The Irish Catholic bishops will consider next month whether they should approve the extension of legal rights to couples, including homosexuals, who live in relationships other than marriage, writes Martin Wall.
Yesterday the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, became the first leading Church figure to appear to support proposals made by the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, at the weekend to give gay couples legal recognition in terms of tax and inheritance issues.
Dr Martin said in a newspaper interview that he recognised that there were many different kinds of caring relationships and that these often created dependencies for those involved. "The State may feel in justice that the rights of people in these relationships need to be protected," he said.
He stressed he was not thinking mainly of homosexual relationships, but rather caring dependent relationships in general. However he said that he did not exclude homosexual relationships.
It is understood there were about a half dozen calls to Archbishop's House in Dublin expressing concern at Dr Martin's comments. The archbishop was out of the country yesterday.
A spokesman for the Catholic bishops told The Irish Times last night the issue would be discussed in detail at a meeting in Maynooth early next month.
The Catholic bishops are scheduled to make a submission after the meeting to an all- party Oireachtas committee which is looking at the role and definition of the family in the Irish Constitution.
Last summer the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Seán Brady, indicated that the Catholic Church would oppose any move by the State to recognise gay marriage. In a speech last May he said it was essential to acknowledge the vital distinction between private homosexual behaviour and formalising that behaviour as a relationship in society, foreseen and approved by law.
"The recognition of same-sex unions on the same terms as marriage would suggest to future generations and to society as a whole that marriage as husband and wife and a same-sex relationship, are equally valid options and an equally valid context for the bringing up of children. Sacred scripture and the natural order clearly point out that this is not the case," Dr Brady stated.
The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill, said yesterday he believed that his Church would support the extension of legal rights on issues such as tax, welfare benefits, inheritance and hospital visits to cohabiting couples, both same gender and others.
He did not think that the Church of Ireland submission to the all-party committee, which is currently being drawn up, would support the recognition of gay marriage.
The chairman of the all-party committee, Mr Denis O'Donovan, said a large number of the submissions received to date wanted the Government to give priority to issues such as taxation and inheritance for cohabiting couples.
Ms Louise Tierney of Outhouse, a resource centre for the gay and lesbian community, said Dr Martin's comments were "very heartening" and that a broad consensus appeared to be emerging around supporting committed relationships.