London, England - In his most detailed public comments on the controversial move, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols warned against the proposal to “annexe the territory of marriage” for same-sex couples and “weaken” an institution at the heart of society.
He also expressed some support for the activists camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral, saying that protest can help start important debates, but added that they needed to make their demands clearer.
And in response to the current scandals involving abuse committed by Catholic clergy, the Archbishop of Westminster admitted that the Church’s response to victims has been “inadequate”.
His comments highlight the fact that the Prime Minister will face strong opposition from traditional religious groups over the next year, despite receiving praise for his commitment to allow full marriage for same-sex couples for the first time.
Homosexuals have been allowed to enter into civil partnerships since 2005, giving them the same legal rights as heterosexuals.
From next month will be able to hold the ceremonies in places of worship, providing the governing body of the faith group agrees.
In March, a public consultation will begin on allowing same-sex couples to call themselves married and Mr Cameron has said he hopes the historic change will become law before the election planned for 2015.
But mainstream religious organisations, including the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, believe that scripture and tradition dictate that marriage must be between a man and a woman so it can lead to the possibility of children.
Catholic bishops have spent the past week at a meeting in Leeds, during which they discussed the Government’s plans.
Asked about them by The Daily Telegraph at a press conference on Friday, Archbishop Nichols replied: “I am very disappointed that the Government seems to be choosing this direction.
“I respect the Prime Minister’s insistence and emphasis on the importance of equality in relationships and the vital importance of commitment. Those are things that we recognise as very important to the health of society.
“But commitment plus equality does not equal marriage and the distinctive nature of marriage is something that is very important to the well-being of society because it is the foundation of family life as we know it and as it experienced by the vast majority of people.”
He did not criticise civil partnerships, pointing out that they allow same-sex couples to pledge their commitment to each other, but added: “To respect a life-long partnership is one thing and to call it a marriage, if you like to annexe the territory of marriage, is something quite different.”
Asked about the Occupy encampment that unsettled the Church of England by setting up outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the Archbishop agreed that the activists are giving voice to “profound” and “widespread” concerns that the burden of the debt crisis is being felt “unfairly”, and “at times understandable anger”.
But he went on: “What I don’t hear from the protesters is any coherent analysis or even a set of pointed and shaped questions to be asked and answered.
“To make progress there has to be some structured conversation and dialogue.
“I think protest helps to motivate that dialogue but it doesn’t help to shape it.”
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference has agreed the help it has provided to survivors of clerical abuse “has not been adequately developed”, and plans to develop a “care pathway” for victims who come forward. This is likely to involve counselling.