There’s an old maxim: Never try and bluff an armed person with an unloaded gun.
That was my first thought when it was revealed the Vatican had officially protested a proposed “anti-homophobia” law currently facing the Italian Senate.
The Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported on Tuesday that Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, had delivered an official diplomatic communication claiming the proposed law, sponsored by legislator Alessandro Zan, would violate the Lateran Pacts between the Holy See and the state of Italy.
Signed in 1929, the Lateran treaty established the Vatican City State and offered guarantees for the freedom of the Church in Italy, which was at the time under Fascist rule. The treaty was updated in 1984.
The “Zan Law” would add “sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability” to Italy’s hate crime legislation and would mandate that all schools host activities for the May 17 Day Against Homophobia.
The law passed Italy’s lower house in November but has yet to make its way through the Senate.
Corriere della Sera said the Holy See objected to the legislation because it would violate the “freedom of organization, public exercise of worship, exercise of the magisterium and the episcopal ministry” of the Church, as well as the violate the freedom of Catholics to share the contents of their faith “by word, writing and any other means of dissemination.”
The newspaper said the Vatican was worried the law could see Catholics and the Church itself face court challenges for affirming Catholic teaching on human sexuality.
This is the first known instance of the Vatican using official diplomatic channels to oppose legislation in Italy; although given that it was publicized through a leak to the press and not an official statement, it is possible it has happened before.
It is an odd time for the Holy See to brandish such a weapon. The world is observing Pride Month, and Italy is set to host a series of Pride parades this weekend, which organizers now say will protest the Vatican action.
In addition, the Catholic Church in Italy has usually fared poorly when opposing Italian laws.
After the country passed divorce legislation in 1970, Catholic groups collected enough signatures to force the issue to a referendum. The pro-divorce side won 59 percent to 41 percent (the referendum was poorly worded, and many experts assert the result may have even understated the pro-legalized divorce opinion.)
In 1981, a similar referendum on reversing the country’s abortion law was lost 68 percent to 32 percent.
Polls show most Italians support the Zan Law, which is similar to legislation passed in other European countries. The Holy See’s use of a diplomatic note has caused many of the Vatican’s critics to frame the issue as an attack on Italy’s sovereignty.
In other words, the Vatican isn’t really packing a lot of heat for this fight.
Moreover, there is no way such a blunt instrument would have been used without the express consent of Pope Francis, who risks losing the goodwill with the LGBT community he established with his famous “Who am I to judge?” in 2013.
So why risk that kind of social capital in a seemingly futile maneuver?
The Italian bishops have been vocal in their objections to the law, especially in the relation to schools. So far, no exemptions have been added for Catholic schools, even though they educate fewer than one in ten students in the country.
Other countries with publicly funded Catholic schools, including the Republic of Ireland and parts of Great Britain, have faced conflicts between the government and the schools over mandated curricula on human sexuality.
The bishops in Italy are hoping to avoid such a conflict, especially because the Italian courts might not take their side. So far, the bishops’ complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
Although the Zan Law sailed through the lower house of Italy’s parliament, it faces a tougher hurdle in the Senate, where conservative parties have a stronger presence.
The Vatican intervention isn’t going to change anyone’s mind, but it could establish a pretext for a commission to be formed to hammer out the differences (such a commission is envisioned in the Lateran Pacts, but has never happened before).
Given the fight the law faces in the Senate, the more progressive parties are likely to take advantage of the opportunity to ensure passage of a tamed down anti-homophobia law, without losing face (an important feature of public life in Italy.)
The Italian bishops are not newbies to the game of realpolitik when dealing with the country’s legislative process.
In 2005, Italy held a referendum on liberalizing its laws on fertility treatments, which required 50 percent of the electorate to participate for it to be effective.
Church leaders knew they would lose, so urged Catholics to boycott the vote, ensuring not enough voters participated to validate the poll.
When you run out of bullets, sometimes you have to use your wits and bit of sleight of hand to win.