Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - New Zealand's top Catholic bishop has caused a stir by charging that liberal government policies are turning the country into a "moral wasteland."
Cardinal Tom Williams' stinging attack came shortly after lawmakers in Wellington passed the first reading of a bill seeking to recognize "civil unions" for same-sex and heterosexual couples. Critics argue that the move will undercut the special place enjoyed by marriage, and weaken the institution.
In an essay published Monday, Williams decried a range of developments, from the legalization of prostitution to moves toward permitting euthanasia, and said permissiveness and relativism were being deliberately promoted.
"The perennial work of the barbarian is to tear down existing standards, and to debase ideals that have come to characterize a society built on sound moral principle," he said.
"Traditional beliefs and values have been systematically subverted by the derision and outright hostility to the whole Judeo-Christian ethic upon which civilization has been based for the past two millenniums."
Prime Minister Helen Clark told a commercial radio station she found it "sad" that Williams had used "that sort of language."
Homosexuality was not a modern invention, but something that "has always been with us," she argued.
"The steps that most Western societies are now taking is to ensure that loving relationships can have a status recognized by the law."
Lawmakers late last week voted 66-50 for the first reading of the Civil Union Bill. It now goes to a committee for possible amendments, before two more readings in parliament.
The government justice minister responsible for the bill, David Benson-Pope, said he was writing to the Catholic Church Monday with an invitation to meet and discuss the issues addressed by the legislation.
Although the bill is being pushed by the Labor government, Labor and other parties gave members of parliament (MPs) a "conscience" or free vote, and lawmakers' choices cut across party lines.
One Labor MP's decision to abstain has been widely criticized.
South Asia-born Ashraf Choudhary is New Zealand's only Muslim MP, and this is the second time he has chosen not to vote for or against a highly controversial bill.
Last year, his abstention in the final reading of a bill legalizing prostitution allowed the measure to pass by a single vote, to the consternation of many Muslim and Christian opponents of the legislation.
His decision to abstain on the Civil Unions Bill drew strong reactions. One senior member of the official opposition National Party, Judith Collins, suggested he resign.
"It seems that on these difficult conscience issues, Dr. Choudhary has no conscience," she said. "The Muslim community will undoubtedly have questions about his decision and taxpayers deserve to know why they continue to pay this man's salary if he is unable to form an opinion on anything important."
Choudhary subsequently issued a statement saying he was still considering the bill. He said he acknowledged the importance of "protect[ing] the human rights of minorities" as well as the "the expectations of ethnic communities that I represent."
While proponents of the bill are painting it as an anti-discrimination, human rights issue, opponents say it will open the door to same-sex "marriage."
They have pointed to the key role taken in the legislation by two openly homosexual Labor lawmakers, who lobbied hard for the bill and made emotional speeches in support of it.
One Labor MP, Janet Mackey, complained that the two had "chosen to hijack the bill and make it an issue for and about gay people," which she said made it more difficult to sell the measure to her electorate.
Clark said Monday it would have been better if Mackey had not made those comments.
Earlier, the government itself had asked the two homosexual MPs to play a lower-profile part in the campaign, sensitive to criticism that it was pandering to a narrow interest group.
See earlier story:
'Civil Unions' Will Undermine Marriage, Say Critics of Proposed Law (Jun. 22, 2004)
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