Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, has spoken out strongly against same-sex civil partnerships.

His criticism in a sermon in Limerick came just weeks after the government published its Civil Partnership Bill which will give gay couples in Ireland similar legal status to married people for the first time.

Brady said marriage between a man and a woman “will always remain the best environment in which to raise children.” He claimed that “what the government is planning will hugely change people’s concept of the family.”

“Any government that undermines such an environment could hardly be said to be promoting the common good,” he said.

The cardinal also said that provisions in the proposed legislation allowing for the prosecution of registrars who refuse to officiate at same-sex partnerships represented an “alarming attack on the fundamental principle of freedom of religion and conscience.”

 The Green Party, the minority partner in government, and gay rights organizations defended the planned new legislation.  

Ciaran Cuffe of the Green Party, which played a key role in lobbying for the legislation, said he was saddened at the cardinal’s remarks.

He added, “They do little to promote a culture of greater tolerance and inclusiveness in society. The civil partnership legislation offers security and stability for people who love one another and clearly upholds the common good.”

Kieran Rose of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) said it was clear there was a democratic consensus for civil partnerships, which followed extensive national dialogue and consultation.

Rose said, “The cardinal is, of course, entitled to an opinion on civil partnership and is entitled to express it. Churches too are entitled to marry whom they wish in their churches.

 “However, civil marriage and civil partnership are to do with the state. The state, through civil partnership, is for the first time providing recognition and comprehensive protections for lesbian and gay couples.”

He said the legislation would address many urgent and pressing issues that thousands of lesbian and gay couples face now, such as establishing a legal status for same-sex relationships and a comprehensive set of rights, protections and enforceable obligations on the part of civil partners.

Changing Attitude Ireland, an organization that describes itself as an all-Ireland Christian pro-gay group, said the introduction of similar legislation in the North three years ago had helped strengthen families and the institution of marriage.

Reverend Mervyn Kingston, a Church of Ireland clergyman and secretary of the organization, said the legislation has been available in the cardinal’s diocese of Armagh -- which straddles the border -- and “the sky has not fallen in.”