ROME – Both the Italian bishops and a top Vatican prelate have condemned Italy’s new and hotly contested “differentiated autonomy” law as a measure that sharpens the disparity between rich and poor and which acts against the common good of the country.

Approved by Italy’s lower house on Wednesday after a fiery all-night debate, the legislation grants individual regions in Italy more power over how tax revenues are collected and spent, and over public services such as healthcare and education.

The bill was so bitterly contested that it sparked a brawl in parliament last week, with a member of Italy’s Five Star Movement requiring medical assistance.

That fight prompted a demonstration by opposition parties in Rome Tuesday night, who said they had gathered “to defend national unity” in the face of the differentiated autonomy bill and a separate proposed bill that would allow the country’s prime minister to be elected directly by the people, rather than parliament.

Protesters claimed they were also rallying against alleged “violence and intimidation” by the ruling conservative coalition.

Critics of the bill, which passed with 172 votes in favor and 99 against, argue that if wealthier regions are able to keep more of their tax earnings, already strained impoverished regions, most of which are in the underdeveloped south, will have fewer financial resources.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said the bill marked “a step forward towards building a stronger and fairer Italy,” and argued that it would “overcome the differences there are today between various parts of the country.”

Likewise, Italian politician Matteo Salvini, the leader of rightwing populist Lega party, hailed the bill’s passing as “a victory for all Italians.”

However, Elly Schlein, leader of the center-left Democratic party (PD), said argued that the bill was divisive and would increase inequality, saying, “Meloni, the patriot who splits the country.”

In May, the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) released a statement urging caution over the bill, saying, “The country will not grow if not together.”

This sentiment, they said, “is a fundamental principle of unity and co-responsibility, which invites us to rediscover the authentic meaning of the State, of the common home, of a shared project for the future.”

Referring to the differentiated autonomy bill, the bishops argued that “there is no development without solidarity, attention to the least, valorization of differences and co-responsibility in the promotion of the common good.”

They pointed to the Italian national synodal process, saying it has illustrated the importance of walking together “as a Christian community and with the territories and civil community of the country.”

“We believe that the word ‘together’ is key to addressing today’s challenges and is the path that leads to a future possible for all,” they said, adding, “We are convinced – and history confirms it – that the principle of subsidiarity is inseparable from that of solidarity.”

When these two concepts are separated, they said, “the social fabric is impoverished, either because individual realities are promoted without asking them to commit to the common good, or because there is a risk of centralizing everything at the state level without valorizing the skills of individuals.”

“Solidarity and subsidiarity must walk together, otherwise a void is created that is impossible to fill,” they said.

In this regard, the bishops voiced concern over “any attempt to accentuate the imbalances that already exist between territories, between metropolitan and internal areas, between centers and peripheries.”

The bill, then, “risks undermining the foundations of that bond of solidarity between the different regions, which is a protection of the principle of unity of the Republic,” the bishops said, saying this is a risk that “cannot be underestimated.”

This is especially true, they said, “in light of the inequalities that already exist, especially in the field of healthcare,” where a large portion of the funds dispersed among the various regions is allocated, “and which raises concerns as it is inadequate to citizens’ expectations both in terms of timing and methods of providing services.”

“The developments of the system of autonomies…cannot fail to take into account the effective definition of the essential levels of performance relating to the civil and social rights that must be guaranteed uniformly throughout the national territory,” they said.

With this in mind, the bishops urged political institutions to sign a “social and cultural pact” to ensure that “mechanisms of development, control and social justice for each and every one are increased.”

Speaking on the margins of a conference after the bill passed, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of CEI, reiterated his insistence that if Italian leaders want political reforms to endure, “they must involve everyone. Let’s all try to do what we can to make it so.”

Referring to the bill’s passing regardless of CEI’s May statement, he said, “We made an official document, we have said what we have to say; it is clear that they did not take us seriously, what should we do?”

Likewise, Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, while saying the Holy See has no competence to comment on Italian affairs, told journalists this week that “everything is good that helps to increase solidarity.”

What is important, he said, is that the bill “does not create imbalances, inequalities and differentiations between one part of Italy and another in its implementation.”

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