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VATICAN LETTER May-27-2005 (950 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Church rolls dice in call to boycott Italian reproduction referendum

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The church in Italy is taking one of its biggest political gambles in decades.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops' conference, has called on the country's Catholics to boycott a June 12-13 referendum that would repeal certain restrictions on artificial reproduction and embryonic research.

But the last time the church told people how to vote, it resulted in two crushing defeats. The church heavily backed two referendums, one in 1974 making divorce illegal and one in 1981 making abortion a crime.

Italians, who are overwhelmingly Catholic, flocked to the polls, but not to do the bidding of the church. They passed both referendums to uphold the legality of divorce and abortion.

This time, 74-year-old Cardinal Ruini is confident of victory.

The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, threw its support behind the bishops' "no vote" campaign May 25 when it published a front-page article that said staying away from the polls could be an act of defending human life.

"The responsibility of the faithful cannot end with a personal objection" against "the debasement of the human embryo's life," said the article, written by Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, a moral theologian.

The faithful have "a responsibility that's called to be (carried out in) an effective way ... that is abstention," he wrote.

Earlier this year, Cardinal Ruini said boycotting the polls "is in no way a disengagement" from one's civic duties.

"It is a stronger and more effective way to oppose the referendum" by making sure the vote is invalidated completely, he said in a March 7 speech to members of the permanent council of Italian bishops.

While some Catholics questioned the move, many Italian church leaders rallied behind Cardinal Ruini and endorsed his call to abstain from the vote.

Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice said it was legitimate to "decide not to take into consideration" a proposed referendum that seeks to repeal a law.

Democracy would not be well-served by "millions of people expressing (their opinion) on such complex problems with a simple check mark on a voting card," he told the Italian daily, La Repubblica, May 23.

The secretary-general of the Italian bishops' conference, Bishop Giuseppe Betori, said while Catholics have a duty to vote in elections that are "called by the state" referendums are polls called for by "a group, even if large, of citizens."

Because a quorum, or 50 percent plus one of all eligible voters, must be reached for a referendum's results to be valid, not taking part in a referendum is considered a legitimate and alternative way to show opposition to the referendum's proposals, the bishop told the Italian Catholic daily, Avvenire, March 16.

But just as Italy's Parliament disagreed bitterly over the passage of last year's restrictions on artificial reproduction, the country's Catholics are experiencing a similar split.

Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, retired president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, said that "true Catholics do what the Italian bishops' conference says," reported the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, May 11.

Such "good guy/bad guy" talk triggered outrage in some religious circles; many protested turning the bishops' appeal into what they described as a witch hunt.

Ernesto Preziosi, vice president of Catholic Action in Italy, said the group did not want to give the cardinal's appeal "a dogmatic bent" or have it smack "of the Crusades."

"We want to dialogue with people's consciences, being respectful of people's ideas and situations," he told La Repubblica May 17.

Enrica Belli, head of the Federation of Italian Catholic Universities, said in the same newspaper report that the association supported Cardinal Ruini's call, "but our members are free to choose what to do."

The dispute among Catholics is not focused on liberalizing the law; it centers on the church telling people not to vote.

"The bishops' duty is to indicate values, not impose on believers choices that compete with their consciences and faith," said a written appeal signed by more than 700 people, including dozens of men and women religious. It was published on the Web site of the Italian news agency, Adista.

The message said, "If everyone has the law of God inscribed in their hearts and minds, why not trust men and women" to close the gap between "imperfect human law and perfect divine law" through "democratic participation"?

But in convincing Catholics to stay away from the polls, most church leaders tried to appeal to people's reason and remind them that all human life is sacred, rather than threaten them with censure or excommunication.

Archbishop Serafino Sprovieri of Benevento called on "everyone to be consistent with one's faith and with plain reason."

Cardinal Tettamanzi, who is also an expert in bioethics, said boycotting the referendum was the best way to safeguard the present law. He told La Repubblica May 17 that Catholics must "avoid every form ... of censure" against those who do vote.

Catholics reprimanding other Catholics would be a "diabolical temptation" that would bring "injurious and unfounded divisions" to the church, he said.

Over the past 20 years, almost all referendum proposals in Italy have failed to attract a quorum to the polls, so supporters of the referendum have focused much of their energy on encouraging people to vote.

Their get-out-the-vote drive has focused not only on liberalizing the law, but also as a way to affirm the separation of church and state.

If a sufficient number of voters do not cast a ballot, the church's defense of the restrictions will be upheld, but the bishops are gambling that widespread abstention would be read more as support for their position than as another example of growing voter apathy.


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