A leading adviser to the Archbishop of Westminster has blamed abortion and gay rights for turning Britain into a "selfish, hedonistic wasteland" which has become "the geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death".
Edmund Adamus, director of pastoral affairs at the diocese of Westminster and an adviser to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, said Parliament had turned Britain into a country which is more culturally anti-Catholic than nations where Christians are violently persecuted such as Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan.
His comments, made with only weeks to go before Pope Benedict XVI's historic state visit to Britain, will cause embarrassment between organisers of the visit and government officials, because they reveal how some members of the Church's hierarchy believe that the pontiff is travelling to a hostile and anti-Catholic country.
In an interview with Zenit, a Catholic news agency with close links to the Vatican, Mr Adamus railed against five decades of equality legislation and the availability of abortion services in modern Britain.
"Whether we like it or not, as British citizens and residents of this country – and whether we are even prepared as Catholics to accept this reality and all it implies – the fact is that historically, and continuing right now, Britain, and in particular London, has been and is the geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death," he said.
"Our laws and lawmakers for over 50 years have been the most permissively anti-life and progressively anti-family and marriage, in essence one of the most anti-Catholic landscapes, culturally speaking – more than even those places where Catholics suffer open persecution."
The expression "culture of death" was first coined by John Paul II and is frequently used by Catholic traditionalists as a catch-all phrase covering the practice of abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.
Mr Adamus' comments are significant because of his senior position in one of the most influential dioceses in the country. His role as pastoral director gives him access to some of the Church's most senior figures, including Archbishop Nichols. He was once a priest at St Augustine's in central Manchester but he left the clergy and married.
In the same interview, he spoke at length about marriage and the role of men and women, pleading with Catholics to "exhibit counter-cultural signals against the selfish, hedonistic wasteland that is the objectification of women for sexual gratification."
He added: "Britain in particular, with its ever-increasing commercialisation of sex, not to mention its permissive laws advancing the 'gay' agenda, is such a wasteland."
Last night, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales distanced himself from the interview. A spokesperson for Archbishop Nichols said the views expressed by Mr Adamus "did not reflect the Archbishop's opinions".
Mr Adamus's comments, however, drew widespread criticism from gay rights groups and secularists. Peter Tatchell, a leading figure behind the Protest the Pope coalition, said: "The suggestion that gay equality laws make Britain a moral wasteland is insulting but not unexpected. The Pope supports legal discrimination against gay people. He says we are not entitled to equal human rights.
"[But] to claim that Britain is the centre of a culture of death is absurd. We are a world leader in scientific research to develop new medical treatments to save lives and we make a significant contribution to helping combat hunger and poverty in developing countries."
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, added: "This anti-Catholicism of which Adamus complains is shared by most British Catholics, sickened by their church hierarchy's dogma-driven policies on contraception, homosexuality and even abortion. That is why mass attendance here has halved in just 20 years and why only a quarter of Catholics agree with the official line on abortion – and fewer still on homosexuality and contraception."
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay rights group Stonewall, said Mr Adamus's comments would do little to foster a healthy atmosphere for the Pope's visit.
"Of course the Pope should visit Britain. But the gratuitously offensive comments being made by the Archbishop's adviser are hardly likely to promote sensitive debate about respect for religion in the 21st century. You would think that, given its present status, the Roman Catholic Church in Britain would be slightly more sensitive about wagging its finger at other people," he said.