By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Few teachings of the Catholic Church generate debate like its position on homosexuality, but death threats in recent days against Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, President of the Italian bishops’ conference, mark a new level of intensity in the clash between church officials and backers of gay rights.
On Friday, an anonymous envelope arrived at Bagnasco’s office in Genoa containing a single bullet, widely taken as a death threat, along with a picture of the archbishop with a swastika cut into it. Italian authorities are investigating the incident, which caps several days of protests after recent comments from Bagnasco regarding proposals in Italy to recognize civil unions, including partners of the same sex.
In the wake of the threat, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and Bagnasco’s predecessor as Archbishop of Genoa, has asked that “Italy not leave him alone.” Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi defined the threat against Bagnasco as “an intolerable act.”
Even by Italy’s rough-and-tumble standards, unusually caustic exchanges have been unfolding for weeks over the proposed law for civil unions, known by the Italian acronym “Dico,” put forward by Prodi’s center-left government. If approved, the law would allow cohabiting couples to obtain certain financial and inheritance rights, as well as ‘next of kin’ rights if their partner was physically or mentally incapacitated, or in hospital.
Vatican officials have expressed their opposition in strong terms. Archbishop Angelo Amato, for example, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently referred derisively to “parliaments of so-called civilized nations where laws contrary to the nature of the human being are being promulgated, such as the approval of marriage between people of the same sex.” The Italian bishops have put out a statement saying that Catholic politicians are “duty-bound” to oppose the measure, which, they warned, is “unacceptable as a principle and dangerous on a social and educational level.”
But by far the most explosive comments came March 31, when Bagnasco spoke to a meeting of diocesan communications personnel in Italy.
Here is what Bagnasco said:
“When the correct, self-transcendent conception of the human person is lost, there are no longer any criteria for distinguishing good and evil. When the dominant criterion is public opinion, or democratic majorities – which can become anti-democratic and violent – then it becomes very difficult to say ‘no.’ Why say no to various forms of legally protected co-habitation, thereby creating alternative figures to the family? Why say no to incest, like in England where a brother and sister have children, live together and love one another? Why say no to the party of pedophiles in Holland, if we’re talking about two free people who come together? It’s important to remember these aberrations against common sense, which are already present in embryonic form. Today we’re scandalized, but if ethical criteria regarding human nature fall away, criteria which are given in nature and not created by culture, it’s difficult to say ‘no.’ If the highest criterion of good and evil is individual freedom, in the sense of self-determination, of free choice, then one, two, or more people can do what they like, because an objective criterion on the moral level no longer exists – a criterion which regards the human being not in terms of freedom of choice, but as a given of nature.”
In the inevitable compression of journalistic accounts, these comments were reduced to, “Bagnasco compares civil unions to incest and pedophilia.” An immediate uproar ensued, including graffiti in several Italian cites with the phrases Bagnasco vergonga! (“Shame on Bagnasco!”) and even Bagnasco boia! (“To the hangman with Bagnasco!”)
As a result, Bagnasco was assigned a personal security detail, and precautionary measures were taken by police at the cathedral in Genoa.
A spokesperson for Bagnasco said the comments had been poorly reported, and that the archbishop did not mean to compare the “Dico” proposal to incest or pedophilia. Rather, the spokesperson said, he was trying to make a point about what can happen in a society when objective standards of morality are set aside.
In the wake of Friday’s incident involving the bullet and swastika, Bagnasco’s spokesperson attempted to play down the threats, saying they come from “very small and psychologically unstable fringe elements.”