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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 20:05 GMT 21:05 UK
Vatican flexes muscle in Italy

By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

The result of the two-day nationwide consultation was a paradox.

Family arrives at polling station in Italy
Italians were under strong pressure from the Vatican

Only just over a quarter of Italian voters turned out to cast their ballots on the reform of one of Europe's most restrictive fertility treatment laws.

So the referendum will have no legal effect. Yet an overwhelming majority of 80-90% of those who did vote chose to answer "Yes" to a change in the law.

The referendum was skewed by the massive intervention of the Roman Catholic Church. Italian bishops urged a boycott of the poll and parish priests thundered to the faithful from their pulpits: "Life cannot be put to a vote. Do not go out and vote!"

The new Pope, Benedict XVI, gave the Italian bishops his personal support.

Italians with long memories recalled the Church's fight to overturn the laws introducing divorce and therapeutic abortion to Italy in the 1970s.

New tactic

In referendums heavily sponsored by the Church in 1974 and in 1981 to overturn those laws, the Vatican lost because Italians turned out en masse and voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing both divorce and abortion.

This time the tactics were different.

The Italian bishops under the direction of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the current leader of the Italian Church, put their considerable organisational and media powers from the national down to the parish level behind a campaign telling Catholics to abstain from voting in the fertility referendum.

Wall posters went up all over Italy showing a white-coated doctor telling people to stay away from the polls.

And the tactics apparently worked. Cardinal Ruini praised the "wisdom and maturity" of the Italian people after the result was announced.

"I don't feel like a winner - simply like a bishop who has done his duty," he told an Italian TV interviewer.

But he has caused an unprecedented flare-up of anti-clerical sentiment.

Pulpit platform

One woman told me she was incensed by a priest she heard preaching against the referendum at a relative's funeral.

"I wanted to walk out but didn't do so out of respect for my family," she said.

Priests continued to preach against the referendum on Sunday morning when polls had already opened, the referendum campaign had officially closed and political parties were banned from issuing any further referendum propaganda.

On Monday, in some small Italian towns parish priests scrutinised those entering the local polling station. The turnout was lowest in Italy's deep south where the Catholic Church is strongest.

A number of Italian priests have said privately that they voted in defiance of the instructions from their superiors, but justified it as a matter of conscience and of civic duty.

"Please don't tell anyone, as I shall be excommunicated if they find out," one priest said.

Apathy

At the headquarters of the Radical Party, main promoters of the referendum, Daniele Capezzone, party secretary, admitted that the result of the vote was a big defeat.

"But I don't think it is a Vatican victory. I think it is a victory of apathy and of indifference. Many people really don't think they can change things in Italy and this is terrible."

Emma Bonino, Italian MEP and long-time crusader for women's rights, was critical of the centrist and right-wing political parties which have followed the Catholic Church's instructions for a boycott.

"Cardinal Ruini was very open about it," she said. "The Church campaigned to delegitimise the vote by using the option given by the law itself to call for a very low turnout.

"I simply regret that this kind of political choice has been followed by other political parties."

The political reverberations of the fertility referendum vote are likely to be felt in Italy for many months to come.


SEE ALSO:
Pope backs Italy embryo boycott
30 May 05 |  Europe
Italy bans donor sperm and eggs
11 Dec 03 |  Europe


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