It's Harriet vs the Pope in the Great Equality War ; the Deputy Labour Leader and the Head of the Roman Catholic Church Are Two Very Different Missionaries

Article excerpt

ELL, you have to admire Pope Benedict's timing.

WThe Vatican's intervention in Harriet Harman's equalities bill is one of those meteors which occasionally strikes the placid progress of lawmaking. Three months before the election is a pretty good time to do it.

Ms Harman's last-blast equalities legislation has been criticised by modernising Cabinet colleagues as a ragbag of ideas which assume the state is best placed to foist more equality on the country. Public sector reformers regard it as an extra burden: surely their primary purpose is to improve schools and hospitals, not undertake audits of which class is being best catered for by which service? The Harman bill has already unleashed many Cabinet battles, not least with Peter Mandelson, the business secretary, whose reservations have been privately vocal. Senior Blairites insist it would not have got through on their watch. "It's Gordon's payback for Harriet -- and it gives her something to do," carps one.

Ms Harman, to give her credit, is as full of missionary zeal as the Pope -- just of a different kind.

Although she is as argumentative as a Labour QC should be, I doubt she would much like to trade definitions of the Natural Law, from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas and the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, with the Pope. His arguments, while often calculated to raise secular hackles, always have an intellectual grounding -- in this case, the separate spheres of religious and civil life.

The more controversial part is that to a Catholic traditionalist such as Pope Benedict, the Natural Law would preclude homosexuals being able to act on their sexuality, which would seem to most of us, including many Catholics, very unnatural indeed . But it is hard to deny that the clashes between the secular state and the second biggest faith group in the country have multiplied in the past few years. This is what is moving the Pope to call for a unified voice from bishops and a firmer line of resistance on meddling in faith schools and the limits placed on religious organisations.

Much of the ill feeling is left over from the argument over the rights of Catholic adoption agencies to exclude adoption by gay couples. This was a divisive issue in Cabinet. Two ordinarily herbivorous ministers, Ruth Kelly, a devout Roman Catholic, and Alan Johnson, an equally devout defender of the secular tradition, had bitter and ill-tempered exchanges on the matter.

Ms Harman's new bill, precisely because it is so broad in its reach, does, however, invite the kind of criticism the Pope has made. She believes that by extending rights to "religious workers" (as Private Eye's Dave Spart would call them), she is merely extending fair treatment the rest of us would expect into parishes and other church institutions.

Of course, this leaves the Church, as one commentator earnestly put it yesterday, "sadly out of touch with the public mood". But the purpose of a spiritual leader is not to fall in behind the public mood, which is by nature temporal and changeable. It is to offer an insight into a different, eternal truth. …