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Hume advises against strict moral line

CARDINAL Basil Hume, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has urged legislators to be cautious about lowering the age of consent for homosexuality, but said they must be governed by prudential, rather than strictly moral considerations. Catholics, he said, may reasonably argue for the age of consent to be 16, 18, 21, or even higher.

In a statement which continued the Cardinal's delicate balancing act between condemnation of homosexuality in principle and toleration of homosexuals in practice, he said: 'The Church teaches that being a homosexual person is neither morally good nor morally bad; but, like heterosexual genital acts outside marriage, homosexual genital acts, even between consenting adults, are always wrong.' However, his statement is very clear on criminality, saying: 'The Church does not expect that acts that are morally wrong should, by that fact alone, be made criminal offences.'

Dr Elizabeth Stuart, a lesbian Roman Catholic theologian, gave it a cautious welcome. 'I think it's his attempt to make sure that no one thinks that the bishops' silence on this issue means they are approving of homosexual acts; but it is helpful and hopeful for those of us who are working for equality. It is the best kind of statement we could have expected from him.'

The Anglican bishops seem prepared to settle for an age of consent at 18, though some argue for 21 and the Bishop of Durham argues for 16 on grounds of equality. But the Cardinal is careful to avoid this line of reasoning in his statement.

'As a group that has suffered more than its share of oppression and contempt, the homosexual community has a particular claim upon the concern of the Church. But it does not follow that the Church would have to advocate an equivalence in law between the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual genital activity. That is a question for the legislature.

'The law should always seek to protect young people and to promote moral values which society regards as wholesome. I urge parliament to be cautious,' he said.