In response to comments this weekend by head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, The Times has published an editorial stating it is firmly in support of gay marriage.

A leading article in the paper today says: “When David Cameron told his party conference in October that he supported gay marriage because he was a Conservative, he may not have fully anticipated the range and force of the opposition that he would elicit. He knows now.

Despite “criticism from clerical and political opponents”, the paper says the prime minister’s position is “right” and equality would be a “just and wise reform”.

It continues: “It would enrich the institution of marriage, enhance social stability and expand the sum of human happiness. It is a cause that has the firm support of The Times.

“Opponents accuse the Government of undermining the foundations of marriage and abusing the power of the State. It was predictable that some Conservative backbenchers would deride the proposals as (in the words of one of them) “completely nuts”. But more influential figures are deploying similarly heated rhetoric.

“Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, yesterday branded the Government’s position a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has accused the Government of acting like a dictatorship. More temperately, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, maintains that changing the law to allow gay marriage would force unwanted change on the rest of the nation.

“If the critics were to restrict their case to stressing the institution of marriage as a support for stable families and societies, they would be making an important contribution to debate. And, though Cardinal O’Brien and Dr Sentamu have chosen to embellish their argument with absurd and inflammatory invective, Dr Williams, a Christian leader of great intellectual gifts, raises an issue that should give pause to those who support change.

“Reforms to marital law need to be informed by a sense of history, lest they give rise to unintended and damaging consequences. Only in the past generation has the principle of same-sex marriage gained widespread support. It is not a frivolous criticism that the legitimacy of marriage and the social cohesion that it provides might be damaged if the law is rewritten without regard for how most people understand an historic institution.

“The objection is misguided, even so. British society has in 45 years gone from decriminalising homosexuality to introducing civil partnerships. That legislative and cultural distance is immense. Only one of the reasons that such reforms have enhanced the quality of life is their expansion of personal liberty. Recognising the validity of homosexual relationships serves the public good too. It has encouraged gay couples to commit to enduring partnerships, in which many show a devotion, care and disinterested love that do far more to create ordered domesticity than government programmes could ever achieve.

The Murdoch-owned News International paper concludes that “far from damaging marriage, expanding it to same-sex couples shores it up”.

It says: “Stable gay relationships are a part of national life. If marital law cannot accommodate them, the purpose of marriage will eventually be brought into question. Gay marriage will be a notable but still evolutionary social reform. And the marriage contract has changed historically to take account of shifting mores.

“Earlier ages considered that allowing women to own property was against God and nature. Changing the law abolished a gross injustice and thereby enhanced the legitimacy of marriage. It is time to lift another form of discriminatory treatment. Reforming the law would enrich the lives of same-sex couples who wish to marry in order to affirm by rite that they love and are loved in return. By that commitment, they will enrich the society and culture that their fellow citizens share.”