ROME – As debate in the Italian senate becomes increasingly strident over a draft anti-homophobia law, with the outcome of an eventual vote appearing uncertain, perhaps the most striking thing from a Catholic point of view is a version of Sherlock Holmes’ “dog that didn’t bark.”
To wit, after an historic diplomatic protest by the Vatican against the bill on religious freedom grounds, which was revealed last month and which sparked a national firestorm, the Vatican’s intervention now seems to be a non-factor.
At least publicly, proponents of the bill in the senate debate haven’t engaged the substantive concerns contained in the communique, formally known as a nota verbale. Nor have they tried to use the Vatican’s intervention as a rallying cry, urging the senate to demonstrate its independence by rebuffing the attempted interference.
Opponents, meanwhile, don’t seem especially eager to wrap themselves in the Vatican flag either. In an extensive debate that began on Tuesday, so far the only senator to even refer to the Vatican protest has been Andrea Ostellari of the right-wing populist Lega party, who simply cited it as one example of various individuals, groups, associations and movements who’ve voiced reservations, and even Ostellari felt compelled immediately to add an aside to the effect that “of course” Italy is a secular Republic.
Indeed, the only “church” cited in any meaningful way has been soccer player Federico Chiesa (his last name means “church”), one of the heroes of Italy’s historic run through the European championship that culminated in a victory over England last Sunday in the final.
Senator Simone Pillon, also of the Lega, thundered on the floor of the senate Wednesday that when the team’s players called someone after the game, they called their moms, not “parent one” or “parent two,” suggesting the bill could threaten the traditional family structure. The reference was to one of the more endearing post-game scenes from last Sunday night, when cameras caught an emotional Chiesa using the vocal assistant program SIRI to call his mother.
Nor has the Vatican itself made any noise. Since Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, released an interview in late June to claim the intervention had been misunderstood, there’s been steady radio silence.
In part, such withdrawal over the last 10 days might be attributed to the fact that the pope’s been out of commission in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, but he still found time to comment on Haiti, South Sudan, the Syro-Malabar Church, and any number of other subjects during that span.
It’s hard not to suspect, therefore, that the silence is also strategic.
Part of the picture may be that it’s slightly unclear where Pope Francis himself stands in all this. Shortly after the Vatican note was made public, close papal advisor and ally Andrea Riccardi, a layman and founder of the Sant’Egidio movement, gave an interview in which he suggested it came from “Italian clerical circles and not from the pope.” Then during his Sunday Angelus address that week, the pope spoke these lines: “Don’t judge the personal and social situations of others. God loves everyone! Don’t judge, live and let live, and try to get closer to others with love.”
Just a few days later, Francis sent a handwritten note to American Jesuit Father James Martin, encouraging him in his pastoral outreach to LGBTQ+ Catholics, which, though it had nothing to do directly with the Italian debate, was nevertheless taken by many here in Italy as telling.
It’s usually a mistake to get too deep into reading such tea leaves, but the fact remains Pope Francis is aware of the confusion – one prominent Italian newspaper suggested the pope had been “ambushed” by the nota verbale, while another carried a headline claiming that a “conservative front” within the Vatican had manipulated the whole situation.
As has often been the case over the last eight years, Francis clearly feels no special need to resolve the doubts, which means many protagonists in the debate may hesitate about going too far in styling the Vatican either as an ally or a foe.
Also, Vatican officials probably were a bit stung by the ferocity of the backlash against the note – not so much for its content, as for impressions of trying to interfere in the legislative process, which awakened resentments of clerical arrogance and expectations of privilege that are never far from the surface here. In all likelihood, they just don’t have much appetite for going that through that again.
Whatever the case, it remains noteworthy that after breaking hundreds of years of diplomatic precedent to lodge a formal protest against a law before it had even been adopted, the Vatican now appears to be letting things take their course.
In terms of what happens next, the Zan bill survived a vote to suspend debate on Wednesday by the thinnest of margins, 136-135, after having won an earlier vote on its constitutionality 136-124. Given that at least seven conservative senators who likely represent “no” votes were absent for Wednesday’s ballot, some observers think it’s possible things could turn out differently when it comes time to make a final decision.
Earlier in the week, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose centrist “Italia Viva” party represents a potentially critical swing vote, warned that in a secret ballot in the senate right now, the bill would lose. (Under the rules of the Italian senate, a secret vote is a possibility.)
Next Tuesday is the final deadline for presenting amendments, and it’s when debate over the bill resumes. If the senate adopts substantive changes, including greater religious freedom protections along the lines requested by the Vatican and the Italian bishops, then the bill would have to go back to the lower house of parliament, where the left has a more stable majority. At that point, supporters would have to decide whether to accept a watered-down version of what they want or to reject it, knowing that probably means it won’t be passed at all.
When and if the dust finally settles, perhaps we’ll see if the dog not barking right now finally finds its voice.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr