ROME – Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, comes off as a very modern figure. His roots are in the Community of Sant’Egidio, a new movement in Catholicism that dates just to 1968, and he’s a key ally of Pope Francis in his effort to promote a 21st century global church.

Yet to express his position on abortion and the civil law, Zuppi, 67, recently invoked an ancient Roman legend, and his choice says a great deal about the worldview of this key prelate and papabile, meaning a candidate to be pope.

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi. (Credit: Vatican News.)

With regard to debates over Italy’s Law 194, adopted in 1978, which legalized abortion in the first 90 days of pregnancy, Zuppi said it’s important to “succeed in exiting from the scheme of the Horatii and Curiatii.”

For emphasis he repeated the point, insisting that “we have to exit the Horatii and Curiatii.”

To which many non-Romans might well be forgiven for asking, “What?”

The reference is to a legend from the kingdom era, the earliest period of Roman history dating to the eighth century B.C., and is recounted by the author Livy. In brief, a conflict supposedly had arisen between the Romans and the Albans, meaning residents of the settlements around Lake Albano (where the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo would later be located.)

Romans and Albans agreed that a war would leave both vulnerable to an invasion by the Etruscans, so they opted to settle the dispute with a fight to the death between three representatives of each side – the Horatii brothers for the Romans and the Curiatii for the Albans.

In the end, Publius, the last of the Roman fighters, slayed all three wounded Albans and thus claimed victory.

In Roman idiom, referring to gli Orazi e i Curiazi (which is how the names are expressed in Italian) is a metaphor for an “us v. them” logic, with a connotation of seeking not merely to win but to utterly annihilate one’s enemies. (Publius, by the way, not only killed the Curiatti but also his own sister, whom he caught weeping for one of the fallen Curiatti fighters to whom she’d been engaged.)

By invoking the Horatii and Curiatii, Zuppi was saying we need to set aside absolutist us v. them ways of framing the abortion issue, and instead make peace with complexity.

His comments occurred in the context of a 45-minute conversation with editor and journalist Stefano Feltri as part of a public event sponsored by the Italian newspaper Domani.

At one point Feltri asked Zuppi about parenting via surrogacy, a hot topic at the moment due to a proposal by the country’s conservative government to impose criminal penalties on couples who go abroad to have a baby via surrogacy, which is already illegal in Italy. The bill is seen as a crackdown on gay couples, who tend to be most likely to pursue surrogate births.

Zuppi began by insisting that the church is not an enemy of individual rights, citing its support for rights to education, food and elder care.

“Then there’s the aspect, I’d say … how to put it? … gray, which has to be found between convictions, doctrine, and civil rights,” Zuppi said.

“I’ll give an example … the law on abortion, 194, which I think is a painful law, but which, it seems to me, guarantees – some say too much and others not enough – but which [guarantees] an important secular solution, so much so, I think, that no one intends to call it into question,” he said.

Note that Zuppi wasn’t actually asked about abortion, but brought it up on his own.

Feltri pressed Zuppi, saying that Italian conservatives often insist they’re not questioning the law, but they tend to emphasize its provisions regarding the prevention of abortion. His reference likely was to a comment by a senior member of Meloni’s party who said “we want to give women the right not to have an abortion, for example for financial reasons.”

It was at this point Zuppi veered into Roman mythology.

“If we can succeed in exiting from the scheme of the Horatii and Curiatii,” he said, “because every now and then we risk becoming like this … I think for instance the dissuasive part [of the law], the part to avoid a suffering of the woman, the consultors, certainly is something that can be applied more.”

The mention of “consultors” refers to a network of family consultants created in 1975. Under the 1978 abortion law, they also have the role of informing women about alternatives to abortion and assistance available to them should they chose to have the child.

Feltri replied that the premise of such talk about prevention is that women are having abortions too lightly.

“Again, we have to exit the Horatii and Curiatii,” Zuppi said. “It seems we have some gladiators, even among you. I’d put all the gladiators to the side, because they’re the ones who always seem convinced, who don’t care …”

Leaving behind that logic isn’t easy, Zuppi added, because “sometimes we reignite all the enemies, we have to start over from the beginning, and it’s not worth it.”

Zuppi’s comments have sparked a mini-tempest in conservative Catholic circles, though in fairness his observation – to wit, that “no one intends to call into question” the substance of the abortion law – could be taken as a descriptive statement about the realities of Italian secular politics, not Catholic moral teaching, and at that level, it’s perfectly accurate.

Given that Zuppi is already the president of arguably the most influential bishops’ conference in the world, and also a plausible prospect to become pope one day, it’s worth identifying the principal take-away here.

In effect, Zuppi has signaled a strategic retreat on the wars of culture. Rather than fighting over the legal and political question of whether the civil law should recognize a “right” to abortion – a battle he clearly sees as already lost – his emphasis is on trying to create social conditions under which women will be less inclined to exercise that right.

This may be a peculiarly European perspective, given the differences on abortion between the two sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S., abortion remains a contested issue because it’s never been settled democratically, with national policy driven by competing Supreme Court decisions. In Italy, there was a national referendum in 1981 and limited abortion rights scored a decisive victory, leaving no political force eager to revisit the question.

Whether Zuppi’s position amounts to a realistic realignment of the pro-life cause, or a supine surrender to the culture of death, is a matter for debate – perhaps especially among the modern analogues of the Horatii and Curiatii, still itching for a grand brawl to settle it all.