ROME — The Vatican has taken a highly unusual step against its neighbor, sending a diplomatic note to the Italian government that protests a draft law aimed at preventing hate and violence against LGBT people.
While it’s common for church figures to take stances on affairs in other countries — whether on same-sex marriage, LGBT rights or abortion — in this case the Vatican is invoking its prerogatives as a nation, arguing that the law, if passed, would violate the “concordat” that provides the framework for its relationship with Italy.
“Some current contents of the draft being debated by the Senate reduce the freedom granted to the Catholic Church,” the Vatican’s note said, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, which first reported the letter.
The Vatican’s press office confirmed that the city-state sent a note to the Italian ambassador to the Holy See last week but did not provide more details. Benedetto Della Vedova, an Italian foreign ministry undersecretary who has read the document, called the message “heavy interference” and said the Vatican city-state had not previously attempted to influence the Italian government on highly contentious issues such as abortion and divorce.
“The effects of this escalation aren’t positive for anyone,” Della Vedova said. He declined to share a copy of the letter with The Washington Post, but he described the core of the Vatican’s contention — that the draft law would violate specific aspects of the concordat dealing with religious freedom and freedom of expression. The Vatican’s goal is to have the draft bill amended.
The law, known as the Zan bill, after gay activist lawmaker Alessandro Zan, was approved last year by Italy’s lower house and has since been under debate in the Senate, amid fierce national discussion. The bill would explicitly categorize violence against LGBT people as a hate crime, making it akin to racial or antisemitic attacks, while establishing harsher penalties than those currently on the books.
Members of far-right political parties have said the legislation would suppress opinion. The leader of the far-right League, Matteo Salvini, said it would punish those “who think a mom is a mom and a dad is a dad.”
Advocates say that the law would merely put Italy in line with other Western European countries and provide belated safeguards after a series of murders and assaults targeting transgender people. According to Rainbow Europe, an LGBT association, Italy provides some of the weakest legal protections on the continent for LGBT people.
The explanation for that is based partly on the Catholic Church’s deep historical influence on Italy. When Italy was first considering granting legal rights to same-sex couples, the powerful Italian bishops’ conference sponsored protests, and Pope Benedict XVI helped lead a campaign to stop it. (When Italy approved civil unions in 2016, Pope Francis took a more hands-off approach.)
But even though Francis has at times signaled a more welcoming church stance on homosexuality, the church has not shifted its official teachings and laws. In March, the Vatican made explicit its position that priests cannot bless same-sex marriages. The church has also taken a clear stance on gender issues and said in 2019 that people do not have the right to choose their own gender.
The Zan law provides protection to people based on gender identity, among other factors.
Crux, a Catholic news outlet, noted Tuesday that Francis has called gender theory “dangerous” and an example of evil at work.
“It is an attack on difference, on the creativity of God and on men and women,” the pope said in a book released last year.
But supporters of the Italian bill say the Vatican, even if concerned about the changing cultural perception of sexuality and gender, should not feel threatened by the proposed law. They note that any viewpoint is protected, as long as it does not “incite a concrete danger of discriminatory or violent actions.” They also note that the law will not force any school — including private Catholic ones — to participate in events teaching about transphobia and homophobia.
“The worries here are absolutely groundless,” Zan, the lawmaker, said in a phone interview.
Gabriele Piazzoni, secretary general of Arcigay, Italy’s largest gay rights group, said the church was perhaps more worried about public opinion — and the fact that some Catholics disagree with church teaching. According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of Italians say homosexuality should be accepted, a proportion lower than in other Western European countries but slightly higher than in the United States.
“The dissonance I see is between this kind of behavior by the Vatican and the majority of the Catholic world and of Catholic public opinion,” Piazzoni said. “Maybe they are afraid that the [Catholic school] students, parents and teachers may be the ones asking to hold initiatives against discrimination or violence. There could be a groundswell of requests that they want to prevent at all costs.”