ROME — When Pope Benedict XVI arrived at Rome’s Ciampino airport May 14 after his 12-hour flight from Brazil, the first person to greet him was a surprise: Italy’s minister for the family, Rosy Bindi.
The irony was not lost on the press. In the face of sustained opposition from Italy’s bishops, Bindi is trying to push legislation through the Italian parliament that would grant the same legal and financial rights to unmarried and same-sex couples as enjoyed by married couples.
Yet, despite the anger directed at the Church from critics over the bishops’ opposition to the policy, the exchange was friendly and courteous. Such a civilized meeting, however, is atypical. In recent months, Church leaders have been harshly attacked for opposing the legislation, called “DICO” in Italian.
The dispute turned particularly nasty in April when Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the recently-appointed head of the Italian bishops’ conference, received a death threat through the mail in the form of a bullet and the written star-shaped symbol of a communist Italian terrorist group. Abusive graffiti against the archbishop and the Pope was also scrawled on the walls of Genoa’s cathedral and, more recently, in other Italian cities.
The reaction was sparked after Archbishop Bagnasco, now given round-the-clock police protection, noted that if laws are reduced to a mere question of public opinion without reference to their morality, there is little to stop laws being passed allowing incest or pedophilia (both of which are currently being proposed by groups in Germany and the Netherlands).
The tension was further fueled at a May 1 rock concert on the grounds of Rome’s St. John Lateran basilica. At the event, presenter Andrea Rivera ridiculed the Church, saying: “The Pope says he doesn’t believe in evolution. I agree, in fact the Church has never evolved.”
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published a heated rebuttal, calling the remarks “terrorism” intended to stoke “blind and irrational rage against someone who always speaks in the name of love, love for life and love for man.”
Some Vatican officials thought L’Osservatore Romano overreacted.
“It doesn’t do the Church good to match their rhetoric,” one Vatican official said. “It would have been better if the Church had let that one go.”
But Cardinal Jozef Tomko, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples, supported the newspaper’s response. It is “a kind of terrorism of words,” he said. “You cannot speak in that way to a man who is not only head of the Catholic Church, but also the most respected authority in the world.”
The Slovakian cardinal, who was prefect from 1985 until 2001, said that remaining silent is not an option.
“Catholic laypeople, laypeople in politics, have not only the right but also the duty to profess their faith,” Cardinal Tomko said, or their religious beliefs will be reduced to being a private matter, disallowed from the public square.
Family Day Faithful
On May 12, faithful Italian Catholics followed Cardinal Tomko’s suggestion. That day, a vast crowd from varying political and social backgrounds traveled from all over Italy to take part in a Family Day in Rome.
The numbers far exceeded expectations, with some estimates putting the crowd at 1.5 million people.
In contrast, a nearby rival rally staged by homosexual activist groups and sponsored by the Radical and Socialist parties, drew a small but noisy crowd, estimated at only a few hundred people.
Although the Family Day event was organized by lay Catholic groups rather than the bishops themselves, and the day’s rally was intended as an expression of support for the family rather than a demonstration against the DICO bill, many saw it as a clear statement against the civil-union legislation.
Archbishop Bagnasco described the event, noted in press reports for its calm and generous atmosphere, as a “respectful and joyous witness to family values.”
Avvenire, the Italian bishops’ conference’s newspaper, noted how the “barbaric hordes” predicted by the communist newspaper Il Manifesto actually consisted of “mommies washing the heads of their little ones, boys singing or pulling pieces of bread from their bags, and fathers pushing prams.”
“Too often we’ve been ignored and now I hope something will change,” said participant Cristina Gadaleta.
Another participant, Matteo Coatti, said, “It’s been an amazing party of overwhelming joy, everyone united in calling for more attention to the family.”
Edward Pentin writes