VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican is becoming increasingly alarmed at what it regards as official anti-Roman Catholic sentiment and secular trends in Europe, as government after government approves measures on abortion, family law and scientific study that run counter to Catholic teaching.
Vatican concerns rocketed into view during a controversy in the European Parliament this month over remarks on homosexuality and women by an Italian politician who has close ties to the Holy See.
On Oct. 5, a committee of European Parliament members voted to oppose Italy's nomination of Rocco Buttiglione, a Christian Democrat, to be the European Union's justice commissioner. During a hearing before the Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee, he had labeled homosexuality a sin and asserted that the family exists so a woman can raise children under a man's protection. Buttiglione is a friend of Pope John Paul II and various high-ranking Vatican officials.
"It looks like a new Inquisition. It is a lay Inquisition, but it is so nasty," Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, told reporters this week in response to the dispute. "You can freely insult and attack Catholics and nobody will say anything. If you do so for other confessions, let's see what would happen."
The controversy was new proof of the heat of a long debate in Europe over issues of women's equality in the workplace, gay marriage, abortion, scientific research using human embryos and separation of church and state.
Such debates are also intense in the United States, where the Vatican has waged a campaign against abortion, advising U.S. bishops on the inadmissibility of giving Communion to Catholic politicians who persist in supporting abortion rights. It did not specify names, but some bishops in the United States have said they would not administer the sacrament to Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate.
Yet trends that go against the preaching of the pope are more advanced in parts of Western Europe than in the United States, some Vatican officials contend. To the Vatican, Europe's moral landscape is bleak.
Vatican officials and media outlets have expressed alarm over new policies being prepared in Spain by the Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. His government is considering legalizing gay marriage, speeding up divorces and ending obligatory religious instruction in public schools.
Concurrently, Britain has approved research on the curative possibilities of stem cells from human embryos. In the Netherlands, the practice of euthanasia continues over church objections. In Italy, secular politicians have mounted a campaign to hold a referendum aimed at loosening a new law on laboratory-assisted fertilization. The law currently prohibits the use of donor sperm, frozen embryos and surrogate mothers.
In a speech on Sept. 20, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the head of Italy's bishops conference, criticized Spain for "emptying the family of its significance." He accused the Italian press of "hammering" the issue of artificial insemination in order to promote a referendum. Stem cell research in Britain and euthanasia for children with incurable diseases in the Netherlands "clearly demonstrate developments that result in the loss of recognition of the uniqueness and inviolability of the human subject," Ruini said.
The lay offensive, as some Vatican officials call it, has prompted the pope to intensify the search for common ground with non-Catholics on key moral and ethical issues. In particular, the pontiff has called for teaching and promoting the philosophical notion of "natural law," unchanging truths that underlie human activity across religion and cultures.
In February, during an audience with Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican department of doctrine, the pope said, "Natural law, accessible per se to every rational creature, indicates the first and essential norms that regulate moral life." He urged construction of "a platform of shared values . . . on which a constructive dialogue can be developed with all men and women of goodwill and, more in general, with secular society."
References to natural law are designed "to emphasize that issues like preserving life are not imposition of Catholic teaching but rather truths that are not religion-specific," explained the Rev. Augustine DiNoia, an assistant of Ratzinger's.
DiNoia said that over the past 20 years, John Paul and senior Vatican officials have become disillusioned with moral and ethical trends in Europe. He said the pope, more than any of his predecessors, had embraced Western democracy on the assumption that it was rooted in natural law, including a consensus for the protection of life at conception and the sanctity of marriage and family.
Dialogue with Europeans is complicated by histories of violent religious conflict that in some cases left behind strong sentiments against the Catholic Church, and not only in Protestant countries. Spain's civil war in the 1930s pitted Republicans against Fascists who were backed by large segments of the Catholic clergy. Catholic support for the long rule of the dictator Francisco Franco colors today's view of the church among Spain's Socialists, historical heirs to the Republican backers of the civil war.
Even Italy, home of the papacy, contains a streak of anti-clericalism dating from the Italian nationalists' 19th-century defeat of the pope's state in central Italy and the crushing of his political power.
Buttiglione, a seasoned politician and political science professor, was nominated to the European Commission by Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
In Buttiglione's appearance before the European Parliament panel, he argued that he could keep to his own moral standards and still do the job, which would include upholding E.U. prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation and other grounds. "I may think that homosexuality is a sin, and it has no effect on politics unless I say homosexuality is a crime," he said.
On women, he said, "The family exists to permit a woman to have children and be protected by her husband."
Buttiglione's opponents insist they are not anti-Catholic but believe that it is proper to veto a commissioner whose views run counter to anti-discrimination laws and who has politically opposed equal rights for gays. "The justice portfolio is not appropriate for him," said Sophia Helena in't Velt, a member of the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals for Europe, a bloc that opposed Buttiglione's nomination.
A final, full vote on Buttiglione's candidacy is scheduled for Oct. 27, when the entire list of two dozen E.U. commissioners is to be put before the European Parliament for ratification. It cannot veto only one candidate. Negotiations among E.U. politicians are underway about Buttiglione's fate. He has said he will not withdraw.