The UK media outcry over Pope Benedict's remarks Monday to the English and Welsh bishops caught me by surprise. 'Anger as Pope slams UK equality law' is the Press Association headline, which could stand for all the others.
The Pope told the English and Welsh bishops in Rome:
Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. 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.
His words have been interpreted by the BBC and The Times and almost everyone else as referring to the Equality Bill now before Parliament, which consolidates the past 40 years of equality legislation by expanding rules stopping employers from discriminating against gay employees because of their sexuality. Churches and religious organisations are currently exempt from the legislation, but last week an amendment to the Bill aimed at closing that loophole. It was defeated in the House of Lords with help from the Anglican bishops who are also exposed to any expansion of the equality legislation.
But it as more likely that Pope Benedict was referring more generally to a series of laws enacted by Parliament implementing European anti-discrimination legislation, which have already resulted in the closure of Catholic adoption agencies.
Behind the row is a conflict between legal equality and religious freedom. And behind that is a dispute over the role of the state.
The Labor Government has increasingly adopted a secularist view more typical of the French than the English, one that assumes that the state conditions society rather than the other way round. This conflicts with with the Church's view that the state should not attempt to impose any one cultural norm but should regulate the public sphere to ensure basic standards and fair play. Because the cultural norm in this case -- the view that gay unions are equal to marriage -- violates the Church's understanding of the human person, Pope Benedict's opposition is all the stronger.
Because gay rights are regarded as one of the great achievements of the Labor Government, the fury at that opposition has not been backward in coming forward. The National Secular Society (NSS) is mounting a broad protest movement ("Protest the Pope") against Benedict XVI's visit which includes secularists, gay groups, family planning organisations, pro-abortion groups and “anyone who feels under siege from the Vatican’s current militancy”.
While the Pope objects to the state imposing cultural norms alien to the Christian conception of the human person, the secularists object to the UK state ('Make the Pope pay') footing the estimated £20m cost of the papal visit. Their view is that the taxpayer is funding the visit of a foreign potentate whose bigotry flies in the face of British tolerance.
Add to this mix bruised Anglican sensibilities over the ordinariate proposal and a dash of traditional English distrust of Rome, and the visit starts to look distinctly exciting. There are many live wires involved, and Pope Benedict seems happy to trip over all of them. No wonder Ruth Gledhill, The Times religious correspondent, says today: "Pope Benedict XVI is a religion correspondent's total dream. What fantastic news he makes."