The Vatican has made an unprecedented intervention urging the Italian government to change a proposed law that would criminalise homophobia over concerns it will infringe upon the Catholic church’s “freedom of thought”.
A letter delivered by the British archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary of relations with states, said parts of the legislation violated a treaty made between Italy and the Catholic church in the 1920s that secured the freedoms and rights of the church, Corriere della Sera reported.
The move was confirmed on Tuesday by a Vatican spokesperson. “A note verbale from the secretary of state was informally delivered to Italy’s embassy to the Holy See on 17 June,” the spokesperson said, without revealing the contents of the letter.
The intervention has further stoked a fiery debate surrounding the law, designed to make violence and hate speech against LGBT people and disabled people, as well as misogyny, a crime, while further impeding efforts by supporters to get the bill passed.
The Vatican’s letter argued that the anti-homophobia law called into question the church’s “freedom of organisation” and threatened “freedom of thought” among Catholics, Corriere said, and also raised concerns that private schools would be forced to organise events as part of the creation of a national day against homophobia. “We ask that our concerns be accepted,” the letter reportedly concluded.
“It’s the first time the church has done something like this,” said Robert Mickens, the Rome-based editor of the English-language edition of Catholic daily newspaper La Croix. “They’re worrying about being fined for hate speech.”
There was hope in November when the bill, drafted by Alessandro Zan, a gay politician with the centre-left Democratic party, passed a vote in the lower house of parliament that it would soon become law. But its passage through the upper house has been delayed by a change in government and senators with the far-right League party, which re-entered the ruling administration in February.
The law has also been challenged by other rightwing parties and Catholic groups as well as feminist groups, which argue that “gender identity”, a term used in the bill, had been “weaponised against women”.
Italy’s rightwing press has been stirring up the issue by referencing the application of anti-homophobia laws in other countries. “Absurd examples have been used to say, ‘Look, this is what’s going to happen if the law passes in Italy,’” said Mickens.
Although Italy approved same-sex civil unions in 2016, the country has lagged behind its EU partners in creating anti-homophobia measures.
In 2015, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, described Ireland’s referendum on same-sex marriage as “a defeat for humanity”.
“The [Italy] move came from his department,” said Mickens. “They’re still very uncomfortable with the whole gay issue.”