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VATICAN LETTER Jun-17-2005 (970 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Vatican hopes defeat of Italian referendum isn't pyrrhic victory

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The defeat of an Italian referendum on artificial procreation went into the church's win column, but Vatican officials realize it was a small victory on an ever-widening battlefield.

The June 12-13 referendum, which would have eased restrictions on artificial reproduction and embryonic research, was defeated because it failed to draw enough voters to the polls.

But even as Italian bishops were congratulating each other on the victory, Vatican sources privately cautioned against triumphalism. They recognized that voter inertia may have been as big a factor as the church's public pronouncements.

"It's not that the 75 percent (who stayed away from the polls) suddenly felt in line with all the church's teachings on these issues. We wish that were true," said one Vatican official.

"To call it a church victory may be a little exaggerated. But it is the result we wanted," he said.

The referendum touched on a group of issues that is drawing an increasing amount of time, energy and attention of local church leaders and Vatican experts. They could be loosely defined as "life and family" questions, and include abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, embryonic rights, gay marriage and domestic partnership.

In two major talks, Pope Benedict XVI has already signaled that, like his predecessor, he intends to make these priority issues of his pontificate. In a way, he has no choice: these developments are testing some of the core values preached by the church.

If the Vatican had a war room with a big map of the world, it would need hundreds of pins to mark the current legislative, political and cultural challenges to church teaching on life, family and marriage.

Of course, the Vatican has no war room. It doesn't even have a centralized office to track and respond to these challenges. Its resources are, in fact, a little strained these days.

The Pontifical Council for the Family is a promotional agency that rarely responds directly to specific legislative battles. The Pontifical Academy for Life, although its profile has been raised, relies primarily on academics who come to Rome only once or twice a year.

In the Vatican Secretariat of State, a team of 23 monsignors has the task of monitoring events around the world. Increasingly, their attention is focused on life and family issues.

In mid-June, for example, one official was working on an important treaty proposal between Slovakia and the Holy See that would allow Catholics to invoke conscientious objector status to avoid involvement in activities considered immoral or unethical, like abortion.

But many times the pro-life or family issues don't involve church-state relations so directly, and they become more difficult to track, the official said.

And because the questions are increasingly technical, the answers are not always simple.

"It's easy to talk about euthanasia and abortion and same-sex marriages. But when you get into the area of genetic research, the terminology is so specific and the procedures are so specific that you have to rely on the experts," the official said.

Even a cursory glance at the most recent international developments shows how life and family issues are snowballing for the church:

-- In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called in mid-June for fewer restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research, prompting immediate church objections.

-- In South Korea, Archbishop Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk of Seoul voiced moral objections in a personal meeting June 15 with Hwang Woo-suk, whose team of scientists was the first to grow stem cells from a cloned human embryo and recently tailored stem cells to match patient DNA.

-- In Spain, a Senate panel on June 14 approved the government's gay marriage proposal, over church protests. Its passage would make traditionally Catholic Spain the third country in Europe to legalize gay marriage, after Belgium and the Netherlands.

-- In Canada, Parliament appeared to move closer to recognizing same-sex marriage countrywide. Most Canadians already have access to gay marriage through provincial court rulings.

-- The Belgian Parliament looked set to approve the legalization of adoption by gay couples, despite church arguments against the measure.

-- In Britain, lawmakers plan to debate once again an "Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill" bill, and many observers believe that some form of legalized euthanasia will be the outcome. Catholic and Anglican leaders have joined in opposition to the bill.

-- In predominantly Catholic Colombia, euthanasia legislation is being prepared -- and Catholic bishops are preparing to fight it.

Philippe Schepens, a Belgian doctor who is general secretary of the World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, predicted a greater need for church action on legislative and political fronts in coming years.

"Particularly in Europe and North America, these challenges are not going away. Essentially, it is a case of post-Christian societies wanting to play by their own rules, and there are enough anti-Christian lobbies to help push it," Schepens said.

To illustrate the ongoing nature of the challenge, Schepens said that most recently he has been helping to spearhead opposition to two bills in Belgium that would extend euthanasia to terminally ill children and some mentally ill patients.

The Vatican counts on local bishops and Catholic laity to lead the fight on all these issues. But Pope Benedict has also made clear his own interest, underlining church teachings on the family, marriage and human life in several of his early talks.

More of the same can be expected from the new pope. As one Vatican official put it, the cardinals elected Pope Benedict largely because they viewed him as the church's most articulate voice in the contemporary culture wars.


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