Pope Benedict XVI has scored a significant victory in the battle against what he sees as a secular intolerance of religion afflicting many Western societies.
The British government today backed down from pursuing parts of its Equality Bill, legislation which would have removed the Catholic Church's right to refuse employing certain lay staff such as practicing homosexuals and even Catholic head teachers of Catholic schools. The news came after a furor in Britain following the Pope's remarks to the bishops of England and Wales on Monday.
The Pope told them that the bill and other types of similar legislation would "impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs." He added: "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." He then went on to urge the country's clergy "to ensure that the Church's moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended."
According to The Times of London, government ministers "were astonished on Monday when the Pope said that the bill violated "natural justice" and urged bishops to fight it. But that attack, along with the strength of opposition in the Lords and the limited time left to get bills passed before the election, has sapped the government's enthusiasm to continue the fight."
Reports also say that the government did not want the dispute to overshadow preparations for the Pope's visit to Britain later this year. "The Pope's intervention has been noted," said an official in Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office.
Although supported by most faith groups in Britain, Benedict XVI's words caused outrage in sections of the country's media, with some arguing that he shouldn't meddle in British politics. Others have drawn up a petition to protest against his visit which is expected to take place in September. A senior official told me the reaction took many — in the Vatican and elsewhere — by surprise as the words of the Pope were nothing new or unexpected.
Benedict XVI has made similar pleas to other nations and has long spoken out against the dangers of a "dictatorship of relativism" which denies freedom and tolerance of religion. A major underlying cause of this, he believes, is a lack of belief in a transcendent God which leads to a moral vacuum that is increasingly being filled by the state.
As one British Catholic put it: "My fellow Brits don't seem to realize the problem is too much government interfering in our lives, ruining marriage, the family, the economy, etc. It feels like many here are in servitude of the government and don't realize it."
But the strength of the protests in Britain revealed not just indifference to religion but also an active anti-Christian bias. Looking ahead, the Church has a real battle on its hands to ensure its voice continues to be heard in the public square in the face of similar ongoing legislation.
Further concerns include the closure of Catholic adoption agencies because of rules forcing them not to discriminate against same-sex couples, and what appears to be increasing public support for a law permitting assisted suicide.
Tomorrow, the Pope will meet all the bishops of Scotland and will address them on Saturday. A source told me he will tell them much the same as he told their English and Welsh counterparts.
Whether his comments will spark another storm of protest remains to be seen. But what is clear is that Benedict XVI and his message will attract plenty of attention when he visits Britain in September.
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