Mixed signals from Italy’s bishops as vote approaches on civil partnership bill?

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco insists the bishops are united, but questions exist about how supportive Pope Francis is of open opposition to controversial legislation supporting same-sex partnerships

The pressure to subvert traditional ethics on issues pertaining to life, the family and education, which has been sweeping through the European Union from West to East, is currently being halted by the former “Iron Curtain” countries, and in Italy, where the struggle has been pitting grassroots movements against the European Establishment for at least a dozen years now.

As befits the country that has hosted the papacy for almost all of the twenty centuries since Saint Peter took up residence in Rome, Italy is the last remaining nation in Western Europe to hold out against the recognition of civil partnerships.

However, this may change in the next few days, as Italy’s Parliament is once again confronted by prospective legislation that would grant an official status to civil partnerships, notably including same-sex couples, with the accompanying right to adopt each other’s progeny.

Although the ethical issues involved are not of concern solely to Catholics, the spotlight is nonetheless on the Bishops Conference, which, after leading a successful campaign against a similar bill of law in 2007, has lately been sending mixed messages.

Now it is the rank-and-file families who are taking things into their own hands and as a result seem to be forcing the bishops, and perhaps even Pope Francis, to speak up.

The last time a governing administration attempted to pass a law recognizing non-wed couples, it was torpedoed by a massive demonstration of families summoned to demonstrate in Rome by the Bishops’ Conference, with the approval of Pope John Paul II. The government, a Catholic/Communist coalition led by Catholic Romano Prodi, caved to the resounding “no” from what has remained known as a historical “Family Day” (while quietly retaliating by excluding the main organizing body, the “Forum of the Families”, from all further meetings and consultations).

At the time, the issue appeared to be settled. But in the following years the grassroots associations came to be even more aware of a paradigm shift being mainstreamed under the guise of “gender equality” in education, the media, the courts and the legislature. At the same time the Bergoglio revolution, tasked with cleaning up the Curia, has unexpectedly been redefining Catholic priorities and watering down the prominence given to what under the two preceding Pontiffs had become known as the “non-negotiable principles”.

So it is that eight years after “Family Day”, with Parliament once again being called upon to vote on a very similar measure to the proposition defeated in 2007 (aggravated by a provision allowing for “stepchild adoption”), the view from the top has become completely different. The advent of Pope Francis, whose focus is prevalently on economical and environmental issues, has changed almost everything. His pick for the post of Secretary General of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Msgr Nunzio Galantino, has led to a sort of double leadership of the Bishops’ Conference, where Bishop Galantino, who is viewed as the de facto spokesman for the Pope, has been tugging in quite a different direction than his boss, the President of the same Bishops Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco.

Galantino, who is from a tiny diocese in Calabria and lived in the seminary (and encouraged his flock to call him simply “Don Nunzio”), has the hallmark of the kind of “shepherd that smells of sheep” that Pope Francis has been singling out in his quest to present the Catholic Church as a “poor Church for the poor”. But the Pontiff probably hadn’t bargained for Galantino’s frankness to include statements such as this: “I don’t identify with the inexpressive faces of those who recite the rosary outside the clinics where they interrupt pregnancies”—a controversial remark he was later to explain away as being quoted out of context. Since then, the Secretary General has continued to remain center stage, accepting invitations to the most prestigious secular talk shows, conveying his view on everything from immigration to “Western fundamentalism”, and expressing his concern about “the violent attitudes, including verbal violence, with which values are defended” by Catholics, in apparent autonomy from President Bagnasco, who has correspondingly kept away from the footlights.

Both men appear to be doing their part to keep up an appearance of harmony. But with the mounting ethical challenges to be met, the top bishops can’t avoid giving answers and these answers can differ only so much.

This became apparent last June when, confronted with the spread of gender theory and other educational distortions in the schools, the concerned laity planned a “no-gender” protest in Rome, thinking they would once again find leadership or at least support from the bishops. On the contrary, as La Bussola Quotidiana has analysed, Bishop Galantino did his best to oppose the initiative. The grass roots organizations brashly and bravely decided to go ahead anyway and the event, held on June 20th, turned out against all odds to be a great success, chalked up at one million participants. Disappointingly, its resonance was greatly toned down by the marginal attention it got from Avvenire, the bishops’ daily newspaper, while Sat2000, the bishops’ television, totally ignored the exploit.

Nonetheless the family movement, made up of a swarm of different aggregates, is still not giving up. For next week, as the political parties, and particularly Matteo Renzi’s ruling Democrats, are feverishly negotiating the facets of the bill of law, slated to come up for discussion on Thursday, they have organized another massive demonstration, reserving the space of the entire Circus Maximus, the biggest possible area in Rome, for Saturday, January 30th.

All this despite the absence of a leader, despite the unhelpfulness of the municipal authorities who never grant these initiatives the same facilitations they normally grant to other protests, despite the toll a trip to Rome can take on families, often in economic straits, despite the disavowal of the 2007 event by the newly elected head of the Forum of Families, and, last but not least, despite the conflicting messages coming from the bishops.

On the bill of law about to be debated Galatino has spoken out firmly against the stepchild adoption part, but his attitude towards the issue of civil partnerships itself gets drowned in a sea of foggy statements. Consider his most determined comment:

Society has in itself an increasing presence of different kinds of couples. The State’s duty is to give answers to all, with respect to the common good, above and beyond the welfare of single individuals. We are all learning that when confronted by such a complex reality as this, if positions are radicalized, whatever the good will, one ends up with fragmented and disorderly solutions which are often the product of the prevailing of one lobby over the other.

After months of a low profile, Bagnasco has decided this month to speak up, saying no to the bill of law and exhorting Catholics to attend the Family Day in Rome in defense of the traditional family. On January 6th he said, “No other institution should obscure the reality of the family by accosting it with similar situations because this would real mean really compromising the future of humans. No other form of cohabitation, however respectable, may in any way overshadow or weaken the centrality of the family, either on a sociological or an educational level.”

On January 20th, in an interview, he described the Family Day initiative as having “absolutely necessary objectives. …. It is an initiative of the laity, under their responsibility, as stipulated by the Vatican Council.” He added that its objective is “decidedly good because the family is the foundation of all society”. The Cardinal also attacked the policies of the promoters of the bill of law, calling them “a great distraction of Parliament’s attention away from the real problems” of poverty and unemployment.

One can sympathize with the predicament of the Bishops’ newspaper Avvenire, which initially tucked the words of the Cardinal away in a back page, under a heading dedicated to the issue of immigration, while giving prominence to the negotiations of Catholic MPs in the Democratic Party, in attempting to whittle away the most objectionable parts of the law. Ultimately, Avvenire has placed the President’s pro-demonstration stance on the front page.

Italian daily La Repubblica underlined the division between the Cardinal and his Secretary General, but warned that Bagnasco had gotten the support of Secretary of State Parolin, which is to say of the Pope:

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco has again donned the helmet he wore as Spiritual Advisor to the army. Thus has the president of the Bishops’ Conference given the green light to the January 30th Family Day protest, against the bill of law on civil partnerships and adoptions. With the support of Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. This is a decisive consent to a new policy towards the event , with respect to the rather lukewarm attitude expressed by the Secretary General of the Bishops’ Conference Msgr Nuncio Galantino: the consent of the Pope.

“Cardinal Bagnasco is not in for suicide. If he has spoken so clearly on the demonstration it’s because he knows that someone above has his back.” Reminding readers that Parolin looks on the January 30th event “not unfavorably”, Repubblica went so far as to venture that lately Galantino seemed no longer to enjoy the total and unconditional support of Pope Francis.

The support of Cardinal Parolin, who judged the Irish referendum that sanctioned gay marriage “a defeat for humanity”, would explain why Bagnasco has felt free to attack, and why even aging Cardinal Ruini, 84, the mentor of 2007, has been sought out for interviews.

Cardinal Bagnasco also called Kiko Arguello, the founder of the Neocatechumenal Movement, who had been the main organizer of the event last June, to ask him to mobilize his followers for the new Family Day on the 30th. Kiko himself, who had expressed harsh criticism for Bishop Galantino from the stage in June, told Zenit of the Cardinal’s call, but not before informing the news agency that he had already asked for the bishop’s forgiveness.

With the notable exception of Kiko Arguello’s Neo-catechumenals, the lay Catholic movements had by and large remained inert, in obedience to the bishops’ as conveyed by Galantino, while their people clamored and various faithful organized on their own. But when Bagnasco spoke up they cheered and have now almost all given it their wholehearted and public support, one notable exception being, for the moment at least, the leadership of Communion and Liberation.

At Bagnasco’s words the Bussola Quotidiana had cheered, “The BC has a President again!”, judging the Cardinal to be closing a gap between the people and the heads of the Church, which had opened wide with the June 20th demonstration.

The next day however, il Fatto Quotidiano headlined that the Pope had not been at all pleased with Bagnasco’s words and his high profile in publicly contradicting the distancing expressed by his Secretary General Galantino from the anti-civil partnerships demonstration scheduled for the 30th. To show his displeasure, the Pope had eliminated a private meeting with the cardinal scheduled for Thursday morning—an appointment that had appeared on the internal bulletin of the Papal Household and then had suddenly vanished.

This past Friday the opposite kind of news has appeared: Pope Francis has spoken to the Roman Rote Tribunal and stated, “Along the Synod’s journey through the subject of the family, which the Lord has granted us to pursue in the past two years, we have been able to accomplish in a spirit and style of actual collegiality, a profound discernment thanks to which the Church has – among other things – signaled to the world that there can not be any confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union.”

This would appear to boost the position expressed by Cardinal Bagnasco, but it remains to be seen whether the bone of contention, which is the open support expressed by the Cardinal as head of the Bishops for the Family Day protest planned in direct opposition to the law recognizing civil partnerships and adoptions. The Pope’s words do not rule out “any other type of union”, but say they cannot be mixed up with the family willed by God.

Yesterday, in a speech to the Bishop’s Council, Cardinal Bagnasco insisted there was no division among the bishops, who are “united … in sharing the difficulties and trials of the family.”

We dream … of a country…in which respect for all is part of the lifestyle, and the rights of each are guaranteed on different levels, according to the law … We must never forget the identity that is proper to the family, its importance for the country’s stability and economic development, and its key role in the education of the new generations…

“Believers,” he stated, “have a duty and a right to participate in the common good, with a serene heart and a constructive spirit.”

Discussion on the bill of law begins in Parliament in two days. Meanwhile, tweets and e-mails are criss-crossing the peninsula, inviting people to join in praying the Rosary for the outcome of the vote in Parliament. Which goes to show that the usual media pressure, based on creating a sense of moral isolation, is not working. Telling Italy’s Catholics that their country is the only one in the Western world that hasn’t caught up yet with the modern world is not creating any inferiority complexes. In fact, it is engendering an even greater sense of responsibility and a renewed desire to not cave in.

About Alessandra Nucci 25 Articles

Alessandra Nucci is an Italian author and journalist.