The Pope's man in the Italian Church is Cardinal Camillo Ruini. Due to Ruini's concerted campaign, Italy has just voted against a raft of proposals to liberalise IVF procedures, although an initial survey suggested voters were slightly in favour of the changes.
by Desmond O'Grady
Some see it as a stunning victory for the Catholic Church, others complain that it overstepped the political mark by advising voters to boycott the June 12-13 referendum on four artificial reproduction law issues. Interpretations differ but the fact is that only 25 per cent of Italians voted which meant the quorum of 50 per cent plus one was not reached. As a result, the intended modifications of the law will not be introduced.
The small libertarian Radical Party gathered the requisite 500,000 signatures for the referendum which, among others things, allowed use of sperm from outside the couple in in-vitro fertilisation and use of embryo staminal cells for research.
The law which was to be modified had been introduced early in 2004. It was comparatively restrictive and admitedly imperfect but better than nothing. It can still be modified by parliament.
The first referendum polls showed a majority in favour of the proposed changes. However the pope's vicar for Rome and head of the Italian Bishops, Conference, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, said Catholics should abstain from voting. Some Catholics objected to this directive but many Catholic movements vigorously supported it. There were scientific committees involving scientists and jurists. Some prominent non-Catholics, called theo-cons and devout atheists, joined in as did some ex-feminists. On the night before the vote 65,000 walked in pilgrimage to the shrine of Loreto. My parish distributed four typed pages explaining the issues and the Church's stance.
Until little more than a decade ago, the Catholic-inspired Christian Democratic Party dominated Italian politics. Then, with other parties, it underwent a meltdown because of corruption scandals. Now there are two smallish heirs, one with Silvio Berlusconi's Centre-Right government, the other with the Centre-Left Opposition.
Ruini has headed the Bishops' Conference during this period. A politically astute prelate, he has used the wealth the Italian Church has acquired under the revised Concordat to enhance it culturally and also to aid the Church in the Third World with particular attention to Cuba. In many ways, Catholics may be more lively and more influential in Italian society than when the Christian Democrats ruled. However the head of the Bishops' Conference is appointed by the Vatican rather than elected which increases the tendency to see Catholic influence as outside interference in Italian affairs.
Evidently Ruini calculated that as about 25 per cent never vote in referendums, he only had to persuade another 25 per cent to abstain to defeat the proposals.
There was a ding dong media debate in which the proponents of change claimed they were for the freedom of research necessary to find various cures, for the rights of women, and for those couples who saw no other way of having children.
However many Italians seem to have been wary of claims that an embryo is something rather than someone, that a human embryo is just a mass of cells as is that of a monkey, and that science should be encouraged to make perfect babies.
The vote cut across party alliances but in general the Centre-Left was pro-referendum.
As on the election eve it was thought that 40 per cent would vote in favour of the changes, the result was a surprise. Nothing had happened like this for over thirty years in which the Church had lost out in the battle against the introduction of divorce and abortion.
Ruini said after the result that the Church does not intend to push for modification of the abortion law. It already has an energetic program of post-natal help for those who are tempted to abort. Some Catholics however want its revision.
Many see the result as a rejection of radical secularism or functional rationality. They claim that John Paul II's pro-life message inspired the active abstention, which many young Catholics championed and that the abstention was not merely a matter of indifference or confusion about the technical issues involved.
Some Catholics feel reinvigorated for combat against alleged militant secularism in the United Nations which uses distorted versions of human rights to inspire anti-natal policies worldwide and in the European Union as seen, for instance, in the rejection as Commissioner of the Italian minister Rocco Buttiglione because of his disapproval of homosexuality and its censure of John Paul II because of his views on women. However other Catholics, such as the historian Giorgio Rumi, warned against imagining that Catholic positions command 75 per cent support in Italy. He said Italian society needed to be healed of the divisions caused by the referendum.
As a Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, like Ruini, deplored the West's loss of its understanding of its Christian roots although his outlook was more pessimistic than Ruini. By the West, he presumably meant by extension Australia and the United States as well as Europe, but some feared that as pope he might tend to ignore the Third World. They might be consoled by the fact that the first nation he mentioned in his window talks, was the ex German colony of Togo.
Benedict's first book since becoming Pope, entitled 'The Europe of Benedict in the crisis of culture', is to be published in Italian tomorrow. For Europeans, and other Western nations including Australia, this book is likely to make more plain the direction of this papacy (and therefore the Church abroad) in seeking to influence culture.
It may be that the direct political action of Ruini in Italy, the US Cardinals on abortion, Cardinal Pell in Australia over schools funding - and just this week the action by the Spanish bishops leading a mass rally against gay marriage - risks a head on clash with secular culture.
Desmond O'Grady is an Australian author and journalist resident in Rome. His latest book is a biography of Raffaello Carboni of the Eureka Stockade: Stages of the Revolution (HardieGrant 2004).