By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
One of the biggest showdowns in Pope Benedict XVI’s continuing war against what he has termed the “dictatorship of relativism” looms on Saturday, May 12, while the general himself is out of town.
On that day, Benedict XVI will visit a center for youth recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction in Guaratingueta, Brazil, which is run by the Focolari. Later, he’ll arrive in Aparecida, where he’ll pray the rosary with priests, religious, seminarians and deacons in a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Meanwhile back in Rome, a Catholic happening with arguably the greatest potential political and social significance in recent memory will be unfolding: a “Family Day” rally in the Piazza of St. John Lateran, which organizers hope will draw between half a million and a million Italians, both to celebrate the family and also to demonstrate opposition to proposals from Italy’s center-left government to grant civil recognition to same-sex couples.
Though the event is officially being sponsored by a variety of lay Catholic associations and movements and not by the hierarchy, the Italian bishops’ conference and the Vatican are working hard behind the scenes to promote it, which they hope will spell the end of efforts to pass the law on civil unions, known by its Italian acronym as “Dico.”
Ironically, dico in Italian also means “I say,” and there’s no doubt the Catholic Church is saying a great deal with its frenzied efforts to assure maximum turnout on May 12. According to today’s edition of Il Messaggero, a Roman daily, the Communion and Liberation movement has asked all its members in Rome to open their homes to Italians from other parts of the peninsula who come to the city for the rally. The charismatic “Movement for the Spirit” has encouraged its members to attend, and the Catholic Action movement is promoting “Family Day” in all of Italy’s parishes. The Neocatechumenate is organizing 2,000 buses up and down Italy to carry its members to the event.
The May 12 rally has taken on another subtext in recent days, in light of hostile graffiti and even death threats directed against Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, after comments he made in late March which some took as comparing same-sex relationships to incest and pedophilia. (A spokesperson for Bagnasco has denied that’s what the archbishop meant.) On Friday, an anonymous envelope arrived at Bagnasco’s office containing a single bullet and a picture of the archbishop with a swastika carved into it.
Yesterday, Italy's president said that Italy "will not leave Bagnasco alone," and Pope Benedict called Bagnasco on the telephone to express what the pope's spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, called "full support."
In that light, organizers are also promoting a massive turnout on May 12 as a show of support for Bagnasco. Ironically, Italian observers say that the threats and crude commentary against Bagnasco in the streets of major cities may actually produce a larger crowd than otherwise might have been expected.
Politically, a fair bit is riding on what happens May 12. A light turnout could embolden the center-left under Prime Minister Romano Prodi to press ahead with the Dico law, while a bigger than expected crowd might swing enough undecided lawmakers into the opposition column.
More broadly, a massive turnout would be read as an index of the continuing political muscle of the Italian church, despite the inroads of secularization.