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In Italy, Being Catholic Is Not an Easy Thing

Vatican urges politicians to defend life and family values

BY Berenice Cocciolillo

June 21-27, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/21/98 at 1:00 PM

 

ROME—Italian Catholics are in danger of becoming second-class citizens who are “penalized for having the courage of their convictions,” according to the Vatican newspaper, L'Osserva-tore Romano.

In a front-page editorial published May 26, Catholic historian Giorgio Rumi urged Catholic politicians to react against the “humiliating subjugation” that is preventing them from defending Catholic values.

In the past several weeks, the Vatican, together with the Italian bishops' conference, has made clear that regarding issues ranging from the right to life to state subsidies for Catholic schools, from bioethics to Italy's high unemployment rate, the Church is disappointed in Catholic politicians, especially those who are part of the current center-left government.

The latest controversy is about a bill under discussion in the Senate that would provide low-interest rate mortgages for young couples, regardless of whether or not they are married. Same-sex couples would also be eligible.

The family cannot be considered “optional,” said L'Osservatore Romano, and unmarried or same-sex couples are “unnatural aggregations which cannot demand the rights and duties of marriage.” Quoting Pope John Paul II's address to the Italian bishops' conference, the editorial exhorts Catholics to defend the values of life and the family.

The article explains that the first part of the Italian Constitution revolves around the concept of the family, based on the union of a man and a woman, as the fundamental unit of social organization.

“Other types of unions,” said the newspaper, “go against the Constitution and are an attack on the order established by this fundamental norm of the Republic.”

The editorial also touched on an issue that Italian Catholics have long been fighting for: Government subsidies for religious schools, “which offer a service to the national community.”

“We are seriously concerned,” Pope John Paul II told the Italian bishops last month, “about Catholic schools that are not recognized as being equal to public schools, as in other European countries. We therefore request with force and urgency that this unfortunate anomaly, which does not honor Italy, be overcome.”

Catholic schools in Italy, which are open to students of all faiths, are run by religious orders, but employ many lay teachers, due to the decreasing number of vocations.

“Many working mothers depend on Catholic day-care centers and pre-schools because there is simply not enough room for their children in the public system,” said Sister Lidia Bianchi, who teaches in a pre-school in a working-class Roman neighborhood. “We are performing an essential service for the community, but we won't be able to keep it up for much longer if the government does not recognize this fact and consequently approve laws that would give us financing.”

L'Osservatore Romano's sharp criticism of Italy's Catholic politicians came just a few days after the Holy Father's criticism of Italy's Law 194, which legalized abortion 20 years ago.

“This law has killed three-and-a-half million babies,” Pope John Paul II said in an address in St. Peter's Square to more than 8,000 members of the Movimento per la Vita, Italy's main right-to-life organization, referring to the number of legal abortions performed in the country since the law was enacted.

“No human authority, not even the state,” said the Pontiff, “can justify the killing of the innocent. Such a tragic transformation of a crime into a right is an indication of a worrisome decay of a civilization.”

Pope John Paul II characterized Law 194 as a failure, which “not only has not rid the country of clandestine abortion, but which has on the contrary contributed to the country's low birth rate.”

“The abortion law,” he continued, is “a defeat and a humiliation for a woman and for her very dignity.”

Law 194, which calls for the “social protection of maternity and the voluntary termination of pregnancy,” was approved in 1978. It allows a woman to have an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Later abortions are possible only if the woman's life is in danger. A referendum in 1981 that asked Italians whether or not they wanted to abrogate the law resulted in a 70% vote to keep it.

This is a difficult time for Italian Catholics as far as politics is concerned. Until recently there was one very powerful Catholic party, the centrist Christian Democrats (DC), and political unity among Catholics was taken for granted. Though neither the Vatican nor the bishops never officially endorsed the DC, most Catholic voters viewed it as the party that had their best interests at heart.

Sweeping changes in the Italian political landscape, however, led to the DC's disintegration in the early 1990s. Several Catholic parties arose from its ashes. The 1996 national elections marked the first time that the Church remained truly neutral and told Catholics to vote according to their consciences. This marked a turning point for Italian Catholics, for they were forced to choose between the Popular Party (PPI), which belonged to the center-left (Olive Tree) coalition, or the other Catholic parties that were members of the center-right (Freedom Alliance).

Since the Catholic vote was up for grabs, both coalitions sought to convince voters that they were the true interpreters of Catholic values.

The Olive Tree coalition was victorious and named Catholic economist Romano Prodi as prime minister.

Two years later, the Vatican is accusing so-called Catholic parties of not doing enough to defend Christian values. Catholic members of the center-left government coalition are in a difficult position because they cannot ignore political alliances. For example, if the Popular Party were suddenly to call for the abolition of the abortion law, a government crisis could very well result.

The La Repubblica daily recently asked Popular Party President Franco Marini if the PPI is so strongly rooted in the Olive Tree coalition that it would be impossible to heed the Church's appeals for Catholics across the political spectrum to march together in defense of Christian values. Marini replied that, “The social doctrine of the Church is the pillar of our political history. Certainly, on important questions like state financing of Catholic schools or the delicate question of bioethics, the Popular Party could take a stand that diverges from that of the coalition to which it belongs.”

Marini did not mention the topic of abortion, though.

Similarly, other important representatives of the Popular Party have also defended the Catholic point of view on various issues but have stopped short of calling for an end to legal abortion. Silvia Costa, a Popular Party member of the Chamber of Deputies as well as president of the National Commission for Equal Opportunity, said recently that the first part of Law 194, which refers to the protection of maternity, has not been applied.

“‘The culture of maternity’” said Costa, “must move toward the prevention of abortion, which remains a failure on the part of the couple.”

According to Costa, women must be given the necessary assistance that would allow them to make the choice of having a baby.

Rosi Bindi, a Popular Party member who is minister for health believes that the government should work toward reducing the number of abortions by making the law work better.

Pope John Paul II and Prime Minister Romano Prodi met May 24 in Turin. Officially, they were both there to view the Sacred Shroud. Though what the Pontiff and the premier said to each other during their 10-minute meeting was not made public, most commentators guessed that the recent Vatican attacks on the government were at the top of their agenda.

Sandro Magister, who covers the Vatican for the weekly news-magazine L'Espresso, wrote, “Catholic Prodi had to ask for forgiveness for having done absolutely nothing on the issues closest to the Holy Father's heart, like abortion, the family, and schooling.”

Father Gino Concetti, theologian and columnist for the L'Osservatore Romano told the Register that “The recent appeal by the Church for Catholics to join together in order to promote fundamental Christian values is not directed exclusively toward Catholic politicians. The Holy Father, together with Italian bishops, have launched this appeal to Catholics of all political persuasions in order to remind them that they must make their voices heard.”

Father Concetti denies that the Church looks back with regret on the days when Italian Catholics were united under one party, the Christian Democrats.

“My own opinion is that the Church and politics should be separate. Catholics must be free to express their political opinions, but at the same time, they must be guided by a Catholic conscience.”

Berenice Cocciolillo writes from Rome.