The Cardinal is right to call for an exemption to the Act
What is at stake in the row between the Church and the Government over the issue of gay adoption? More than the specific issue of homosexual couples adopting children. Both sides in the argument recognise that important issues of principle are at stake. That is why Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has taken the remarkable step of writing personally to every member of the Cabinet, asking that agencies run by the Catholic Church in England and Wales be exempted from a new legal obligation to permit children to be placed with gay couples. It is also why Ben Bradshaw, a Government minister, has made an analogy with race discrimination: if the Church is granted such an exemption, he says, then that would be tantamount to allowing the Church to sidestep legislation aimed at protecting black people.
The analogy is silly. but Mr Bradshaw is right to recognise that the stakes are high. At the centre of this row lies the Catholic Church's right to teach a doctrine that is increasingly at odds with a secular understanding of human rights. The Magisterium states that sex outside marriage is wrong, and no amount of casuistry can make that teaching disappear. However sensitively it is applied, it is immutable, being based on the words of Christ. Moreover, this teaching is not an incidental inconvenience arising from the historical context of the Gospels, but central to the Church's understanding of the divine purpose of sexual activity.
It is crucial to point out that this teaching is not directed against gay people, regarding whose status and significance the Church still has much thinking to do. But it does mean that. if it were to place a child with a gay couple, or any unmarried couple, the Church (through its adoption agency) would be placing itself at odds with its own teaching, and asking its own members to ignore promptings of conscience formed by Catholic doctrine.
Should a non-Catholic society respect the inability of religious believers to comply with a civil law in good conscience? In this case, we believe that the Church has demonstrated that its intentions are not motivated by prejudice. The social cost of the (logically inevitable) closure of children's agencies outweighs that of exemption. The Government should change its mind.