The Fight For Marriage Equality In The Pope's Backyard

The fact that Vatican City is just a walk across the bridge from Italy's Parliament goes a long way to explain why Italy is still the only nation in Western Europe with no partnership rights for same-sex couples — but that may be about to change.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 1, 2014, at 9:11 p.m. ET

ROME — After Sergio Lo Giudice's baby was born in May, he appeared before a California judge to ask that his name be removed from his son's birth certificate.

Lo Giudice is a 53-year-old LGBT activist turned politician, who now represents Bologna in the Italian Senate. When he and his husband decided to have a baby via a surrogate mother, they chose to do it in California because it was illegal for them to do so under Italian law. California recorded Lo Giudice and Michele Giarratano as the child's parents, but the two men feared they would have trouble bringing him home and establishing his Italian citizenship because Italy doesn't recognize same-sex parents.

Their country doesn't recognize their marriage either. Italy is the only country in Western Europe that provides no legal recognition of any kind to same-sex couples; almost every large country in the region has enacted full marriage equality. But that may change this fall: Lo Giudice is part of a group in the Senate Justice Commission that reached agreement on a draft bill on partnership legislation last month, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he wants Parliament to begin debating in September.

The fact that Vatican City is just a short walk across the bridge from Parliament goes a long way to explain why Italy has remained so far behind its neighbors on this question. And the battle over this bill pulls at the seams of Italy's twin nature as a cosmopolitan European state with obligations under international accords that increasingly protect LGBT rights and its place as the seat of the Catholic Church. It is also opening fault lines within the Holy See itself, with an old guard committed to the culture wars fought zealously by Pope Benedict set against Pope Francis' efforts to move away from the divisive fights over sexuality that he believes drive many away from the church.

While Francis' vision hasn't changed any church doctrine, his rhetorical disarmament has made it far easier for Italian politicians to back partnership rights. Those working on the bill believe marriage equality is still politically impossible, and their civil union proposal would also prohibit two-parent adoption by same-sex couples. But it would allow stepchild adoption in cases where one spouse is already the legal parent of a child, so Lo Giudice could once again be recognized as his son's father.

But some same-sex couples and local officials aren't waiting for Parliament to act. The mayor of Naples has declared that his city would start transcribing foreign marriages of same-sex couples into its wedding rolls. Naples is the first large city to take this step after a lower court ordered officials in the small Tuscan city of Grosseto to record a foreign marriage in April.

"It seems that in Italy there is a common line of thought in the battle against homophobia: toward equality," said Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris in announcing the move. "But we never succeed in converting that into law."

The registration of foreign marriages by local officials may have an impact that is more symbolic than legal, worry some to LGBT activists, in part because the Supreme Court issued a ruling in mid-June that undercut it.

That decision came over the case of a couple who now are both named Alessandra, but who were legally married when one of them was Alessandro. When Alessandra Bernaroli legally changed her gender designation in 2009, after the couple had been married for nine years, the courts annulled their marriage, despite their objections. In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that their rights had been violated when they were forced to divorce, which initially led some LGBT rights supporters to celebrate the decision. It said, however, that their marriage was still invalid until Parliament passed a law recognizing same-sex unions and ordered Parliament to swiftly enact new legislation.

Back in 2010, the courts had already ordered Parliament to pass such legislation, which lawmakers ignored. (The Italian courts are much weaker than in places like the United States, where Supreme Court rulings translate directly into changes in law.) And the new ruling undercut the old one in a way that had many LGBT advocates feeling like it was more of a setback than a victory. The 2010 ruling left it up to Parliament whether to enact marriage equality or create a new institution to recognize same-sex unions. The June ruling instructed Parliament to create "a different form of registered partnership" that is "not the same as marriage," and included language that suggested the Italian constitution rules out marriage between people of the same sex.

But civil unions are better than nothing, said Ivan Scalfarotto, secretary for parliamentary relations in the Renzi government and Italy's first out gay government minister. Scalfarotto said that he would prefer marriage equality and full adoption rights. But he said as he approaches the age of 50, he doesn't want to wait any longer for basic protections for his relationship.

"I would not like to [wait to] live in the perfect world when I'm 80," Scalfarotto said. "I'd really love to make sure that the person I love has the right to be recognized as my partner, [and] if I pass away — now — I want him to be able to live in our house, and I want everyone to respect that. ... In principle, I would like to have everything, but principles are a luxury … [that] at this moment, unfortunately, in my country we cannot afford."

Despite the presence of the Vatican, public opinion doesn't show any evidence that Italians are much more disapproving of same-sex relationships than nearby countries with marriage equality. Seventy-four percent of Italians who responded to a 2013 Pew survey said they believed "homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society" — about the same as France, which has had civil unions since 1998 and passed marriage equality last year. A 2013 Ipsos poll found that 48% of Italians supported marriage rights for same-sex couples and an additional 31% oppose marriage but support an alternative form of partnership recognition, on par with Great Britain.

The change in tone ushered in by Pope Francis has helped create an environment where this public opinion can be translated into political action.

"It's a different atmosphere that was created this year," Lo Giudice said, explaining that it has made it much easier to bring along members of his own party who are close to the church.

Francis' statement early in his pontificate, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" was interpreted as a kind of rhetorical distancing from the position of his predecessor. Pope Benedict, who had been the Vatican's chief officer for enforcing doctrine before becoming pope, was known for placing great emphasis on fights on homosexuality and abortion, and helped install hardliners on these issues throughout the hierarchy throughout his papacy. This spring, Francis suggested a time might come when the church would even drop its opposition to some form of civil unions.

"Marriage is between a man and a woman," the pope said in an interview published in Italian by Corriere della Sera. "The secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of living together. ... We have to look at the different cases and evaluate them in their variety."

LGBT rights activists familiar with Francis' history when he led the bishops' conference of Argentina interpreted such remarks in light of reports that he had tried — unsuccessfully — to get Argentina's church hierarchy to endorse a civil union bill because it was preferable to the marriage equality bill that ultimately became law.

It's not clear how far Francis might be prepared to go in reconciling with LGBT people — there certainly is no sign that he is any less committed to doctrine about homosexuality than Benedict was. But even if he did believe the church could endorse some forms of civil unions, there are many inside the church installed by Benedict who would never sanction such a shift. And Francis doesn't have the power to make such a shift alone, despite being the head of the church.

When one LGBT rights activist, Human Rights Watch's Boris Dittrich, asked Archbishop Gerhard Müller, whom Benedict picked to take over the job of the church's doctrinal chief, whether a rethinking of civil unions could be in the works, Dittrich said Müller replied, "That's not up to the pope, that's up to us. We are the ones who set the policy." There were rumors Francis wanted Müller out, but in January he elevated him to the rank of cardinal.

But there are also signs of a thaw within Vatican City. Monsignor Marcel Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science, Vatican offices that engage with research on society, told Buzzfeed in an interview last week at an event inside the Vatican walls in which Italian politicians were participating that the church is solidly against any law that makes "complete [equivalence] of the normal [matrimony] and the gay," but if legislation clearly distinguishes between them, "that is another question, and this is accepted by the church."

Whether this proposal will make enough of a distinction between marriage and civil unions to satisfy even the moderates within the church is an open question. The only major right that this will exclude is two-parent adoption. Otherwise, Prime Minister Renzi has said, he wants a bill that will give same-sex couples rights that are "the same as [for] married heterosexual couples."

Avvenire, the newspaper owned by the Italian bishops' conference, blasted the civil union proposal in a front-page editorial last month, saying the bill would introduce "a mini-marriage and prepare the inevitable hollowing-out of traditional marriage."

And regardless of shifts within the church hierarchy itself, there are still many lay Catholics — especially older ones — who may mobilize to try to stop the bill. A Univision poll found that although 50% of Italian Catholics between 18 and 34 support same-sex marriage, it is opposed by 65% of those between 35 and 54 and by 78% of those over 55. And LGBT rights opponents are emboldened by the massive protests organized in opposition to the marriage equality legislation enacted in France last year.

"So many people in Europe are standing up, because this ideology [in support of LGBT rights is] felt really as totalitarian," said Luca Volontè, a former Italian MP from the Union of Christian Democrats and Center Democrats, who now heads a foundation devoted to opposing abortion and LGBT rights. Volontè is also on the board of CitizenGo, a globalizing online mobilizing platform that grew out of the Spanish organization instrumental in promoting a bill to restrict abortion enacted in 2010. The group has staff in Italy, and is in the planning stages to oppose the civil union proposal.

"It cannot happen," said Dina Nerozzi, a Rome psychiatrist who is a lay adviser to the Pontifical Council for the Family. "People will fight for that. I mean fight — [we] will take weapons out."

Ivan Scalfarotto isn't counting on changes in the church to create the majority he needs to get the civil union bill passed.

"I don't see ... a path leading to a recognition of families different from the straight model, man and woman," Scalfarotto said. "It is progress, I think definitely, however I don't this will be [reflected] in the approval process of a piece of legislation."

But he doesn't need the parties closest to the church to pass the bill. The elections of 2013 helped clear away another major impediment to LGBT rights: former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose right-wing coalition cycled in and out of power for 20 years.

"We've been ruled by Mr. Berlusconi for many years, and his culture has been a very a macho culture, very, let's say, traditionally Mediterranean in a way, very Latin, according to the stereotypes," Scalfarotto said.

The dominance of right-wing parties sets Italy apart from other Catholic countries in Western Europe. Spain, for example, has a population that is actually far more Catholic than Italy — 94% in Spain as compared with around 80%. But it enacted full marriage equality in 2005, making it the third country in the world to do so.

But these countries, Scalfarotto points out, "eventually [had] pure left-wing governments and they were in the position to challenge the church introducing these rights." Both Spain and France were ruled by socialist governments when marriage equality became a reality.

That was never true in Italy. Berlusconi's main rival on the left, Romano Prodi, tried to pass a civil union bill following his election as prime minister in 2006. But the effort stalled, and Prodi's government failed less than two years after taking power.

Italy still doesn't have a truly left-wing government. The Democratic Party controls only around 40% of seats in Parliament, and was forced to join with a faction of lawmakers once loyal to Berlusconi in order to form a government. This group's leader, Angelino Alfano, who was given the post of interior minister, has threatened to bring down the government if the Democratic Party attempted to pass same-sex marriage.

This is part of the reason why Democratic lawmakers aren't even trying for marriage equality.

"We, the Democratic Party, are … very uncomfortable, because we govern with part of the right-center party," said Monica Cirrinà, the member of the Senate Justice Commission who is leading the work of drafting the civil union legislation. "The bills … about the marriages of people of the same sex had been put aside, because there is no way they will ever pass in this chamber."

Democratic lawmakers don't expect that Alfano's party will back a civil union bill, but they think they will allow it to pass with help from opposition parties. And in a sign of how fast the context is Italy is changing, some of those votes could come from the Berlusconi's own factions.

Berlusconi himself caught Italians by surprise on Sunday when he issued a statement declaring, "The [fight] for civil rights for homosexuals is a battle that, in a truly modern and democratic country, should be everyone's responsibility."

Scalfarotto seemed to welcome the prospect of Alfano's party bringing down the government over this issue. The Democratic Party just came out on top in recent elections for the parliament of the European Union, a sign that it's enjoying high popularity. If they really bring down the government over this, they may have a hard time explaining that to the voters, Scalfarotto said, laughing.

"If they say we're going to put [the country's progress] in big danger because we don't want to protect [LGBT] people, they will have to find votes based on that," he said, adding that it's inevitable that Italy will recognize same-sex couples eventually.

"Sooner or later it has to happen," he said.

Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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