ROME — The Vatican’s influence on Italian politics has been questioned after it objected to a law that would make homophobia a crime.
Activists and some politicians reacted with fury after the Vatican opposed a bill that would make violence and hate speech against LGBTQ+ people and disabled people a crime.
The so-called Zan bill, named after Alessandro Zan, an MP from the center-left Democratic Party who put forward the proposed legislation, was approved in the lower house of Parliament in November, but has been blocked in the Senate, where it is opposed by the political right on freedom of expression grounds.
Opponents fear the bill could require schools to teach gender theory and criminalize those who espouse Catholic teaching on subjects such as gay marriage.
The Vatican has historically used soft power to influence Italian policy, particularly on social issues such as civil partnerships, but this is the first time the Vatican has formally objected to a draft piece of legislation.
It puts Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who has good relations with the Vatican, in a difficult position. Draghi told the Senate on Wednesday that the law was a matter for Parliament. “We are a secular state, not a religious state. The Parliament is free to discuss, obviously, and make laws,” he said.
Italy, which lags behind other Western European countries when it comes to discrimination legislation, also has its international reputation to consider. On Tuesday, it joined 15 other EU states in endorsing a statement condemning Hungary’s recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and urging the European Commission to take action.
Yet, according to a European Commission survey from 2019, only 68 percent of Italians said that gay people should have equal rights, compared to 98 percent in Sweden and 88 percent in Germany.
The Vatican expressed its concerns about the draft law on June 17 in a formal diplomatic communication known as a nota verbale, claiming that the bill risked violating the terms of the Lateran Pacts, which created the Vatican City State during Italian unification and which protects Catholics’ freedom of expression and organization.
Leftist politicians, including the speaker of the lower house of Parliament, Roberto Fico, condemned the intrusion into the affairs of a sovereign state.
Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender activist and former MP, called the Vatican move “a dangerous attack on the secularity of the state,” warning “we are a democracy not a theocracy.”
LGBTQ+ campaigners said it was a cynical attempt to shelve the law.
Franco Grillini, president of rights group Gaynet, said the Vatican’s “pretext for dictating laws to Italy and interfering with its political work is unacceptable. It is completely out of step with the times, Europe and the international guidelines on hate crime and discrimination.”
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, welcomed the Vatican’s intervention. Salvini has proposed an alternative bill that makes homophobia an aggravating factor in violent crime but does not provide any protection for transgender people.
Raffaele Marchetti, professor of international relations at Luiss University in Rome, said the intervention brought to the surface tensions that “had been swept under the carpet.”
“Italy and the Vatican’s complicated relationship tends to be forgotten,” he said. “You cannot abolish the treaty that merged two states in the 19th century and governs their relationship in every way. Passing the Zan bill would have consequences, as it would force those treaties to be revisited … I doubt this Parliament is capable of confronting the issue.”
One possible outcome is that the Zan bill is watered down to remove some of the more controversial elements such as the participation of schools in initiatives against homophobia.
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