Italy would not be Italy if it did not reflect faithfully the divisions that have brought turmoil to the leadership of the Catholic Church.
Last Saturday, as the Vatican was revealing that conservative bishops had blocked a distinctly guarded welcome to “men and women of homosexual tendencies”, 16 gay couples whose marriages abroad had just been registered by the mayor of Rome were being hustled out through a back exit of the city hall to avoid a clash with protesters.
Pope Francis and Italy’s centre-left prime minister, Matteo Renzi, are following remarkably similar paths. Just as the Argentinian pontiff is striving to close the gap between his church’s doctrine and the realities of modern life, so Renzi is striving to update the laws of a country where attitudes have changed rapidly.
In 2012, an extensive government survey found sharp contrasts about homosexuality among Italians. A quarter of the respondents regarded it as an illness. Half agreed that the best thing for gay people was “not to tell others”. Yet almost two-thirds felt homosexuals in partnerships should have the same rights as married couples. A recent poll suggested a majority of Italians now favoured the introduction of gay marriage.
Yet the Italian Constitution continues to recognise the family as “a natural society founded on matrimony”, and the partners in civil unions, whether hetero- or homosexual, have no legal status. Leaving aside small states such as Monaco, Italy is the only country in western Europe that still holds this position. Even fervently Catholic Malta has passed legislation to give legal status to civil unions.
“In Italy, we still lack even the most fundamental entitlements,” said Domenico Pasqua, one of the men whose marriages were recognised on Saturday. “For example, you have no right to see your partner in hospital if the family objects.”
Life-and-death decisions can be taken by relatives on behalf of a patient from whom they have been estranged while the patient’s partner is kept in the dark. If the patient dies, the partner will not inherit the home they bought together.
“A 50% share goes to the family, and the surviving partner, who is legally a third party, must pay 30% inheritance tax on the rest,” said Fabrizio Marrazzo, the president of Arcigay, Italy’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lobby group.
Pressure for change has been mounting since July when the mayor of Naples gave official recognition to the marriage of an Italian man and his Spanish partner. Since then a string of other first citizens have followed his example. “But what has happened in Rome is more important, both because it is the capital and because of the presence of the Vatican,” said Marrazzo.
Renzi’s reaction was to declare that he would table a Bill to legalise civil unions. But he added that it would have to take its place behind constitutional reform and a new electoral law.
Civil unions are still political dynamite. The Vatican’s opposition to a similar Bill hastened the downfall of Romano Prodi’s centre-left government in 2008. Renzi is in a weaker position, dependent for his survival on the New Centre Right (NCD), led by Angelino Alfano, his interior minister.
The protest outside the city hall was organised by the NCD. Alfano’s ministerial representative in Rome, the prefect Giuseppe Pecoraro, told the daily Il Messaggero that “the registration of those marriages must be cancelled. I shall be annulling everything on Monday.”
Across the Tiber on Sunday, Pope Francis was celebrating a mass to close the synod and beatify Paul VI, the pope who presided over the later stages of the reforming Second Vatican Council. In his sermon, Francis quoted his predecessor: “By carefully surveying the signs of the times, we are making every effort to adapt ways and methods … to the growing needs of our time and the changing conditions of society.”
For Marrazzo, the outcome of the synod was not a defeat. The number of bishops who voted in favour of the passage in the final report that called for gay people to be “welcomed with respect and delicacy” may have fallen short of the two-thirds necessary for official approval, but nevertheless represented a clear majority – 118 out of 180.
“That puts [the synod] ahead of the Italian Parliament, where there has never even been a majority for a law against homophobia, let alone one for civil unions,” he said. – © Guardian News & Media 2014