Listening to Cardinal Keith O'Brien spluttering into the microphone on the Today programme on 5 March, I felt sorry, even embarrassed, for my Catholic friends. Like the article that the cardinal had written for the Sunday Telegraph a day previously in opposition to plans to allow same-sex marriage, the interview was (to use his word) "grotesque", almost parodic in its extravagance.
To allow the unions of same-sex couples to be referred to legally as "marriages" rather than civil partnerships would, O'Brien thinks, represent a violation of human rights equivalent to the legalisation of slavery. Before we knew where we were, he told John Humphrys: "Further aberrations would be taking place and society would be degenerating even further than it already has into immorality."
When Humphrys pointed out that many might consider this comparison with slavery to be rather more "grotesque" than legally recognised same-sex marriage, O'Brien was having none of it. The analogy was, he asserted, a "good example as to what might happen in our own country if we go down this path".
I mean, really. What we are talking about here is replacing the phrase "civil partnership" with the word "marriage" in official documents. Calling a spade a spade - no more and no less.
O'Brien claimed that Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines marriage "as a relationship between men and women". This is the basis for his preposterous assertion that to allow same-sex marriage would be a "violation" of human rights.
The declaration was written in 1948, at a time when in most countries homosexuality was still illegal (as it remains in many countries today). Gay rights were simply not on the agenda. It was not until last year that the UN Human Rights Council finally passed a resolution condemning discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people. Nevertheless, the article does not specify that marriage must be between a man and a woman. It merely asserts: "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family."
Age of consent
Adding the words "or sexual orientation" to that list would neither destroy its meaning nor subvert its purpose and if the declaration were being drawn up today, it is, I suggest, inconceivable that they would be omitted.
The use of the phrase "men and women" rather than, say, "human beings" does not strike me as an assertion of exclusive heterosexuality. Rather, it should be read as a statement of sexual equality, reinforcing the following provision that marriage "shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses". Spouses, note, not "husband and wife".
Over the past decade, gay marriage has been made legal in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden, in parts of Mexico and Brazil, and in six American states. In none of those places has the sky fallen in. The list is growing and will continue to grow. In several countries that, like Britain, have adopted the "compromise" of civil partnership, the debate has moved on, inevitably, to the next step of abolishing the artificial distinction between the two.
Civil partnership increasingly looks to have been a temporary solution, a way of appeasing traditional-minded defenders of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual union - people who, let's be honest, never wanted the state to recognise gay relationships at all - until society as a whole
had become comfortable with the idea. The coalition government's proposal is backed by David Cameron, who has rightly noted that the ideal of marriage, gay as well as straight, is inherently conservative. This seems like a natural moment to embrace full equality in civil (if not religious) marriage. But it will happen, sooner or later.
O'Brien's apocalyptic rhetoric, like that of the former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, speaks of a Cnut-like desperation to hold back the tide. It is as though he has given up on rational debate; as though he knows that the argument has already been lost. He should reflect on the damage his intemperate language will do to the image and long-term prospects of the Catholic Church in these islands.
In a recent message, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the benefits of silence, a "precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive". Learning to communicate, he wrote, "is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak.
This is especially important for those engaged in the task of evangelisation." Wise words, indeed. Cardinal O'Brien might do well to reflect on them.