What Wasn’t Said Is Focus as Italy Debates Gay Rights

Sergio Lo Giudice

Sergio Lo Giudice

ROME, Sept. 17 – The two faces of Italy – one that is increasingly secular and the other that is still deeply influenced by the church – collided this week in a noisy electoral debate that left one thing clear: Italy, it can safely be said, will not legalize gay marriage any time soon.

The possibility was, in fact, never on the table. But Romano Prodi, the leader of the center-left who is fighting to regain the job of prime minister, ruled it out anyway, after coming under attack by the church and conservative politicians when he said he would support certain rights for unmarried couples, including gay ones.

"I never talked about marriage or adoption," he told reporters this week. "There is a will to misconstrue my thinking." Mr. Prodi said that, as a Roman Catholic with several relatives who were priests, the entire fight caused him "very much suffering."

The fight began last weekend when Mr. Prodi wrote a letter to a gay-rights group saying that, if he won Ital’s general elections next spring, he would support granting equal rights to unmarried couples.

Italy does not recognize common-law unions, a position that causes complications recognized on the right and left as the number of unmarried couples has tripled, by one estimate, in the last 25 years to more than half a million.

Mr. Prod’s proposal would allow for rights of inheritance, for visiting a sick partner, making medical decisions and extension of private medical insurance.
But, for critics, the proposal would also imply a de facto recognition of homosexual unions, a delicate topic to the church, particularly since Spain, another overwhelmingly Catholic country, legalized gay marriage this summer.

The official Vatican newspaper, ‘Osservatore Romano, criticized Mr. Prodi, saying he had acted in "search of votes" in an effort to "relativize and ideologize the reality of the family." Avvenire, the newspaper reflecting the views of Italian bishops, warned Mr. Prodi, "Hands off the family."
Many commentators in the Italian media drew parallels between the churc’s quick and strong reaction this week with another fight on morality this year, in which the Vatican intervened with a well-organized campaign to defeat a June referendum that sought to overturn a law that imposes strict rules on assisted fertility.

Sandro Magister, an author and specialist on the Vatican for the magazine ‘Espresso, said he did not think the Vatican had organized any major "intervention" against Mr. Prod’s proposals. But he said the strong reaction showed a church ready, as in the referendum fight, to inject itself into politics where principle was concerned. He said he detected a slightly more "intense" willingness to do so under the new pope, Benedict XVI, who spoke publicly against the referendum.

"For the hierarchy of the church, the important thing is to defend marriage between men and women as the only form of marriage," Mr. Magister said, explaining that the church feared Mr. Prod’s proposals could create a de facto form of marriage.

Mr. Prodi strongly denied that was the case, saying that a secular state had the obligation to extend basic protections to all its citizens, gay or not.
Sergio Lo Giudice, the president of Arcigay, the gay rights group Mr. Prodi had written his letter to, said he also did not see the law as creating legal gay unions and said his group would continue to push for gay marriage.

Nonetheless, in a nation where homosexuality remains relatively discreet, he said Mr. Prod’s proposals were a "victory" for gay people, although only last week he was criticizing Mr. Prodi for his silence on common-law unions. "This is the first time that gays and lesbians will be represented by someone who could win the election," he said. Gay people, he said, "feel more like citizens."
As in the fight over the fertility referendum, some cracks, perhaps surprising ones, have occurred in the usual party lines. At least one cardinal, though a relatively liberal one, sided with Mr. Prodi publicly.