In the shadow of the dome

Pope Francis enters debate as Italy’s senate about to consider same-sex unions

‘The great dome sometimes casts a shadow,” admits Democratic Party Senator Monica Cirinna, author of Italy’s bill to allow gay civil unions. Even her own centre-left governing party is divided and will be allowed a whip-free “conscience vote” when her bill goes to the Senate on Thursday. The dome in question, needless to say, is St Peter’s, and Pope Francis has indeed weighed in, albeit obliquely, to remind Italians that “there can be no confusion between the family God wants and any other type of union”.

Church teaching remains firm. But whether it retains sufficient authority over legislators in the last state in the EU, bar Romania, to prohibit civil unions – 11 have gone further and recognised gay marriage – will be tested in coming days. In 100 towns and cities on Saturday up to a million supporters of the bill suggested the tide has turned. This weekend opponents will gather in Rome for a counter-demonstration “Family Day”.

Four times in the last 14 years, legislators have attempted to get such legislation through parliament, each attempt failing largely because of Catholic Church opposition. But in July the European Court of Human Rights may have tipped the balance in finding Italy’s refusal to recognise civil unions to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (Oliari et al v Italy).

The bill’s opponents have focused on its “stepchild adoption” provision allowing gay couples to adopt a child as long as one of the partners is the biological parent of the child. Many such couples face serious legal problems over parenting rights, particularly those who use surrogacy which remains illegal in Italy. Opponents see the bill as a Trojan horse for surrogacy.


The Pope’s intervention has so far been nuanced, without specifically referring to the legislation. He has been discouraging bishops around the world from intervening in divisive culture war controversies, and the issue is seen as a test of how consistently he is willing to pursue that reformist logic in Italy. But the president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, has urged Catholics to join the “Family Day” rally. Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin last summer described the victory of the “Yes” vote in Ireland as a “defeat for humanity”. And conference secretary-general Monsignor Nunzio Galantino has opposed the bill because it equates civil unions with marriage and because of stepchild adoptions. MPs will come under pressure to drop the latter to get the bill passed .

In Ireland, however, the willingness of Catholic legislators in recent years to see questions like civil union and marriage equality, and indeed abortion, as issues of equality and human rights rather than faith, has made possible their support for our transition to a more pluralist society, more embracing of diversity. It is to be hoped in Italy that that transition is underway also.