Listen to this story:

ROME – Italy’s new right-wing government submitted a $35 billion budget plan to the country’s parliament last week, without a controversial proposal from one of the parties that compose the governing majority to subsidize marriages in the Catholic Church.

As part of the discussion around the new budget, which is submitted by the government every year in the late fall, five parliamentarians from the right-wing, anti-immigrant Lega party had proposed a tax deduction of up to $20,000, payable in five annual installments of $4,000 each, for couples under the age of 35 with an income of less than $23,000 and who choose to get married in the Catholic Church.

The Lega is among the conservative parties supporting the government of Italy’s new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

The parliamentarians cited a sharp decline in religious weddings in Italy to justify the proposal. As recently as 1970, 98 percent of all weddings in the country were held in the Catholic Church; by 2020, on the other hand, less then half of all Italian weddings took place in the church, and one in three newborns in the county had parents who aren’t married at all.

In part, the parliamentarians argued, they decline in religious weddings is due to higher costs. Their proposal would have allowed couples to deduct expenses for flowers, ushers, booklets, wedding dresses, gift bags for receptions, hair and makeup expenses, and photography services.

The initial draft of the plan also specified that to be eligible for the deduction, couples must have had Italian citizenship for at least 10 years and must be married in Italy.

Almost as soon as it was submitted, however, the proposal came in for an avalanche of criticism.

Spokespersons for Meloni quickly stated that this was an idea floated by a handful of parliamentarians, and not a proposal by the government.

On the secular side, critics of the proposal argued that it amounted to discrimination between religious and civil weddings, violating constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

“Marriage, which is addressed in article 29 of the constitution, is both civil and religious, and there’s no constitutional basis that could justify such blatant discrimination,” said Italian constitutional expert Massimo Luiciani.

Italy’s “Union of Atheists and Rational Agnostics” threatened to sue should the proposal be adopted, noting that it had prevailed in 2011 when a municipality in southern Italy tried to adopt a similar measure on the local level.

Many Catholic commentators, meanwhile, said that the proposal also violated the church’s own Code of Canon Law – specifically, canon 1102 – according to which a marriage is invalid if it was conditioned by the promise of some future condition.

Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life and is also Grand Chancellor of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, came out against the idea.

“For the church, marriage is a sacrament that can’t be bought,” Paglia said. “The believer who chooses a church wedding won’t be swayed by a tax deduction.”

Paglia argued that rather than tax benefits directed specifically at church weddings, the government should expand its package of benefits for young couples and families across the board.

“If the state wants to help families, great,” Paglia said, “but it has to be all families.”

This isn’t the first time members of the Lega party have made a similar proposal. In 2018, party member also floated the idea of tax benefits for religious weddings. At the time the proposal was assigned to the finance committee of the Italian parliament, but never reached the full body for a vote.

Ironically, although the Lega party often appeals to conservative and traditionalist Catholics, it’s also considered the main political antagonist in Italy of Pope Francis and his Vatican team, especially over immigration policy.