the State and its administration of the law. That they represent the State, and are indeed responsible for the law in question, makes the outcome of the final act a matter of high drama.
Here is the story so far. Both the Prime Minister and Ms Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, are supporting the Roman Catholic Church in its stand against new regulations that will forbid it from discriminating against homosexuals. Ms Kelly is a staunch Catholic and a member of Opus Dei, its most conservative sect. Mr Blair is married to a Catholic, and is a serial adopter of moral causes. So their instincts are to agree with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’ Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, when he pronounces his outright opposition to regulations that would force the Church to accept the adoption of children by gay couples. There are other requirements, such as forbidding hoteliers to refuse accommodation to homosexuals, but it is the adoption laws that go the heart of the affair.
The cardinal has written to every member of the Cabinet saying that it would be “unreasonable, unnecessary and unjust” for Catholic adoption agencies to have to act against the teachings of their Church and their consciences by allowing homosexual couples to become adoptive parents. He has argued that the 12 Catholic adoption and fostering agencies, which between them account for almost a third of the harder-to-place adoptions in England, may have to close if they are required to implement the new laws. The issue is now urgent, since the regulations are due to take effect from April 6. In Scotland, where local authorities have, since Christmas, been allowed to place children with gay couples, the voice of the Church has been loud in condemnation. “We are descending into a spirit of immorality,” thundered Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
The Government, however, is committed to its Equality Act which, in every respect, is the embodiment of new Labour values. It forbids discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief and sexual orientation, and speaks of the “mutual respect for groups based on the understanding and valuing of diversity, and shared respect for equality and human rights”. As the minister responsible for equality policy, Ms Kelly should be its protagonist. It is up to her to produce the detailed regulations that will give the Act its force, and most other members of the Cabinet have indicated that they want to see them pushed through. A powerful group of backbenchers, led by Angela Eagle, the party’s vice-chairman, is campaigning for the implementation of the Act and against what is being described as “the Catholic tendency”.
They oppose, in particular, the idea that there may be an exemption clause for Catholic adoption agencies. It is one that Ms Kelly and Mr Blair favour, but it would take a determined stand on their part to push it through in the teeth of outright opposition from the Labour Party, and the humiliating possibility of defeat.
This, then, is where a full-blown tragedy would normally require the moment of catharsis — an action that occasions the downfall of the principal character in circumstances arousing pity and terror, with considerable backchat from the chorus. I doubt if Mr Blair will rise to the occasion — he has more than enough tragic denouements to deal with already. Ms Kelly, on the other hand, may. If her obligations to the Church outweigh her responsibilities to the Cabinet, then she may feel that she had no alternative but to keep the faith and resign. You cannot be both minister and one-woman opposition at the same time.
But what kind of message would her resignation send out? Catholic teaching on homosexuality remains intolerant, backward, illiberal and morally questionable. By insisting that it is a condition that is “intrinsically disordered” because it does not allow for the procreation of children, the Church places homosexuality outside the ambit of acceptable society. Even that wisest and most compassionate of Catholics, the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who explained that the term “ disordered” should not be taken literally, and who insisted that homosexuality itself was understood and accepted by the Church, was forced to concede that the homosexual act itself was “morally wrong”. Only if homosexual couples lived chaste lives, unimpaired by sex, could they be included by the Church.
That is as remote from reality as the Catholic position on abortion and contraception, both of which require a form of moral blindness to sustain them — no compassion for victims of rape, no understanding of the threat of HIV. It also militates against rather than in favour of the child, because statistics show that where gay couples are allowed to adopt, they are more likely to cope with those children who, because of various difficulties, have been the hardest to place. By excluding homosexuals from the adoption process, the Church’s agencies are closing off the humane approach to a fraught social problem.
When Ms Kelly decided to take her son, who has learning difficulties, out of his state school and have him educated privately, she was acting against her party’s orthodoxy in the interests of the child rather than political principle. She should adopt the same approach now, and, in the process, help to move her religion towards a more tolerant position. It might spoil the climax of an absorbing political drama. But it would be the right thing to do.