Gay unions: Italy set to spurn church

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Italy's civil unions debate is finally underway. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
18:28 CEST+02:00
Italy’s civil union bill finally reached parliament on Thursday. Any previous attempts to get the law passed have been thwarted by the Catholic Church. But the Church’s influence over gay rights seems to be on the wane.

Two days after Italy’s Senate voted to curtail its powers, premier Matteo Renzi swiftly got to work on the next cornerstone of his mandate: the civil union bill.

With Italy being the last major state in western Europe not to offer gay couples any legal rights, Renzi is under mounting pressure to usher the law in, pledging several times to get it passed by the end of the year.

Soon after the debate got underway came the opposing voice of the Catholic Church, with Nunzio Galentino, the secretary general of the Italian bishops conference, saying it was unthinkable that a government would put so much of its energy into a debate that would erode traditional family values.

But with the majority of Italy’s opposition parties, including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, supporting the proposals, it doesn’t look as if Galentino’s words will carry much weight in the latest debate.

The Church’s influence on Italian politics has managed to derail attempts by previous administrations to get the law enacted, and while it still plays a strong role in Italy, its influence over the gay rights debate seems to be diminishing.

“It’s not like 30 years ago,” Paolo Segatti, a political sociology professor at the University of Milan, told The Local.

“There are fewer practising Catholics in Italy...this decline has been happening for some time. The Church’s influence is now very small, so I don’t think it will be able to block this.”

And now that Pope Francis has struck a more tolerant and understanding note, “the political price of leaning away from Church opinion will not be as strong as it once was,” Vatican expert John Allen told The Local.

“When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires during the same-sex marriage debate in 2010, he was opposed to full marriage but, privately, was in favour of civil rights,” he added.

The bill, which is based on the German model, stops short of allowing gay marriage but would recognize same-sex unions. Gay couples would also get some of the benefits of marriage, such as being able to receive part of a deceased partner's pension and automatic inheritance.

The most contentious part, which is fiercely opposed by Renzi’s smaller coalition partner, the New Centre Right (NCD) party, is the proposal to allow a gay person to adopt the child of their partner if it only has one legal parent.

The party’s leader Angelino Alfano said on Sunday it will try to block adoptions by gay couples “in order to defend the right of children to have a father and a mother” as well as to prevent the spread of the “rent a womb” concept in Italy.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Rome on June 20th to voice their opposition to the proposed law but recent opinion polls have indicated a majority of voters favour reform, with support for civil unions and gay marriage having risen significantly after Ireland voted strongly in favour of allowing same sex couples to wed.

Segatti said that while most Italians are open to civil unions, and even full gay marriage, many still feel uncomfortable about the idea of gay couples adopting.

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“They agree that gay couples deserve the same rights, but some still fear that the traditional family is being eroded.”

Silvana, a shop owner in Rome, said she supports the bill but is not so sure about the adoption part.

“It’s about time Italy made this happen, it’s taken too long and isn’t good for our reputation abroad,” she told The Local.

“But I’m not certain about adoption, maybe it’s because we’re not so used to it, but this is an area where I think the Church will still have some influence over what people think.”

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