Blogs Blogs > Italy's historic same-sex legislation begs the question: is the Church's position changing?

26 February 2016 | by Christopher Lamb in Rome

Italy's historic same-sex legislation begs the question: is the Church's position changing?

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Italy has now passed its bill allowing for same-sex unions

Italy has now passed its bill allowing for same-sex unions. 

As the last country in Western Europe without a law recognising gay couples a change was inevitable. But where does this leave the Church? 

Pope Francis and the global Catholic leadership are not going to suddenly support gay marriage. At the same time, the dramatic social change in the western world over the last 50 years towards recognising same-sex relationships is forcing the Church to shift its position. 

Days before the Italian senate voted on the bill, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, said it was essential that the new law did not equate civil unions with marriage. What was of particular concern to the cardinal was the provision for adoption rights, which in the end was removed from the legislation. Noteworthy, however, was his refusal to condemn the civil union legislation outright.

Similarly, when asked on the plane from Mexico to Rome, Pope Francis declined to get involved in the debate. “The Pope doesn’t get mixed up in Italian politics,” he said. “At my first meeting with the [Italian] bishops in May 2013, one of the three things I said was: with the Italian government you’re on your own. Because the Pope is for everybody and he can’t insert himself in the specific internal politics of a country.” He then explained that “a Catholic parliamentarian must vote according to his well-formed conscience”.

This appears to be a change from a 2003 Vatican document, issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, saying that Catholic politicians should vote against same-sex couple legislation. That document said clearly: “The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

But is the Catholic world in the west now moving to a 'de facto' position where it no longer actively opposes the state recognition of the legal rights of gay couples?

When he was in Argentina Francis neither opposed nor supported civil partnerships and as Pope said on the topic: “We have to look at different cases and evaluate them in their variety". When gay marriage was introduced in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols appeared to lend support to civil partnerships but opposed gay marriage. He later clarified to say he was opposed to civil unions. 

There are other signs of movement. Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp in Belgium has said the Church needs to find a way of recognising same-sex relationships while the controversial “mid-term” report of the synod in 2014 recognised the “gifts and qualities” gay people can offer the Church while affirming that “unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.” Last October’s synod said far less about gays but that does not mean the question is off the table. 

Increasingly the Church is having to exist in, and minister to, societies where same-sex marriage is in force or at the very least gay couples’ relationships legally recognised. It presents a dilemma. Does the Church continue to condemn and oppose? Or does it find a way of living with the new reality? A compromise will need to be found. 

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