Pope Francis leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

The last time Italy tried to grant legal rights to same-sex couples, Pope Benedict XVI helped lead the charge that stopped it. But as Italian lawmakers opened debate Thursday on a new civil unions bill, the Vatican under Pope Francis is taking a very different approach.

Passage of the legislation in the nation of 60 million would mark a milestone in the gay rights movement. Italy is the last country in Western Europe — other than Vatican City — to offer same-sex couples no legal rights, a position based on the Roman Catholic Church’s historic opposition to such unions.

As Italy now undertakes its most serious effort yet to legalize civil unions, the more nuanced response of the Vatican in its own back yard is turning the bill into a test case for whether Francis’s inclusive tone can translate to change on the ground. Some gay activists are hoping that the Vatican’s light touch in Italy could help similar bills in other predominantly Catholic countries including the Philippines and in Central America, where same-sex couples have no legal rights.

“My impression is that the pope is determined not to be confrontational and fight this law,” said Massimo Franco, a Vatican watcher and columnist for Italy’s Corriere della Sera.

In Italy, the Catholic reaction to the measure has been split. Hundred of thousands of Italians — including Catholics — demonstrated last weekend in an unprecedented display of support for the bill. At the same time, the opposition — led by conservative Catholic groups — plans to stage a “Family Day” protest on Saturday aimed at stopping the legislation.

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Italian bishops and cardinals have largely sided with the opposition, rallying religious conservatives against it. Yet unlike in the last debate on civil unions, in 2007, the powerful Italian bishops’ conference is not directly sponsoring the protest scheduled for Saturday. More important, the Vatican under Francis has taken a largely hands-off approach.

The Italian news media took note when Francis abruptly canceled a meeting with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops conference, after he publicly backed the Family Day protest. Meanwhile, Bishop Nunzio Galantino — whom Francis appointed as secretary general of the Italian conference — has offered a highly nuanced and somewhat novel position.

In an interview with Corriere della Sera, he reiterated the Catholic teaching that marriage is between only a man and a woman, and he said he strongly opposes adoption rights for same-sex couples. But he also seemed to acknowledge society’s obligation to recognize the “growing presence of unions of a different kind.”

“The state has a duty to give answers to everyone, respecting the common good first,” Galantino said.

A pope highly skilled at leaving his words open to interpretation, Francis has been hard to read — a fact that some say is telling. Last week, Francis said that October’s combative synod on the family clarified that, for the church, “there cannot be any confusion between the family willed by God and other kinds of unions.”

Conservatives considered his words an endorsement of the opposition, while liberals took them to mean that the church does not view civil unions as marriage, making them potentially acceptable. Other observers noted that Francis — who was speaking to a group of Vatican judges who mostly rule on annulments — was not actually opining on the Italian debate at all.

Pope Francis, right, blesses a newly wed couple at the Vatican. The Italian Senate plunges into a debate on proposed legislation to grant legal recognition to ''civil unions.'' (Andrew Medichini/AP)

One thing is certain. Francis’s approach differs radically from that of Benedict, his predecessor, who helped thwart the 2007 measure on civil unions in Italy. Back then, the Vatican aggressively lobbied Italian officials to stop the bill even as Benedict called for “the Church and every public institution” to defend the traditional family with “political initiatives.”

After the major synod on family issues last year didn’t offer any entree for gay Catholics, gay activists in Italy consider the Vatican’s hands-off approach promising. Although bishops and cardinals may be voicing their opposition, some activists argue that they have been undermined by the lack of explicit Vatican support.

“I believe the new pope has had a meaningful influence” on the civil union debate, said Gabriele Piazzoni, secretary general of ­ARCIGAY, one of the largest gay activist groups in Italy. “It’s clear to everyone that the Holy See does not intend to openly support the call to arms coming from other Catholics” in Italy.

Conservative Catholics, however, have been heartened by the open opposition to the bill by influential Italian bishops, including Bagnasco, who heralded the upcoming Family Day protest as an initiative “in defense of the family, of the full support of family which cannot be equated to any other institution or situation.”

Backed by the center-left government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the new Italian bill comes one year after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of several same-sex Italian couples who said that Italy was violating their human rights by denying them legal benefits. Gay rights activists describe the bill as a compromise — a pragmatic acknowledgment that full marriage rights probably would still fail in largely Catholic Italy.

The law would grant gay couples most of the rights of heterosexual marriage. But adoption rights would be strictly limited to children who are the biological offspring of same-sex partners. In fact, the mere mention of any kind of adoption rights has become the largest point of contention.

The government appears to have a comfortable majority on the bill in the lower house. But in the Senate, where a final vote is likely to come by early February, it faces a serious test. A quarter or more of the senators from Renzi’s Democratic Party appear set to vote against the measure if the adoption clause is kept, although the government could still manage to pass it with members of the opposition.

The adoption clause may yet be dropped to save the bill — something that gay Italians such as Andrea Rubera describe as a major setback if it happens. He and his partner — both Italians living in Rome — married in Canada, then worked with a surrogate to become fathers. His partner fathered twins, now 2, and Rubera fathered a 4-year-old daughter. Without adoption rights, however, they have no legal claim on each other’s biological children should Rubera or his partner become incapacitated or die.

“If the bill passes without adoption rights, it would be failure for us, a failure for Italy,” Rubera said. “Italy needs to grant us our basic human rights.”

Conservative Catholics, however, say Italy should continue to swim against the tide of gay rights in Western Europe.

“On these great issues regarding family, child-raising, parenthood, Italy should be proud to be what it is, of not necessarily aligning to the opinions and culture of the European countries,” said Massimo Gandolfini, president of Let’s Defend Our Children, a group sponsoring the Family Day protest.

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.

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