CARDINAL Sean Brady yesterday issued an ultimatum to the Government to abandon its "revolutionary" plan of affording co-habiting and same-sex couples the same constitutional status as married couples.
If the Government does not back down, it could face a major legal challenge in the courts led by the Catholic Church and lay bodies, the Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh warned.
The prospect of the biggest Church-State clash since the ratification of the Constitution in 1937 was signalled yesterday by the Cardinal, when he threatened to mobilise church and public opposition to the most fundamental change in family law planned by a government in 81 years.
In a hard-hitting address to the Ceifin conference on the role of the family in Ennis, Co Clare, Cardinal Brady bluntly warned that the outlined provisions of the Civil Partnership Bill, published in June, undermined the special status of marriage guaranteed in the Constitution.
Cardinal Brady said he was concerned that Ireland looked set to repeat the anti-family mistakes of societies like Britain and the US, by introducing legislation which would promote cohabitation, remove most incentives to marry and grant same-sex couples the same rights as marriage, with the exception of being allowed to adopt children.
"This will effectively dissolve the special status of marriage between a man and woman enshrined in the Constitution," the Cardinal claimed. "This would indeed be a 'revolution', perhaps the greatest in the history of the Irish family".
The Cardinal noted that the Department of Justice had confirmed that social welfare and tax entitlements on a par with those of spouses would be provided through the Finance and Social Welfare Bills.
"It is difficult to see how anything other than the introduction of de facto 'marriage' for cohabiting and same-sex couples is envisaged," he said.
"If this is the case, those who are committed to the probity of the Constitution, to the moral integrity of the word of God, and to the precious human value of marriage between a man and a woman as the foundation of society, may have to pursue all avenues of legal and democratic challenge to the published legislation."
The Cardinal invited Justice Minister Dermot Ahern to reconsider the proposed legislation with Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his colleagues. "Whether what is envisaged will breach the Constitution remains to be seen," he said. "But no one should underestimate how radical and far-reaching the legislation could be."
Cardinal Brady also suggested that the proposal undermined the principle of equality it claimed to uphold, by limiting protection to those in established relationships of dependency which were not sexual.
The Cardinal's remarks came under attack from Moninne Griffith, coordinator of MarriagEquality group, as stigmatising children raised by gay mums and dads and underlining that he was out of touch with modern Ireland.
Young Fine Gael President Barry Walsh described the Cardinal's latest foray into politics as regrettable.
Senator David Norris compared the Cardinal's attitude to gays to that of Zimbabwe despot Robert Mugabe.
Last night governnment sources said that the Bill is part of the Programme for Government and would be legislated for next year.
The sources said that the Cardinal appeared to be under a misapprehensìon about the Bill and it would not undermine marriage.
Same sex couples would register as civil partners, while partners of the opposite sex would not be registered.