The Roman Cahtolic Church in Ireland may support a legal challenge to new legislation that aims to give gay and lesbian couples the right to civil partnerships.

Cardinal Sean Brady said that as “marriage and the family are of public interest,” it was appropriate for the Church to intervene.

He accused the Irish government of “the introduction of de facto ‘marriage’ for cohabiting and same-sex couples.”

In June Ireland’s Justice minister published a draft bill that will grant rights to gay and lesbian couples legal recognition in areas such as pensions, social security, property rights, tax, succession and the payment of maintenance.

It does not provide for legal recognition of the many same-sex couples, in particular women, who are parenting children together.

The government has ruled out gay marriage, claiming that it would require a change to the country’s constitution and a potentially divisive referendum.

Article 41 of the Irish constitution says:

“The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack.”

It does not give any definition of marriage itself, and critics and constitutional scholars argue it does not outlaw gay marriage.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in the Republic of Ireland in 1993.

Both discrimination and incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation are illegal.

“Some might argue that it is in fact a breach of the Government’s Constitutional duty to protect the institution of marriage,” said Cardinal Brady, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

“Marriage, and with it the common good, is directly undermined when legislation and policy reduce marriage to simply one more form of relationship among others.”

The Cardinal claimed marriage is “fundamental to the public good and entitled to special consideration and care from the State. Other relationships, whether they are sexual or not, are the result of private interest.

“They do not have the same fundamental relationship to the good of society and to the bringing up of children as the family based on marriage.”

MarriagEquality, a group formed to campaign for full civil marriage, said in a statement:

“The comments by Cardinal Sean Brady continue to stigmatise the children raised by gay mums and dads and underlines that he is out of touch with modern Ireland.

“All adults and children are entitled to equality regardless of their sexuality or the sexuality of their parents, this however is not the case and must change.

“It is high time that the lesbian and gay family unit, including children, are recognised and protected in Ireland.

Out gay Senator David Norris accused the Cardinal of allying himself with Robert Mugabe and Ian Paisley.

“Will the Deputy Leader reassure the House of the progress of the Civil Partnership Bill in the light of the very strong comments by Cardinal Seán Brady?” he asked in the Seanad yesterday.

“I found it a strange priority for the archdiocese of Armagh, when it only has seven seminarians and 130 priests for 200,000 people, to take on the disadvantaged in a manner which, sadly, can only further alienate young people from the church.

“To make a totem of marriage in the way that it has been done is nothing other than blasphemy. I refer to the gospels of Jesus Christ when he was reprimanded by the pharisees for breaking the Sabbath. He made the point that this was an institution made for man, not man for the institution.

“The reports of his comments on RTE showed an arrogant, threatening and legalistic tone as the cardinal allied himself with Karl Rove, George Bush, Robert Mugabe and Ian Paisley.

“I was one of the founders of the Southern Ireland Civil Rights Association which fought for the civil and human rights of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland.

“It horrifies me that the leader of a church should seek to stamp his mark on such discrimination and inequality. I very much regret that I am forced to raise this issue. I thought we had put it behind us.

“Why are we dragged back into the 19th century in this shameful and disgraceful way?”

A recent poll found that 84% of Irish people support either gay marriage or civil partnerships.

As part of the UK, civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples have been legal in Northern Ireland since December 2005.