Italian Bishops’ (de facto) Acceptance of Civil Unions.

For years, Italy has been a major, conspicuous anomaly on the Wikipedia map of same-sex unions in Europe: the only country of Western Europe to have neither same-sex marriage, nor any other legal recognition for same-sex couples. Up to now, this has come about with the implacable opposition of the Italian bishops to any form of legal recognition.

With the passage this week of a civil unions bill in the Italian senate, by a comfortable majority, that’s about to change. More remarkably, this has come about with the de facto acquiescence of the Italian bishops. This is a truly remarkable turnaround, in just a few years!

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Some news reports have claimed that “the Vatican” and “the Italian hierarchy” opposed the bill. This is simply not true.  Pope Francis refused to get drawn into the debate, saying that “the pope doesn’t get mixed up in Italian politics.” Several months ago, it was reported that the Vatican and the Italian bishops would not get involved formally, for fear of losing the battle and in the process, losing credibility among the Italian Catholic population. And so it turned out. Some individual bishops encouraged lay Catholics to participate in protests, others kept quiet. the “Catholic” opposition to the bill came from some Catholic lay groups and individual prelates, not from “the hierarchy” collectively – and certainly not from “the Vatican”.

Where there was formal opposition from Catholic bishops (and Pope Francis), it was NOT expressed in terms of opposition to civil unions per se, but to any suggestion that these could be equated with marriage. That’s huge progress!

This movement towards inclusion is even more marked, elsewhere in Europe. Unlike the position in some Protestant churches, it’s highly unlikely that we will see gay weddings (or even blessings for same-sex couples) in Catholic churches, any time soon. However, what we are seeing already, is a growing awareness of the important distinction between matrimony, as an affair for the Church,  and civil marriage, as a secular matter for state regulation. With it, is coming both respect for the right of citizens to determine secular law – and even some grudging respect for the value of legal protections for same-sex couples.

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