March 23, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Ties worth unbinding

By Simone Somekh
Published: 2015-11-06

Legally, Ireland and the Vatican are separate political entities. The Vatican should no more weigh in on Ireland's domestic legislation than Brazil should publicly debate Portuguese domestic affairs. But while Ireland all but ignored Parolin's words, the Italian press paid close attention. As presumably did Council of State jurist Deodato, who calls himself "a Catholic jurist."

Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin called the Irish same-sex "yes" an insult to Christian principles and a "defeat for humanity."

History explains the interaction. Under the Lateran Treaty, or Concordat, signed in 1929 between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, Italy — then under Fascist rule — was prohibited from interfering with the Vatican's political agenda. But the Church was not similarly excluded from weighing in on the Italian political scene. Though a 1984 revision to the Concordat ended the Catholic religious monopoly, popes continued consulting with prime ministers. While Italy cannot and does not interfere with the Vatican (the Vatican is still exempt from property taxes), the Church still works to sway Italian public opinion.

In 2009, the Paris daily Le Monde published a piece by its Italian correspondent Philippe Ridet titled "The Vatican Invades Italy." In it, Ridet noted the persistence of church-state ties, an anathema to secular France. "The Peninsula remains the 'garden' of the Vatican, the country in which it has established its line of defense," wrote Ridet.

"The Vatican has always had a direct political influence on the Italian government," adds Aurelio Mancuso, 53, president of Equality Italia, an Italian lobbying group. "The Church has an influence on several small parties on different sides of the political spectrum, both on the right and the left."

Mancuso does acknowledge that Pope Francis I and his lieutenants have taken a less active role in Italian affairs than their predecessors.

More importantly, he also insists it would be a mistake to see the Vatican as the only barrier to same-sex union legislation. "The negative attitude towards LGBT rights also comes from the left," said Mancuso. "The Italian left wing is not rooted in Socialist ideology, rather in the Communist one. It's a moralist culture which has negatively influenced the local beliefs just as much as the Church has."

In a 2007 study, Dutch scholar Ronald Holzhacker compared the Italian and Dutch models of political interaction regarding LGBT rights. He noted that while Italian LGBT organizations held to a "morality politics" model, the Netherlands preferred an "interest group" approach. Italian LGBT advocates often defined themselves as opposing another party or ideology (such as the Catholic Church or the Communist Party) while Dutch advocates strongly relied on lobbying and creating bridges to elites. While Italians preferred public protest, the Dutch generally sought ways of forging social cooperation between organizations and lobbies.

Western politics today tend to follow global trends, which means most countries sooner or later adopt parallel policies. On that basis, the Vatican assumption that Italy will indefinitely resist LGBT friendly legislation is naοve. It might be delayed, yes, but if Italy still wishes to be seen as on par with Germany, France, and England the question is merely one of timing.

Italy's main LGBT organization, ARCIGAY, founded in 1985, openly states three goals: to fight homophobia, press the Italian government to legally recognize same-sex partnerships (not marriages, a term which would interfere with the traditional, Catholic institution), and to strengthen anti-discrimination law.

Yet "high profile" political interaction remains rare. While American equal rights legislation has enlisted support from public figures and artists (Ellen Degeneres, Lady Gaga and rapper Macklemore among them), Italy has few pop stars or opinion leaders openly fighting for LGBT rights.

Italian LGBT organizations are too busy assailing the Vatican to create a new, tolerant, and pop-oriented ideology. Yet the more energy is spent on attacking the Catholic Church, the more that same criticism upholds the notion that the Church has a fundamental chokehold on Italian domestic policy.

The mistake may be in taking a vertical approach, focused on the "anti-," instead of a more horizontal one. To get past the stalemate, Italy might do well to accept inspiration from LGBT lobbying efforts elsewhere. The world we live in requires transnational thinking. And the best way forward is to create rather than destroy.

— The author is a freelance writer who has published in The Jerusalem Post, Corriere della Sera, and Wired Italy.

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