THIS WEEK'S conundrum from the Ministry of Good Intentions: some equality laws are more equal than others. It doesn't begin to make sense, but this is the Orwellian realpolitik we're faced with in view of the Government's decision to back down over the proposed amendment to its Equality Bill. On Wednesday, following a trouncing in the Lords and a broadside from the Pope, Equality Minister Harriet Harman confirmed she is no longer seeking "clarification" on the exemption of religious organisations from standard employment law.
It was never that big an amendment. UK law already exempts churches from anti-discrimination legislation concerning the appointment of, say, women or homosexuals, to the priesthood or other "religious posts". Since the law was introduced in 2003, however, religious bodies have unofficially stretched exemption to cover non-religious posts within their organisations. The clarification, pursued, until Wednesday, with some vigour by Ms Harman, would only have closed this loophole.
One man's loophole, another's slippery slope. Certainly it was all too much for Pope Benedict XVI, who, on Monday, took the opportunity of his meeting with Catholic bishops from England and Wales to launch a direct attack on the Equality Bill. "In some respects," he pronounced, "it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is granted and by which it is guaranteed."
The pontiff did not make explicit his egalitarian concerns, but the invoking of "natural law" in connection to legislation which, unamended, could effectively bar gay men and women from senior positions within Catholic organisations, sends a clear enough signal.
Based on the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas, "natural law" is the concept which has underpinned Catholic attitudes to sex and sexuality since the 13th century. Building on the Aristotelian notion that "in all things of nature, there is something of the marvellous" , Aquinas held that the natural instinct of man to procreate was evidence of his essential goodness. The flip side to Aquinas' theory (which might have surprised old Aristotle) was that sex for any purpose other than procreation was sinful.
He was something of a hardliner on this, to the point of insisting that rape and incest, since they might result in conception, were less reprehensible than coitus interruptus. You could pursue this theory down several interesting avenues (what would Aquinas make of the rhythm method, the only birth control approved by the Catholic Church?), but clearly it doesn't leave a lot of wriggle room for gay …