Just one week before a civil union Bill intended to legalise unmarried heterosexual and homosexual unions comes before the Italian Senate, Pope Francis has entered an increasingly heated public debate by saying that there must be no confusion "between God's design for the family and any other type of union".
Currently, Italy is the only country in western Europe which does not recognise either same-sex marriage or some form of civil union.
Speaking to the Vatican’s Sacra Rota, the Holy See court which rules on marriage annulments, the pope pointed out that, last autumn, the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops had concluded that there can be “no confusion between the family designed by God and any other type of union”, adding: “The family, based on an indissoluble, uniting and procreative marriage, forms part of God’s dream and of his church for the salvation of humanity . . . ”
Commentators have long suggested that this Italian legal shortcoming is almost entirely due to the influence of the Catholic Church in Italian politics. Four times in the last 14 years, legislators have attempted to get some sort of civil union legislation through parliament, with each attempt failing essentially because of Catholic Church opposition.
Senator Monica Cirinna of the centre-left Democrat Party, who originally presented this Bill, said last week that, when it comes to issues like this, "the great dome sometimes casts a shadow", in a reference to the Basilica of Saint Peter's in Rome. Catholic teaching continues to insist that the term "marriage" can apply only to a union between a man and a woman and not to couples of the same sex.
Thin end of wedge
In all probability, much of the current church opposition to this Bill is based on the suspicion that legalised civil union is merely the thin end of a wedge that leads all the way to same-sex marriage, further down the legislative road. Pope Francis, for all that he has progressive views on poverty, the north-south divide and climate change, remains a very traditional Catholic on a wide variety of sexual and gender issues.
Remember, too, that his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, last summer described the victory for the Yes vote in Ireland's same-sex referendum as a "defeat for humanity". Significantly, too, this is one hardline position that Pope Francis has in no way attempted to soften.
By and large, Pope Francis has steered well clear of Italian politics during his almost three years in office. On one recent occasion when he entered the fray, however, his words appeared to have had a dramatic impact. That incident came when, at the end of his papal visit to the United States in September, he insisted categorically, almost angrily, that he had not invited the then mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, to Philadelphia for World Family Day.
Within a month of that emphatic, public papal put-down, Mr Marino was out of office with many commentators arguing that Francis’s words had been the final nail in the mayor’s coffin. Significantly, Mr Marino had hardly endeared himself to the pope by instituting Rome city council-registered gay marriages (subsequently annulled by the city prefect) .
The Catholic Church, however, is not alone in its reservations about this current Bill, with members of prime minister Matteo Renzi’s
(PD) as well as of different opposition parties, ready to block it. The most contentious item in the Bill is the so-called “Stepchild Adoption” clause which would allow the non-biological parent in a gay or lesbian couple to adopt the child conceived by their partner either through in-vitro fertilisation or surrogate motherhood.
For his part, Mr Renzi has opted not to impose the party whip on this vote, considering it a “matter of conscience”. On Friday, though, he argued that the time has come for Italy to finally introduce legislation on this complex issue, saying:
“It is more than fair that there be all sorts of different positions but as far as the PD is concerned this law cannot be put off anymore . . . It is absolutely essential that we arrive at a decision on this. It is no problem for me to allow party deputies freedom of conscience but we must vote and we must do so not on the basis of a compromise. . .”
On Saturday an estimated one million people took to the streets of Italy, to signal their support for the civil union legislation.