Italy’s Gay Rights Showdown with the Vatican

Italy’s parliament is set to decide whether to join the rest of Europe in recognizing same-sex unions or stay on the side of the Catholic Church.

01.24.16 5:15 AM ET

ROME — Same-sex couples in Italy might as well be invisible. They cannot adopt children. They cannot inherit pensions or share state-funded benefits. They are not recognized as legal couples for the purpose of tax breaks. They cannot even visit each other if one partner is in the intensive care unit, or on his or her death bed, in a public hospital, no matter how long they may have been together even if they were married legally in another country.

But all that may soon change. 

Italy is the last major European nation with a complete blind spot when it comes to recognizing same-sex couples as legal partners. Last June, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy was in “breach of human rights” because it offered no option that would allow same-sex partners to share the same benefits as straight partners, specifically citing adoption, shared pension benefits, and tax breaks as key rights that are missing. 

On Jan. 28, Italy’s Senate will start debating the so-called Cirinna law, named after Monica Cirinna, the senator from Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party who officially introduced the bill last October. 

Renzi has made the recognition of civil unions a priority in his premiership and vows to pass the bill into law. “We can hardly think we can go to Europe beating our drum about immigration or the deficit limit, and then be last in the line when it comes to human rights," Cirinna told Reuters last week. "But we live under the shadow of the Vatican dome and Catholicism here is different than in other countries. It is a presence."

To be clear, the Cirinna bill carefully avoids talk of “marriage,” which the Italian constitutional court has ruled may exist only between “natural” heterosexual couples. 

Instead, the bill is simply about allowing same-sex couples the right to be recognized the same way non-married straight couples are, as a “social formation” or life-long partnership that isn’t bound by a marriage certificate, much as France has done with its PACS (civil solidarity pacts) for more than 15 years. Former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi tried in vain to table a bill back in 2007, but it failed to get off the ground. 

One reason it has taken so long to get such a bill to a vote is because of the need to determine what exactly to call the same-sex unions to avoid any connotation of marriage. Meanwhile, naysayers have threatened to tack on thousands of amendments. The right-wing Nuovo Centro Destra or New Center Right party run by Angelino Alfano, Silvio Berlusconi’s former wingman, has had considerable success delaying the bill’s progress. 

Alfano, who recently said the use of surrogate mothers should be treated as a sex crime, is not-so-subtly backed by several high ranking Catholic cardinals, who have managed to keep this law out of parliament for years. 

The bill has been whittled down since Cirinna first introduced it and there are now several points of contention on both sides, including the highly divisive Article 5 referring to “stepchild adoption.” 

At face value, that part of the bill pertains to those cases where a child born to a man or woman in a previous heterosexual relationship could be adopted by the new same-sex partner, but legislators and the Church warn that the rules are too loose and individual exceptions may be granted by Italy’s Juvenile Court, which has the final say on all such adoptions. (An estimated 10,000 children in Italy have at least one homosexual parent, according to a study conducted by the Arcigay LGBT-rights association in 2005.)

Because the Cirinna bill as it stands does not allow for autonomous or independent adoption of babies who are not related to either member of a same-sex couple, opponents fear that Article 5 provides a loophole through which same-sex couples could eventually adopt. Opponents also fear it would surely pave the way for full autonomous adoptions or even surrogacy, which is strictly prohibited in Italy. 

On Wednesday, lawmakers who oppose the bill even went so far as to propose a new surrogacy legislation whereby any parents—heterosexual or same-sex—who employ a surrogate mother outside of Italy will face 12 years of jail time and a €1 million fine if it is determined that they “rented a womb” to conceive. The law would apply regardless of whether surrogacy is legal in the country where it was commissioned. There are even ludicrous threats that those children who were born to surrogate mothers would have to be put up for adoption.

The new surrogacy legislation drew harsh criticism from gay-rights groups and those who support options for infertile couples. 

“This is indecent,” said Gabriele Piazzoni, head of Arcigay. “A law intended to recognize rights cannot then suddenly be transformed into one that criminalizes and threatens prison terms.” 

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Even with all the haggling over the fine points of the bill, it is still likely to pass unless opponents are able to rally a filibuster to block or stall it indefinitely. There is also a possibility that the debate will be so divisive that it will require a referendum, which could spell trouble for proponents in a country like Italy where conservative Catholics tend to get out and vote.  

Late last year at the Vatican’s Synod on the Family under Pope Francis, those in attendance agreed that while gays are welcome in the Church pews, they will never be allowed to walk down the aisle. 

“Regarding proposals to place unions of homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” the synod fathers wrote in their final document. “In every way, the Synod maintains as completely unacceptable that local Churches be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies link financial aid to poor countries to the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between people of the same-sex.”

As important a component as the right to have a child is to many same-sex couples, most supporters of the Cirinna bill don’t want to lose their chance to have same-sex unions recognized legally on the issue of the stepchild adoption clause alone. Even Renzi has hinted that they might be willing to concede on that issue just to get the law passed. 

But some, like Marilena Grassadonia, president of the Rainbow Families association, say the law should be all or nothing. She told The Daily Beast that a whittled-down law isn’t enough. “The stepchild adoption amendment must remain,” she said. “Otherwise it becomes an empty law.” 

Both sides are taking their cases to the streets. 

On Saturday, a coalition of gay-rights groups held demonstrations in more than 80 public squares across Italy under the banner “Svegliati Italia,” or “Wake up Italy.” Anyone attending was asked to bring alarm clocks and timers as props to make the wake-up point. 

“The law, if passed, will change the lives of many gay and lesbian people, and especially their children, whose lives it will undoubtedly improve,” says Arcigay’s Piazzoni. “We need to give people back their dignity to remind our government that their objective at hand is to ensure equality for all, a goal that so far remains elusive.” 

But not to be outdone, Italy’s Catholic bishops are holding their own demonstration on Jan. 30 under the banner “Family Day” at the enormous Circus Maximus in Rome, where there is a clear view of St. Peter’s dome (and its shadow) on the horizon. 

With news of the Family Day demo, the LGBT groups quickly adopted their own new mantra, “Family Gay,” no doubt to rile up the Vatican traditionalists. 

The conservative Catholics say they, too, will rally a million or so opponents of the law. “The Italian bishops,” said Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Bishops Conference, “are united together and ready to defend, promote and support the universal heritage that is unique family, womb of life, the first school of humanity, of relationships, and of dialogue." 

The Church has long held that Italian lawmakers should be focusing on “more important” issues like unemployment and government reforms rather than busying itself with a civil union law.

But not everyone at the Vatican has outwardly embraced the bishops’ plans, least of all Pope Francis. On the one hand, he told Vatican judges considering annulments “there can be no confusion between the family God wants and any other type of union. … The family, founded on indissoluble matrimony that unites and allows procreation, is part of God’s dream and that of his Church for the salvation of humanity.”

But Pope Francis also told the newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he understood why states would seek “to regularize different situations of living together in order to ensure health care and other economic benefits.” Then he said that the church would have to “look at the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.” Not exactly an endorsement of the Cirinna law, perhaps, but neither is it as strong an opposition as we’ve seen from many of his fellow churchmen. 

The bill debate kicks off on Jan. 28, and, barring unforeseen delays, could come to a vote within a week. If it passes in any form, which it surely should, it will be seen as a major defeat to the conservatives of the Catholic church. And even if it passes as just a shell of its original incarnation, it will be seen as a worthy compromise by many in the LGTB community—a necessary first step toward equality for all.