How many people in this country are homosexual. One in ten? That is what gay rights campaigners have often claimed. One in 20 may be nearer the mark, or perhaps an even smaller proportion. In any event, homosexuals constitute a minority, and one which until quite recently suffered a good deal of discrimination.

They should therefore understand better than most people what it feels like not to be able to live their lives openly according to their values.

Not very long ago, homosexual activity was prohibited, and it does not require much imagination on the part of homosexuals to conceive what it must have been like to exist on the wrong side of the law.

I am sure many of them can. But some of their supporters can’t. Homophobes once imposed their values on homosexuals.

By a curious twist, those who constitute the homosexual lobby (whose members are so numerous that few of them can actually be homosexual) are now trying to impose their values on another minority – Roman Catholics.

The Government’s Sexual Orientation Regulations, due to come into force in April, will outlaw all form of discrimination against gays.

It will require adoption agencies to make no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual couples when children are put up for adoption.

This has upset the Roman Catholic Church in England, which says that its interpretation of Christian doctrine makes it impossible to comply with the new law.

If the rules come into force, the Roman Catholics will close their 12 adoption agencies. There is also a possibility of the Church fighting the issue in the courts.

They are absolutely not trying to stop homosexual couples adopting children. That already happens, and in the view of the Roman Catholic Church is bound to continue.

Indeed, it is even offering to direct homosexual couples to other agencies. All that the Catholic Church is saying, in its relatively small corner of the wood, is that it does not want children from its own agencies – a tiny portion of the whole – to be adopted by homosexual couples.

Is this extreme? I hardly think so. The Roman Catholic Church is not ‘anti-homosexual’ in the sense of believing that homosexuals are inferior in the eyes of God.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Catholic leader in England and Wales, has written in a letter to the Cabinet that “the Catholic Church utterly condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse against people who are homosexual”.

What the Church is arguing is what almost everyone believed until the day before yesterday, and what a majority probably still believes – that in an ideal world, all children, and in this case adopted children, should have two parents who are male and female rather than female and female, or male and male.

This is surely reasonable. But, mark, the Catholics are not trying to impose their view (unlike their opponents) on everyone else. They just want it to apply in their own adoption agencies.

A majority in the Cabinet and the Labour Party disagrees. So does what we might call the liberal metropolitan elite, which cares much more about the rights of homosexuals than it does about the rights of Roman Catholics to live according to their consciences.

On Tuesday, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, was questioned first by Jon Snow on Channel Four News and then by Jeremy Paxman on BBC2’s Newsnight as though he were an elder of the Ku Klux Klan, whereas gay MPs on both programmes were treated respectfully.

Why can’t Catholics be allowed to live according to their consciences? The Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York have perhaps rather belatedly asked this question in a letter to the Prime Minister.

No one would maintain that people should be permitted to follow their consciences in every case.

Obviously they should not be allowed to do so if they threaten others. Islamic terrorists are presumably acting according to their consciences when they try to blow us up.

But the Roman Catholics in this instance pose no threat. They are forcing no one to accept their values.

They are merely asking to be able to live by their own lights, which are the traditional values of the Church throughout the ages, and which are still accepted by many millions of Christians and non-Christians in this country, including (I would hazard) many homosexuals.

Roman Catholics are faced by the tyranny of the majority or, to be precise, by the tyranny of a large and vocal minority which passes itself off as the majority.

This group wishes to impose its values on those who have different values, as in another age homophobes tried to impose their values on homosexuals.

We are not talking here about an honest divergence of opinion. My blood ran cold when on Tuesday night I watched Angela Eagle, Labour MP, a member of the party’s national executive and an open lesbian, being interviewed by Mr Paxman.

He turned to her fondly when he had finished sneering at the Archbishop of Birmingham.

Ms Eagle said that the new law putting homosexuals on an equal legal footing with heterosexuals in adoptions would have to apply to everyone, including Roman Catholics.

She actually said: “We can’t have exceptions.” There is no room for discretion, no opportunity for people to live by different, and equally valid, standards. Everyone must conform.

Here is the authentic voice of totalitarianism. “We can’t have exceptions.” That is a chilling statement which disturbs me more than I can say.

In Ms Eagle’s grim world, there can be no differences, no discretion. Isn’t the exercise of mercy a discretion? Not for Ms Eagle. “We can’t have exceptions.”

I don’t know whether her views are typical of those in the Cabinet and the wider party, but I suspect they are. New Labour has never easily tolerated minorities which do not share its values. Weren’t supporters of fox-hunting dismissed and victimised in a similar way?

The irony is that, for once, Tony Blair was not automatically on the side of the bullies who wanted everyone to conform to their standards.

Along with Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, who is a strong Catholic, Mr Blair had developed serious reservations about the Sexual Orientation Regulations as they apply to adoption.

It is a sign of his diminishing authority that, not withstanding his reservations, he has now been forced to cave in to the majority view within the Cabinet.

Despite pressure from his Catholic wife, Cherie, as well as his worries about alienating hundreds of thousands of Catholic Labour voters, he has finally accepted defeat.

It was surprising that at five minutes to midnight in his time as Labour leader, he thought he could face down the intolerance of orthodoxy in the Cabinet and the wider Labour Party.

Homosexuals were once persecuted. Now some of those who claim to speak for them think like tyrants.

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