Vatican presses Italian government over civil partnership law

As the Vatican’s big “pro-family” (read: anti-gay) demonstration was taking place in a Rome square last Saturday, about three kilometres away, several thousand people joined a counter-rally to defend secularism and the plan to grant homosexual couples legal status.

With banners proclaiming ‘All Families are Equal’, ‘I’m Divorcing the Pope, I'm Marrying the DICO’ (the title of the civil unions’ plan), protesters’ sang and chanted at the counter-demonstration, organised by the Radical Party. “We want to show there is not one single Italy, but several. The law must accompany the evolution of feelings,” said the party’s founder Emma Bonino, who is the minister for foreign trade.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s government proposed allowing civil unions in February. The planned law, which would also give unmarried heterosexual couples more rights, has met with strong opposition from conservatives and centre-left Catholics in parliament.

Several members of Prodi's own centre-left governing coalition were due to take part in the Catholic protest. They include Paola Binetti, a senator and member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei who has been a prominent figure among left-wing Catholics. The ‘Day of the Family’ protest drew a claimed one million people (brought from all corners of Italy in three thousand hired buses) in a carnival-like atmosphere with music, clowns and games for children. The Catholic Church has often been accused of interference in political affairs. It had asked bishops not to protest, but did encourage priests, nuns and churchgoers to take part.

Despite supposedly being an “overwhelmingly Catholic country”, the annual number of marriages in Italy fell from 419,000 in 1972 to 250,000 in 2005. The number of children born to unwed parents has doubled in 10 years.