Catholic Cardinal threatens to close adoption agencies over equalities law

By staff writers
23 Jan 2007

The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy O’Connor, spiritual head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has said that up to twelve Catholic adoption agencies which handle some of the most vulnerable cases may be closed if they are not given an exemption under new equalities legislation – which seeks to give equal access and fair treatment to lesbian and gay people in the provision of goods and services.

The Cardinal says that to require Catholic agencies in receipt of public money, including that of homosexual persons, not to discriminate against lesbians and gays would itself be “discrimination” against members of his church.

His demand that the government change its stance has been made in a forthright letter (reproduced in full below) sent directly to the Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose wife Cherie Booth is a leading Catholic, and to every member of the Cabinet.

However civil rights groups, lesbian and gay Catholics, secular organisations and those working with adoptees and vulnerable children are urging the government to resist what they see as a threat from the Cardinal – who says that the issue is about “fair play”.

In his letter the Cardinal Murphy O’Connor says that the Church “condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual", but still wishes to be able to discriminate against them in the provision of adoption services, because to do otherwise would be to compromise its teaching on family life and the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia, which examines the role of religion in public life, said that many people would be “puzzled and alarmed” by the Cardinal’s intervention.

He commented: “Catholic adoption agencies receive public money, and the new legislation says that they should be usable by all sections of the community. Most people will see that as a reasonable position. Also, many other Christians disagree that the full recognition of lesbian and gay people is any threat to the family or to marriage. Jesus himself made existing ties subsidiary to the new, barrier-breaking community of people he gathered around him, while emphasising the importance of faithfulness and commitment.”

Continued Barrow: “The most senior figure in the Catholic Church in England and Wales says that it would be a tragedy if the new equalities legislation forced Catholic adoption agencies to close. But others will argue that it is the Church which is threatening to close them, and that it is thereby putting its own prejudice over a minority of cases above the needs of vulnerable people. It is also possible to distinguish approval or disapproval of homosexuality from the question of rights, as some on the evangelical wing of the churches recognise. In this case, it is difficult to see how there can be a move beyond the impasse without a change of heart somewhere.”

In his letter the Cardinal stresses that his intention and that of his church is positive. He says: “It has always been the wish of the Catholic Church in this country to work with the government for the common good of its people. We believe we do this in matters of social care, education and in many other ways. Catholic teaching urges us to do this, and we do it gladly in a spirit of cooperation.”

He acknowledges: “Our agencies receive fees from local authorities directly linked to their adoption work. In addition they are supported generally by the Catholic Church community.”

The Rev Martin Reynolds, director of communications for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, commented: "It is sad to see the Roman Catholic church holding the government to ransom. We believe that the best interests of children are not being served by this political game-playing."

Catholic adoption agencies represent a small proportion of overall provision, but play a significant and disproportionately large role in relation to the most vulnerable groups in society.

The Cardinal’s letter in full:

Dear Prime Minister and Members of the Cabinet,

It has always been the wish of the Catholic Church in this country to work with the government for the common good of its people. We believe we do this in matters of social care, education and in many other ways. Catholic teaching urges us to do this, and we do it gladly in a spirit of cooperation.

We would, however, have a serious difficulty with the proposed regulations on discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services if they required our adoption agencies to consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents.

The Catholic Church utterly condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual. Indeed the Church teaches that they must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. We, therefore, recognize many elements of recent legislation - including much in the Northern Ireland regulations - that takes steps to ensure that no such discrimination takes place.

What, then, is the problem? It is that to oblige our agencies in law to consider adoption applications from homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents would require them to act against the principles of Catholic teaching. We require our agencies to recruit and approve appropriate married and single people to meet the needs of children in local authority care for whom adoption has been identified as being in their best interest. We place significant emphasis on marriage, as it is from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born and it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can be welcomed and nurtured. Marital love involves an essential complementarity of male and female. We recognize that some children, particularly those who have suffered abuse and neglect, may well benefit from placement with a single adoptive parent.

However, Catholic teaching about the foundations of family life, a teaching shared not only by other Christian Churches but also other faiths, means that Catholic adoption agencies would not be able to recruit and consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents.

We believe it would be unreasonable, unnecessary and unjust discrimination against Catholics for the government to insist that if they wish to continue to work with local authorities, Catholic adoption agencies must act against the teaching of the Church and their own consciences by being obliged in law to provide such a service.

Catholic adoption agencies have readily accepted their responsibility to provide an informative, sympathetic and helpful service to all those who enquire about adoption, whether or not they meet the agency's criteria for acceptance for assessment. Catholic adoption agencies welcome adoptive applicants from any or no religious background. Homosexual couples are referred to other agencies where their adoption application may be considered. This "sign-posting" responsibility is taken very seriously by all Catholic adoption agencies.

This is an appeal for "fair play," particularly for those many children, Catholic or not, who continue to benefit from the widely recognized, professional and committed adoption services provided through our Catholic adoption agencies. Giving protection to the rights of Catholic adoption agencies to act with integrity will preserve an excellent and highly valued adoption service, representing 32% of the voluntary adoption sector, with an outstanding record of finding stable and loving homes for some of the most disadvantaged children in society - including children who have been abused, physically, sexually and emotionally; children with disability and limited life expectancy; and large sibling groups who need a family where they can grow up together. Catholic adoption agencies continue to excel in their commitment and acknowledged success in securing and sustaining adoptive families for such children while maintaining the lowest rates of adoption disruption in the United Kingdom.

Our agencies receive fees from local authorities directly linked to their adoption work. In addition they are supported generally by the Catholic Church community. Catholics contribute generously both by offering themselves as potential adoptive parents and through the financial contributions they make. They do this because they believe the Catholic Church should contribute to the common good in this way. It is this voluntary contribution that ensures additional support services of a very high standard being sustained for children and families, often over many years, by the Catholic voluntary adoption sector.

Our agencies have an excellent track record, which is well documented by the Commission for Social Care in their Regulatory Inspection Programme. It would be an unnecessary tragedy if legislation forced the closure of these adoption services, thereby significantly reducing the potential resources of adoptive families for the approximately 4,000 children currently waiting for adoption placements.

This outcome is wholly avoidable. We urge you to ensure that the regulations shortly to be laid before Parliament enable our agencies to continue their work with local authorities for the common good. There is nothing to lose, and children waiting for an adoptive family have much to gain, by our continuing successful collaboration.

Yours sincerely,
Archbishop of Westminster

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