Roman Catholic Church considers rallying faithful in gay marriage debate

London, England - Senior bishops preparing to draw up letter to be read at masses across England and Wales when the Government consultation on plans to redefine marriage gets under way later this month, it is thought.

This would be only the second time in recent history that a joint pastoral letter on behalf of all bishops in England and Wales has been issued on an issue of political importance.

The move is being discussed as the debate over extending marriage to homosexual couples gathers momentum.

At the weekend Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the most senior Catholic cleric in Scotland accused the Coalition of trying to “redefine reality” and branding the proposals a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”.

Although the proposals would not extend to Scotland, he argued that they would nevertheless “shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world”.

Cardinal O’Brien is one of only two British members of the College of Cardinals, the body which elects popes. The former Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor remains a voting Cardinal until he turns 80 in August this year.

The remarks drew robust responses from politicians and campaigners including Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader who accused the Cardinal of “scaremongering”.

“I don’t want anybody to feel that this is a licence for whipping up prejudice,” she said.

Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, said: “If he supports marriage, the Cardinal should welcome the fact that many lesbian and gay couples want to get married.”

Meanwhile Alan Duncan, the Tory international development minister, who is in a civil partnership, said that the plans would not apply to religious marriage.

“I don’t think they need cause any upset for Cardinal O’Brien because they’re not really going to affect him,” Mr Duncan said.

But one of Mr Duncan’s Conservative colleagues, the MP Peter Bone, argued that the parents and teachers who objected to promoting same-sex marriage in schools could be ostracised.

“If marriage is redefined, schools will have no choice but to give children equivalent teaching on same sex marriage, even those children of a very young age, including those at primary school,” he wrote.

“So what will happen to parents who because of religious, or philosophical beliefs take their children out of lessons?

“It is simply inconceivable in today’s world where political correctness runs amok in our institutions, that there would not be profound consequences for those who hold traditional views.

“Parents who object will be treated as bigots and outcasts, possibly excluded from being on the PTA, or from being a governor.

“Discriminated against and persecuted because they hold views that have been enshrined in our laws and have been the cornerstone of our society for two thousand years.

“And what of the teachers who object to teaching about same sex marriage. Will they face disciplinary action? How will it affect their careers?"

Five years ago, a pastoral letter issued by the then Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, helped secure the future of faith schools whose future funding and status was in doubt at the time.