Vatican steps into heated debate on anti-homophobia law in Italy

Pope Francis and the Vatican are asking the Italian Parliament to revise a controversial new law against homophobia.

A view of St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City and Rome from the top of Michelangelo’s dome in St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by Sandexx/Creative Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — As Italy considers legislation that would make homophobia and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals punishable by law, the Vatican has been forced to weigh how its own teachings on sexuality and its claims of religious freedom will play in a changing social context.

The Italian Senate is discussing a law that, if approved, would add homophobia to the list of racist, religious and cultural discrimination currently prosecuted in the country as hate crimes. The law, known as the Zan bill after its sponsor, politician and activist Alessandro Zan, could punish those responsible for anti-LGBT crimes with up to four years in prison.

The Zan bill passed in the Italian lower house and awaits approval in the Senate, but it faces the opposition of the Vatican, which is eyeing the legislation with “concern,” according to the prefect of the Vatican department for laity, family and life, Cardinal Joseph Farrell.

The Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera reported on Tuesday (June 22) that the Vatican had sent a written note a few days earlier though its diplomatic channels to the Italian government expressing concern that the Zan bill would violate the accord between Italy and the Vatican signed in 1929, known as the Lateran Treaty.

The Vatican’s note echoed concerns expressed by the Italian Catholic bishops’ conference about the bill’s effect on religious organizations, especially the numerous Catholic hospitals, schools and orphanages that operate in the country. It’s not clear if under the law Catholic schools would be required to raise awareness about homophobia, Catholic physicians would have to embrace gender theory or if orphanages would be required to allow same-sex couples to adopt children.

The Vatican City flag, left, and a pride flag. Images courtesy of Creative Commons

The Vatican City flag, left, and a pride flag. Images courtesy of Creative Commons

The Lateran Treaty, revised in 1984, allows “Catholics and their associations and organizations full freedom of assembly and expression.”

The Italian bishops have proposed modifications to the Zan bill, noting that existing measures make the new legislation redundant. The conference president, Archbishop Gualtiero Bassetti, has emphasized that fighting discrimination cannot come at the cost “of pursuing intolerant objectives.”

“It’s a very delicate territory,” said Agostino Giovagnoli, who teaches contemporary history at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, adding that the Zan bill deploys “the ax” instead of a finer instrument.

The bill has caused “an unprecedented act in the history of relations” between Italy and the Catholic city-state, Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni told AFP, referring to the note sent June 17. The Corriere agreed, saying that “never had the Vatican state knocked on the door of the Italian state to directly confront them on a law.”

But according to Giovagnoli, “unprecedented” is a word to use cautiously when it comes to the Vatican. He explained that diplomatic notes are not meant for publication and therefore the frequency with which the Vatican uses this tool is unknown. “An interesting question therefore is why and by whom was this note published,” he said.

Giovagnoli pointed to a similar note sent in 1966 by the Vatican international affairs office to the Italian government, objecting to a law then being discussed by the Italian Parliament that would legalize divorce. That too, the Vatican held, violated the Lateran Treaty. Divorce was made legal in Italy in 1970, proving, said Giovagnoli, that note “didn’t lead to any result.”

While there are cases of Italian bishops and prelates openly opposing Italian legislation or whole governments, the Vatican has a policy of holding its tongue — at least publicly — when it comes to the matters of state sovereignty. Pope Francis has his own history of refraining from interfering in the affairs of his own country of Argentina, which in 2021 passed a law allowing abortion on demand.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin attends a meeting in Milan, Italy, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin attends a meeting in Milan on Oct. 3, 2020. Parolin recently attempted to tamp down controversy over a Vatican diplomatic communication to Italy, saying that the Holy See’s intention was not to block passage of a law that would extend additional protections from discrimination to the LGBT community. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

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Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi pushed back against the Vatican interference on Wednesday, stating in the Senate that “Italy is a lay state” and that the Parliament took into account the possible ramifications of the Zan bill.

Matteo Renzi, a former Italian prime minister who leads the center-left party Italia Viva, called the Vatican effort to halt the Zan bill “a mistake,” adding that “laws are made by members of Parliament, not by cardinals.” Organizations that advocate for LGBTQ rights in Italy have also joined the fray, accusing the church of “hating our children” and preaching tolerance and mercy while supporting discrimination.

But some conservative Catholics, including members of the Parliament, objected to the Italian bishops’ “soft” approach and criticized Bassetti’s decision “not to enter the conflict with a bayonet,” in Giovagnoli’s words. Conservative Catholic voices may have pressured the Vatican to step into the fray, he added, which could weaken Bassetti’s position.

The rosary- and Bible-wielding politician Matteo Salvini, who leads the right-wing Northern League Party, and other influential politicians and bishops believe the local church should do more to promote doctrine and Catholic teaching.

On Thursday, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, told the internal Vatican press, “First of all, I would like to clarify that there was never a request to halt the law,” but that the Catholic Church had to protect itself from the measure’s “vague and uncertain contents” that could result in a deluge of lawsuits against the institution.

And for an official of an institution governed largely by medieval ways, Parolin offered a lesson in policymaking: “Debate,” he said, “is always lawful.” 

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