World & Nation

In Italy, same-sex civil union debate going to lawmakers

Same-sex union demonstration in Rome
Supporters of same-sex unions gather in January in front of the Pantheon in Rome.
(Alberto Pizzoli / AFP/Getty Images)

When the Italian government attempted to introduce same-sex unions in 2007, local documentary maker Gustav Hofer was on hand to film the political effort behind the bill as it stuttered and died in the face of stiff Catholic opposition.

Now, nine years later, as the Italian Senate prepares to debate a new bill on Thursday, he is not holding his breath.


Same-sex unions: In the Jan. 27 Section A, an article about same-sex unions in Italy said a Family Day rally was planned for Sunday. It is planned for Saturday.
Years of pressure by bishops on Italian politicians to oppose same-sex marriage, or even civil unions, has meant Italy is the last country in Western Europe without some form of legislation on the books. That is a blow to people such as Hofer, a 39-year-old gay man who has been waiting years for the chance to tie the knot with his partner.


“Keeping gay unions illegal in Italy has a symbolic value for the church — it’s the Vatican’s last stronghold,” he said.

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But the close-knit relationship between the Vatican and Parliament unraveled somewhat in 2013 with the election of Pope Francis, who has shown disdain for the Italian church’s habit of influencing Italian politics and warned bishops in a speech in Florence in November not to be “obsessed by power.”

“Francis has a critical opinion of the old guard in the Italian church who were close to governments,” said Iacopo Scaramuzzi, a Vatican expert with the Italian news service ASKA.


Francis has even halted the tradition of Italian government ministers coming out to meet the pope at the Rome airport whenever he flies in or out of Italy, said Scaramuzzi.

Meanwhile, young, reform-minded Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has made civil union legislation a centerpiece of his legislative program, spurred in part by pressure from the European Court of Human Rights.

Judging by Italy’s uneasy relationship with Catholic tenets today, it would appear the country is ready to turn its back on the concept that marriage must be between a man and a woman. Church attendance is down, fewer Italians are getting married and the country’s traditional large families are a thing of the past.

But same-sex unions require a law change and many Italian lawmakers continue to pay lip service to the Vatican, as former Prime Minister Romano Prodi discovered when his 2007 civil unions bill sank, thanks to Catholic opposition within his short-lived center-left coalition.

Church leaders, including then-Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, openly backed a massive Family Day rally in Rome in 2007 in defense of the heterosexual family.

Prodi was replaced by Silvio Berlusconi, who critics believe shared the Vatican’s views on a range of issues to keep bishops from questioning his womanizing.

Last year, under Francis, church officials noticeably stayed away from a Family Day rally and hard-line Catholic politicians became less vocal, suggesting Renzi might have a clear run at passing same-sex union legislation.

Still, as the date to debate the latest bill neared, the church stirred. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops conference, said this month that this year’s Family Day rally was “absolutely necessary.” The rally is planned for Saturday.


Italians may show ambivalence toward same-sex unions, but bishops and Catholic politicians have been buoyed by polls showing that only 15% support adoptions by gay and lesbian parents.

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Although adoption of children by two same-sex partners is not foreseen in the bill, critics have targeted a so-called stepchild clause that allows a gay or lesbian partner to adopt the biological child of his or her partner.

The clause, they argue, will encourage homosexual men to have a child using a surrogate mother, then have the child adopted by their partner.

Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, so Italians seek surrogate mothers abroad.

Angelino Alfano, Italy’s interior minister, this month called for surrogate parents to be treated like sex offenders and sent to jail. In an interview with Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops conference, he called surrogacy “the most vile, illegal trade that man has invented.”

Alfano’s hostility to surrogacy and gay adoption reflects the difficulties Renzi will have pushing the civil union bill through the Senate.

Beatrice Lorenzin, Renzi’s health minister, has also opposed stepchild adoption.


As a tense vote nears, Scaramuzzi said he believed Francis was unhappy about Bagnasco dabbling in politics by giving open backing to the Family Day rally on Saturday.

“After Bagnasco spoke out, an audience he was due to have with Francis was canceled, which is very unusual — and I believe it is because Francis didn’t like Bagnasco’s statement,” he said.

Hofer, for one, remains skeptical, pointing out that the pope made a timely, headline-grabbing speech Friday in which he reasserted his belief that marriage was between a man and a woman. “There can be no confusion between the family desired by God and any other type of union,” the pontiff said.

“The fact he spoke out now shows the mask is off and Francis is no different to Pope Benedict,” he said. “Francis has turned out to be a delusion for gay Catholics.”

Kington is a special correspondent.


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