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VATICAN LETTER Oct-15-2004 (820 words) With photo posted April 26. xxxi

Political priorities: In Catholic Italy, abortion is not an issue

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When more than 1,000 of Italy's most politically active Catholics met in early October, Pope John Paul II sent them a message urging greater church influence on such issues as the family, the media, economic justice and globalization.

Reflecting the political priorities of the church in Italy, the pope did not mention abortion.

In fact, during the four days of nonstop speeches and roundtables at the 44th annual "Social Week" in Bologna, church leaders never really confronted abortion, which has been legal in Italy since 1978.

"This is symptomatic," Carlo Casini, president of Italy's Pro-Life Movement, said in an interview Oct. 12.

"A fairly high percentage of Italian Catholics are not willing to push strongly on abortion because they consider it secondary. It's an issue that divides Catholics politically, so the feeling is that it's better not to talk about it," he said.

At a time when abortion has become a priority issue for many Catholics in the U.S. election campaign, it is practically off the table in predominantly Catholic Italy.

The pope, whose own Diocese of Rome has the highest abortion rate in the country, has strongly and consistently preached a pro-life message to Italians, but that has not been translated into political activism among leading Catholics.

Abortion was a nonissue in the last major political elections in 2003.

"I don't think many voters know where candidates stand on abortion. It was an issue in the past, but today it has little importance on the political scene," said Jesuit Father Giuseppe De Rosa, a writer for the Jesuit journal, La Civilta Cattolica.

The idea of making abortion a litmus test issue for political candidates rarely, if ever, enters the minds of Italian voters.

"Abortion here in Italy is not seen as the only issue or the decisive issue. Catholics end up voting for political parties that are very much in favor of abortion, because they share the parties' positions on other things," said Casini.

Casini, whose movement often struggles to get local support for the annual pro-life celebration, said the Italian church hierarchy also has been hesitant to push the abortion question in the political arena. The fight against abortion has largely been left to pro-life groups, he said.

"Has the church been too quiet and too timid about abortion and the abortion law? Unfortunately, I would have to say yes," Casini said.

Yet even Casini said that sometimes there are good tactical reasons for downplaying abortion. At present, for example, the Italian Parliament is considering modifying a 2003 law on assisted procreation that offered protection for the human embryo.

Italian pro-lifers viewed the law as an important accomplishment, one that might eventually help reopen the abortion debate. But now that the law might be modified, church leaders are trying to "speak about abortion as little as possible," because it would be politically counterproductive, said Casini.

Jesuit Father Michele Simone, assistant director of La Civilta Cattolica and one of the organizers of the "Social Week" in Bologna, said all this helps explain why abortion was not much discussed at the October meeting. It is not disinterest in abortion, he said, but a matter of wisely picking one's battles.

"The assisted procreation debate is more urgent. And the conditions for a change in the abortion law do not exist at the moment," Father Simone said.

One event that has strongly conditioned the pro-life movement in Italy is the 1981 referendum on the abortion law. The referendum, heavily promoted by the church, failed, with only 32 percent of Italians voting to repeal the law.

Church leaders were stung by the results, and the anti-abortion effort in Italy has been regrouping ever since. Even pro-life activists say now is not the moment to force the issue through legislative proposals or election campaigns.

Outsiders may be surprised that while the abortion issue can gain no traction in a country that is nominally 97 percent Catholic it has sparked political debate in the more religiously pluralistic United States.

However, Casini said Italy's Catholic history is not making things easier on the abortion front. He said Italians often view abortion as simply the latest chapter in a longstanding church-state battle in the sphere of politics; in the United States, the abortion debate is free of these historical antagonisms and cuts more across denominational lines.

In recent weeks, Italians have been hearing and reading more about abortion -- not as an issue in Italy, but in coverage of the U.S. election campaign.

In particular, Italian media have focused on the statement by a few U.S. bishops that it would be sinful to vote for Sen. John Kerry because of his support for legal abortion. They have treated this as an interesting and somewhat curious political approach by the church; no one is suggesting it be exported to Italy.


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