Italy Debates Church v. State, Family Values
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
ROBERTS: Tomorrow in Rome, there will be two rival demonstrations regarding the widening religious secular divide in Italy. Tens of thousands of conservative Catholics are being bussed into the city to defend family values against what's seen as an attack from the left. A counter-rally is also being staged to protest what secularists see as Vatican interference in Italian politics.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In recent weeks, Catholic parishes throughout Italy have handed out millions of flyers urging the faithful to rally in Rome. They'll come to protest a civil unions bill proposed by the center-left government that would give more rights to unmarried couples, including gay couples. Critics of the bill see it as a Trojan horse leading to gay marriage, which is legal in several European countries. Pope Benedict said in March the church's opposition to gay marriage is non-negotiable. He was echoed by the head of the Italian Bishops Conference, Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco.
Archbishop ANGELO BAGNASCO (Italian Bishops Conference): (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: He said, this legislative bill is unacceptable on the level of principles, but also dangerous on the social and educational level. Bagnasco later made comments suggesting he equates homosexuality with incest and pedophilia. The remarks led to a wave of insults against the archbishop, including threatening graffiti. An envelope containing a bullet was sent to his office, and he now celebrates mass with bodyguards close to the altar. The tone of the Catholic secular clash escalated further when comedian Andrea Rivera performed at a May 1st concert in Rome.
Mr. ANDREA RIVERA (Comedian): (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: Addressing a crowd of thousands, Rivera proclaimed, I would like to send my greetings to the Holy Father who said he doesn't believe in evolution. Rivera added, the pope is right because there's never been any evolution inside the church. The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, lashed out at what it called vile attacks against the pope. It wrote, this too is terrorism, launching attacks on the church.
The strident tone of the religious/secular confrontation can also be heard on TV talk shows.
(Soundbite of Italian talk show)
POGGIOLI: On Wednesday, center-right opposition member Giulio Tremonti railed against the government's civil union bill.
Mr. GIULIO TREMONTI (Finance Minister): (Through translator) The left has a precise ideological design. They want to dismantle Italian society. First, they start with civil unions and break up the family. And then they move on to immigrants by giving them the vote.
POGGIOLI: Enrico Boselli, a member of the center-left government coalition, warned that church-state separation in Italy is being jeopardized.
Mr. ENRICO BOSELLI: (Through translator) Civil union law like those in Europe cannot be passed here because the church hierarchy wields a powerful veto. But my idea of secularism is that state laws must not be drawn up with the approval of the Vatican.
POGGIOLI: When other European countries, such as Belgium and Spain, went so far as to legalize gay marriage, the Vatican protested. But the scale of the current mobilization is unprecedented. The Italian Bishops Conference has warned Catholic lawmakers they must respect church dogma. Veteran Vatican analyst John Allen says Pope Benedict sees Italy as a place where the church has to draw the line.
JOHN ALLEN: There's a growing fear in the Vatican that as go Spain and Italy, so will go much of Latin America. And so it's not just what Italy does, it's the example that's being set for the rest of the world in an increasingly globalize culture, in which people in Brasilia and Mexico City and Buenos Aires are reading today the same articles that you and I are about Italian politics.
POGGIOLI: But the Vatican faces a difficult challenge in trying to stem the secular tide in Italy. The latest statistics show a constant decline in the number of children who are baptized, and a sharp drop in church weddings. And among young couples, one in four is not married.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.