They're both Catholic countries - so what's Ireland doing that Italy isn't?
This year is the fortieth anniversary of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s death. The renowned Italian film director, who was openly gay, would be impressed by the progress being made internationally by pro-gay marriage activists.
In Ireland a referendum sanctioned the imaginable: at the end of May the country was the first to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote.
But could such a formal step forward ever be conceivable south of the Alps, in the only part of western Europe where gay partnerships are not acknowledged in any way?
What has happened in Irish society that is not happening in Italy?
There’s no denying that Catholicism is still a major part of Italian life. The recent sentinelle in piedi phenomenon sees Catholic activists periodically gather up and down the country, silently protesting against Italy’s supposed indifference towards Church values.
Due to its proximity to the Vatican state, Italy is in many ways treated as its back garden – the little theocracy holds enormous moral and ethical clout over Italy.
Effectively dissuading Italy from pursuing similar goals, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s sombre secretary of state, made a dark remark about the Irish referendum:
“The church must […] strengthen its commitment to evangelisation. […] You can’t just talk of a defeat of Christian principles; [this is] a defeat for humanity.”
You could speculate that Ireland has managed to partially eschew such pressures, possibly thanks to its many ties to same-language societies offering more liberal views.
But what’s equally disconcerting is that Catholic leaders in central Europe also seem to be in denial about the way that society is changing.
Dwindling numbers of church-goers ought to be seen as a reminder that societies do move on. Certain research fields would interpret that as meaningful enough to inform new policy.
But not the Church, which still expects to shape society and not the other way round. Swiss Catholic bishop Jean-Marie Lovey recently told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that ‘marriage is for man and woman only’.
Whether to allow same-sex marriages is also a politically sensitive issue. Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has already said no to an Irish-style referendum.
Volker Kauder, a CDU parliamentary group leader, categorically rejected both marriage and full adoption rights for gay couples:
“Marriage represents the union of a man and a woman, just like the German constitution says.”
Meanwhile the Left, the Greens and most of the Social Democratic Party advocate total equality.
Catholic Austria has a similar split. In May, Social Democratic Party bigwig Andreas Schieder said on national radio that ‘it’s high time to rethink. Everyone should be able to live as they wish.’ Policies must be adapted to the social reality, he added.
The Greens and New Austria party have also been very vocal in their support of gay marriage.
But centre-right Austrian People’s Party leader Reinhold Lopatka refused to take part in the interview. His stance, according to a spokesman, is that current laws are enough.
Only the wider Left seems to have an interest in a more liberal society, propelled by the younger generation: in Ireland the surge of young voters brought the referendum’s turnout into the top five since 1937.
So will a referendum in Italy on same-sex marriage ever materialize? I’d guess there’s still a way to go. Sadly, forty years after Pasolini died in dramatic circumstances linked to his homosexuality, some parts of Europe are still dominated by conservative voices.
Alessio Colonnelli also contributes to openDemocracy, Shifting Grounds and Euro Crisis/LSE. He holds a combined B.A./M.A. in languages and literary translation from Padua University
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