First Archbishop Mario Conti, then Cardinal Keith O'Brien, then Bishop Philip Tartaglia.

Over the past few days this high-powered trio has declared what seems to me to be all-out war on the Scottish Government. In their rejection of same-sex marriage, the churchmen are using very strong -- and thankfully, very clear -- language.

Archbishop Conti wrote a letter to this newspaper; Cardinal O’Brien wrote an article for another newspaper; Bishop Tartaglia made a long submission to the Scottish Government. So we are not talking about off the cuff remarks made in live interviews. We are talking about considered, carefully drafted statements.

Ten days ago the Scottish Government launched a consultation on same-sex marriage. Over the next three months anyone in Scotland is free to submit an opinion on whether such marriages should be introduced. The Catholic Church has responded to this invitation with alacrity, but perhaps not in the way the Government expected or wanted.

The responses of Cardinal O’Brien and Bishop Tartaglia were especially outspoken. Cardinal O’Brien described the proposal as “madness”. He further accused our elected Government of “staggering arrogance”. Bishop Tartaglia -- a much younger cleric regarded by insiders as the “man to watch” in the Scottish Catholic hierarchy -- wrote of falsity, of illiberal and undemocratic intolerance, and even implied the Scottish Government was seeking to intimidate people.

So we are hardly into the consultation period, and already this great blast from the Catholic Church can only have thrown the Scottish Government on to the defensive. Our Government was less than surefooted in its attempt to deal with the sectarian problem; it will be fascinating to see how it copes with this potentially much more explosive, and possibly electorally damaging, issue. If the Scottish Government makes an enemy of the Scottish Catholic church here, the fall- out could be most serious -- politically as well as religiously and socially.

At the heart of the anger expressed with such fearless vigour by the church leaders is concern that the precious institution of traditional marriage is being grievously undermined by politicians. I am certain this is the underlying issue, not any homophobia. If there was even a whiff of homophobia, any decent person would of course deprecate it.

My own view is that promiscuity, homosexual or heterosexual, is the real problem we face. But I also think the institution of marriage is being treated with frivolity and a total lack of respect -- indeed a kind of generalised, low grade contempt. I think that the best way to raise children is within a traditional marriage.

Yet marriage is being undermined -- not least, and ironically, by the vogue for flashy weddings. It can seem these days that marriage begins and ends with the wedding. How many people attend lavish weddings knowing instinctively that the marriage is unlikely to last?

Many weddings are mere consumerist spectacles. You still get dignified, decent weddings -- I’ve been to one or two in the last year or so -- but too many weddings now just seem to be about showing off. And I would not exclude royal weddings from that stricture.

Meanwhile we have civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage. Civil partnerships for same-sex unions have, interestingly, not proved all that popular. In this context the Scottish Catholic hierarchy needs to spell out whether it accepts the legality of same sex civil partnerships.

A final point: In no way do I deprecate the strength and force of the language deployed by Cardinal O’Brien and Bishop Tartaglia in particular. They are speaking out with exceptional vehemence, just as churchmen should. Contrast this with the Church of Scotland’s attempts to prevent its ministers taking part in public debate on the related issue of gay clergy. Such a fear of public discussion seems to me wholly inimical to the reformed tradition.

The likes of Cardinal O’Brien and Bishop Tartaglia are not leaders who flinch from controversy. They see it as their duty to let people, including politicians, know exactly where they stand.

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