ROME Pope Benedict confirmed on Monday he will visit Britain, the first papal visit since 1982, and criticized legislation that could force Churches to hire homosexuals or transsexuals as a violation of "natural law."
In a speech to bishops from England and Wales, Benedict said he looked forward to witnessing at first hand the faith of Catholics in England and Wales during "my forthcoming Apostolic visit to Great Britain."
It was the first time the pope had publicly confirmed the trip. He did not give a time but Church officials said it is expected to take place in September and will include a visit to Scotland, which has its own Catholic bishops' conference.
It will be the first papal visit to Britain since Pope John Paul II visited in 1982.
In his speech, the pope referred to a planned Equality Bill which Churches fear may strip them of their current right to turn down applicants for jobs if they are actively homosexual or have changed their gender.
"Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet ... the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs," he told the bishops.
"In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed," he said.
The bill is currently being discussed in the House of Lords.
The Church of England, the mother Church of Anglicans worldwide, has already expressed concern over the bill, warning the government that if it passes, clergy may be forced to perform marriages where one of the couple has had a sex change.
Other religious groups have also expressed concern.
Benedict urged the bishops to make their voices heard and "convincingly" defend Catholic moral teaching.
"Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society," he said.
He also spoke of the upcoming beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the most prominent English converts from Anglicanism to Catholicism.
Newman, who lived from 1801 to 1890 and became a Catholic in 1845, was a key figure in the Oxford Movement, which tried to move the Church of England closer to Rome.
No date has been set for the beatification, but Archbishop Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, told reporters "it is our fervent hope and expectation" that the pope perform the ceremony during the visit.
(Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby in London; Editing by Louise Ireland)