- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

ROME — When Italy’s most influential cardinal received an award recently, he was heckled by a group of students for his stand against full legal rights for unmarried couples.

“Shame, shame,” the students shouted at Cardinal Camillo Ruini, holding up posters saying “Free love in a free state” and “We’re all homosexuals.”

It was a remarkable display — and not just because cardinals are rarely booed in Italy.

The students’ anger was a measure of how the Roman Catholic Church has regained its role as a powerful force in Italy’s political debate, weighing in on hot campaign issues and forcing politicians to take a stand ahead of general elections next year.

“Certainly it is one of the periods of maximum mobilization of the church,” Vatican specialist Andrea Tornielli said. “I believe the church is worried that the traditional family based on marriage is attacked and weakened through legislation.”

The church in Italy kept a lower profile after the Christian Democrats, with whom the Vatican had close ties, collapsed under the corruption scandals of the early 1990s. But a successful campaign asking Italians to boycott a referendum on easing assisted fertility restrictions in April appears to have emboldened the bishops.

“The referendum gave Ruini the belief that he had more sway over public opinion than even he imagined,” said Giuseppe Alberigo, a church historian.

In one of his first acts in office, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the secular nature of the Italian state during a visit June 24. But he also made it clear that that wouldn’t stop the Catholic Church from intervening in ethical matters or issues that dealt with man’s “eternal destiny.”

Cardinal Ruini, Benedict’s vicar for Rome and head of the Italian bishops’ conference, seems to have taken that message to heart. During a speech last month, he discussed the upcoming Italian budget, the state of the school system, and even the fate of Italy’s embattled central bank governor.

But most significantly, he chimed in on the hottest issue of the day. He said that giving full legal recognition to unmarried couples would represent an “eclipsing of the nature and value of a family and a very grave harm to the Italian people.”

Although he did suggest that common-law living arrangements might offer some protections, opponents seized on what they saw as unwarranted interference by the church in domestic affairs. “The bishops’ conference is the most powerful, listened-to, courted — and feared — lobby on the political scene,” La Repubblica, a left-leaning Rome daily, said in a recent editorial.

The Italian bishops rejected the criticism, saying it is the church’s duty to express its opinion on moral issues. “The church won’t be intimidated,” said Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, the secretary-general of the group.

The Vatican’s influence in Italy is long established — more than 90 percent of the country’s 58 million citizens are at least nominally Catholic — and seems to endure even if citizens have strayed from church doctrine. The nation approved divorce and abortion in referendums decades ago and, like the rest of Europe, is becoming ever-more secular.

But just how that influence will play out in general elections pitting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative coalition against the center-left alliance remains to be seen.

Cardinal Ruini said the church in Italy would take no political sides and limit itself to “calling everybody’s attention, and especially that of believers, to the principles and criteria of the Catholic Church’s social teaching.”

But La Repubblica said, “Nobody can afford to openly oppose the episcopal hierarchy.”

Romano Prodi, the center-left leader expected to challenge Mr. Berlusconi in next year’s election, got a taste of that last month.

His proposal to give legal recognition to unmarried couples stirred the angry reaction of the Vatican, whose daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, described the idea as an attempt to tear apart Italian families in exchange for votes.

Mr. Prodi quickly clarified his position, saying he never supported same-sex “marriage.”

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