ROME – In response to a formal protest from the Holy See to the draft of an anti-homophobia law on grounds of religious freedom, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi Wednesday evening said Italy is a secular state and as such, can decide on its own whether a proposed legislation is constitutional.

Speaking to members of the Senate’s upper chamber during a scheduled June 23 address, Draghi said that Italy “is a lay state, a lay state, so it’s not a confessional state,” meaning that the Italian parliament “is free” and able to deliberate, discuss, and draw its own conclusions.

“Our regulations have all of the guarantees to ensure that laws always respect constitutional principles and international commitments, among which is the Concordat with the Church,” he said, referring to the 1929 Lateran Pacts, which established the Vatican City State as a sovereign entity and regulate relations between the Holy See and Italy.

Referencing a sentence in Italy’s constitutional court from 1989, Draghi insisted that the concept of laïcité, meaning the separation of church and state in a secular state, does not interfere with religious freedom, but is rather “the guarantee of pluralism and cultural diversity.”

In terms of the Holy See’s complaint, Draghi said “the government is following this, but this is the moment of parliament, it’s not the moment of the government.”

Draghi’s remarks come the day after the Holy See invoked its sovereign status under the Lateran Pacts to protest the so-called “Zan bill” – named after Alessandro Zan, an openly gay legislator who introduced it – which is designed to combat homophobia, but which the Vatican argues could infringe on the religious freedom that is guaranteed under the 1929 treaty.

The bill, which passed in the lower House in November, is now under consideration by the Senate’s justice committee. If the committee approves the bill, it would then be put forward to the entire Senate for a vote before it becomes law.

Critics of the bill argue, among other things, that if the bill were made law, it would require Catholic schools to modify their curricula to include state-mandated lessons on tolerance and gender and could criminalize public expressions of Church teaching on marriage and the family.

The Holy See voiced their concerns in a nota verbale, meaning a formal diplomatic communique, sent from the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, English Archbishop Paul Gallagher, to Italian Ambassador to the Vatican Pietro Sebastiani.

Reaction to the unprecedented move has predictably broken along political lines, with most rightwing politicians voicing support for the Holy See’s position, and most politicians on the left condemning the Vatican for either overstepping its bounds or speaking out of place.

Famed Italian rapper Fedez went on the offensive late Tuesday, tweeting out that “the Vatican doesn’t pay taxes but accuses Italy.”

Though not explicitly in response, Vatican News, the Vatican’s official information platform, nevertheless posted an item Wednesday indicating that last year, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), essentially the Vatican’s central bank, paid more than $7 million in property taxes to the Italian government and $3.5 million in corporate income tax.

All that, according to the statement, was in addition to taxes paid to Italy by the Government of the Vatican City State, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (which has extensive real estate holdings in Rome), the Vicariate of Rome, and individual Italian dioceses.

In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Archbishop Nunzio Galantino, head of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which manages the Vatican’s assets, hit back against Fedez’s accusations about taxes, saying the rapper “either ignores things or is in bad faith.”

APSA alone, he said, paid some 5,950,000 euros ($7,100,283) in property taxes and around 2,880,000 euros ($3,436,608) in corporate income tax in 2020.

Other Vatican and Church entities such as the Governorate of Vatican City State, the Vicariate of Rome, the Italian bishops’ conference, and various other religious entities each pay both income and corporate taxes, he said, noting that APSA in the second half of July will publish its financial statements for 2020, showing that taxes have been paid.

“I would like to know from Mr. Fedez who published these figures and where he got them from: under which law, on which properties,” Galantino said, adding, “bizarre numbers are circulating that feed the legend of an immense Vatican patrimony, (but) it is not so.”

Noting that there is a law dispensing churches from paying certain taxes, Galantino said this law “does not only concern the Catholic Church, but all religious confessions. Jews, Muslims, Protestants, do not pay taxes,” and neither do “non-profit organizations, parties, and trade unions.”

Referring to the Vatican’s complaint, Italian politician Ivan Scalfarotto, Undersecretary of Italy’s Interior Ministry, also criticized the move, saying, “Parliament has the right and the duty to continue its work without taking account of any type of external pressure. That’s true for the Vatican as it would be for any other state that wants to express itself on a proposed law that’s still under consideration.”

Francesco Alicino, Professor of Public Religion Law and Vice Rector of the Lum University of Casamassima in Bari also chimed in, asking, “Can the Church, through the concordat, really ask the executive branch to become its spokesman for certain objections to communicate to parliament? We’re entering uncharted juridical terrain, and, I think, in many ways constitutionally unsustainable.”

According to Father Massimo Biancalani, pastor of Vicofaro, in the Lazio region of Italy, who has for years been committed to welcoming migrants and members of the LGBT community, the Vatican’s decision to intervene publicly was “inopportune.”

“It would have been better to work through diplomatic channels,” he said, adding, “You also have to respect the dignity of a country which, at the moment, has its own internal debate. The autonomy (of Italy) is a value recognized by the Church, so what are we going to do now, go back to the 1950s?”

On the other hand, Senator Andrea Ostellari of the rightwing Lega party and president of the Senate Justice Commission that is currently considering the Zan bill, urged parliamentarians to take the Holy See’s concerns seriously.

“I’ve made a formal request to acquire the text of the relevant note that the Vatican State sent to the Foreign Ministry,” Ostellari said, adding, “For the work the commission is doing, it’s fundamental to know and evaluate the points raised by the Holy See.”

Speaking to Italian newspaper Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, Italian jurist and professor Carlo Cardia, a former member of the joint commission tasked with revising the Holy See’s concordat with Italy, said he believes the bill as currently written is “unconstitutional,” and that freedom of expression is at stake.

“We must avoid the temptation to reduce everything to a mere defense of Catholics interests by the Holy See,” he said, noting that while this is one aspect of the Vatican’s resistance, “I see something more in the note, which affects all Italian citizens and therefore has a general scope.”

The question of religious freedom, he said, does not just affect Catholics, “but all Italians, all people who live in our country, all organizations and associations of any orientation.”

“This is why I say we are faced with a very precise and severe call for the legislative text drawn up so far to be profoundly revised so as to overcome some very important critical issues.”

Cardia acknowledged that Italian parliament has the tools to avoid unconstitutionality, “as is already being done,” and there are also provisions in Italian law guaranteeing constitutionality.

“In this end this is what matters most,” he said, “because everyone’s freedoms are at stake here, not just Catholics.”

Should the bill be passed in spite of the Holy See’s objections, the Lateran Pacts invoked by the Vatican foresee the creation of a joint commission between Italy and the Holy See to resolve the dispute.

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