Bishops refused to discuss CDF same-sex document with broadcasters, report Christina Farrell and Simon Caldwell
THE CATHOLIC Church in England and Wales has come under fire for refusing to defend the new Vatican document on same sex unions.
The Church restricted its comment to the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme even though Channel 4, BBC television, ITV, Sky News and radio stations up and down the country were clamouring for interviews with Church representatives after the publication of the document on Thursday last week.
The document, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), restated the Church's tradition of teaching on sexuality and offered a robust defence of marriage in the face of attempts around the world to grant legal recognition to same sex unions.
But Auxiliary Bishop John Hine of Southwark, the Church spokesman on marriage and the family, (manually turned down interview requests after a "policy decision" was taken by the Catholic Communications Service (CCS) to keep publicity low key.
The decision has left some broadcasters dismayed.
However, Mark Morley, CCS director, said he wanted to protect the bishop from hostile questioning.
He said 'This was a strategic decision which I took responsibility for and which Bishop Hine was happy to comply with. He took the advice which we gave him."
He added: "We wanted to give Bishop Hine a platform where the issue would be looked at with some knowledge taken for granted.
"It was very clear to us that with the best will in the world he would have had to have done a lot of work just to explain the basics. There is a major misunderstanding of the subject and frankly a . bishop has better things to do.
"We took the decision that there weren't many serious platforms knocking around. Nothing confirmed my decision more than a piece on Sky where the journalist was asking 'this is all about gay priests isn't it?'.
"The bishop has got better things to do than get into a studio debate with people who haven't even read the document."
Mr Morley said he did not believe his decision led to wider misunderstanding of the document, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual People.
The refusal to discuss the document with the media comes just months after the Church ordered a media blackout on the visit of Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, the outspoken critic of the tyrannical President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Chris Boulding, a producer on Channel 4 News, said he thought it "extraordinary" for the Church to refuse to put forward a spokesman to defend the document.
He said it was of public interest because it was addressed to legislators and in Britain both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are led by Catholics and Prime Minister Tony Blair is married to one.
Mr Boulding said he was surprised that the CCS appeared to be "intent on playing the story down" by saying it was old news. He said: "Basically, they were showing all the signs of being embarrassed at the way the story was going."
Catholic journalist Clifford Longley sided with the CCS. He said a low key approach was the most prudent course of action. "I would congratulate them [the MS] because this is the right thing to do," he said.
"Interviews are confrontational and try to push you into extreme statements and this situation does not call for extreme statements."
Last Friday Mr Longley
wrote in The Guardian that one English "Catholic churchman was heard to mutter that 'we needed this Vatican document like we needed a hole in the head-.
He used his article to attack the document and also Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI that forbade married Catholics from using contraception. The strategy for handling the publicity of the CDF document was devised at least three weeks before the date of its release.
A briefing note was sent out to all of the English and Welsh bishops to inform them that the CCS would be coordinating the media response.
The advice was ignored by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham who issued a statement before he went on holiday.
The archbishop said: "I welcome the clarity of argument and consistency of principle of this statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
'The statement states clearly that 'no ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman'.
"It upholds Christian teaching that marriage is the sole proper place for sexual relationships and that consequently sexual relations between people of the same gender are morally unacceptable.
"The document also states that a society which moves front tolerating actively homosexual partnerships to giving them full legal recognition and approval inevitably undermines marriage. In doing so that society weakens its own foundations."
Archbishop Nichols added: "Many. but not all, will welcome this clear and incisive document It is a sound guide in some aspects of current debate. Unjust discrimination is indeed wrong and must be addressed.
"But sexual behaviour needs guiding moral principles and our society needs a framework of law that enhances, not undermines, naarriage."
The document drew a range of responses from homosexuals. Gay rights campaigner Martin Pendergast, an ex-Carmelite priest, said that it took the Church into the "realms of institutional homophobia".
Dr Timothy Potts, chairman of Quest, a support group for Catholic homosexuals, said the CDF's arguments would be studied in detail ahead of his organisation submitting evidence to the Church's working party on the Government's proposed Civil Partnerships Bill Some gay Catholics accepted the Vatican's argument that the rights and privileges of marriage should be exclusively enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.
Alan Duerden of Halifax, in a letter to The Catholic Herald, said: "I am a Catholic gay man of 53 years who has been living with my gay partner for 36 years. We are both regular churchgoers and air very much involved in our local church.
"What concerns us is the concentration on marriage for gay people. We believe that marriage is sacred and should only be between a man and a woman. We would have no intention of getting married. We do not believe this is the correct vehicle for gay people."
He added that he was concerned about insufficient inheritance, pension and hospital visiting rights for gay couples and said it was just that these were extended.
Letters: Page 7