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Posted June 17, 2005

Reporting from Rome

By John L. Allen, Jr.

For those keeping score in the contest between the Catholic Church and the “dictatorship of relativism” identified by Pope Benedict XVI as the central threat to the faith in the West, this week the church jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, winning a hotly contested June 12-13 referendum in Italy over in-vitro fertilization.

Last Sunday and Monday, Italians were asked to vote on four proposals to liberalize the country’s restrictive law on what’s known here as “assisted procreation.” Under the strong leadership of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar in Rome and president of the Italian bishops’ conference, and with the explicit support of Pope Benedict, the Catholic church mobilized at all levels to persuade Italians to stay away from the ballot box, with the goal of keeping turnout lower than fifty percent and thereby invalidating the referendum.

In the end, only 25.9 percent of eligible voters showed up, thereby preserving the 2004 law, known as Law 40, which:

· Restricts in-vitro techniques to heterosexual couples, thus banning access for homosexuals and single mothers;

· Stipulates that only three embryos may be created at a time, and they must be implanted, effectively banning cryogenic preservation;

· Prohibits research on embryos;

· Declares embryos holders of human rights.

The proposed reforms would have eliminated each of these provisions.

While analysts say there were many reasons for the result – the proliferation of referenda in Italy, which has produced a kind of apathy about special ballots, and the fact that assisted procreation directly concerns only a small percentage of the population – nevertheless, in the court of popular opinion, Ruini and the Catholic Church emerged as the great victor.

SkyTG 24, more or less the CNN of Italy, broadcast a picture of Ruini the instant the polls closed on Monday, unambiguously proclaiming him “the winner.”

Ruini was gracious, telling Italian television, “I didn’t win anything. I simply did my duty as a bishop.”

The outcome reverses the church’s previously dismal track record on Italian referenda. To great fanfare, it lost titanic battles in 1974 over divorce and in 1981 over abortion. The result this time has thus been seen as a demonstration of the church’s residual political muscle, despite declining vocations and low rates of Mass attendance in some parts of the country.

The efforts of the church were tenacious and comprehensive. An annual June 11 pilgrimage to Loreto, Italy, where according to tradition the “holy house” of Nazareth rests, became on the eve of the vote the site of something akin to a political rally. In San Giovanni Rotondo, home of the famous shrine of Padre Pio, the faithful were urged to “greater commitment in defense of life.” (It seemed to work; San Giovannio Rotondo had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, just 8.5 percent).L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, published extensive pro-abstention commentary in the days leading up to the June 12-13 ballot.

On Monday, May 31, Pope Benedict XVI told the Italian bishops that he was close to them “in word and prayer” in their efforts to “illuminate and motivate the choices of Catholics and of all citizens regarding the referendum,” in what amounted to an endorsement of the pro-abstention stance.

Indirectly, the pope gave another boost in his General Audience on Wednesday, June 8, when he quoted the sixth-century Christian author Barsanufius of Gaza: “What is the principle of wisdom, if not to abstain from all that which is odious to God?” In context, most Italian observers took the pope’s deliberate use of the word “abstain” as an endorsement of the no-vote campaign.

Most analysts believe the church will draw momentum from this result. Ruini emerges as perhaps the most important power-broker in Italian affairs. Those politicians of both left and right who stood with the church will enjoy enhanced credibility.

Further, the result will strengthen the hand of those at senior levels in the church who agree with Pope Benedict’s diagnosis of the cultural situation in the West, but not necessarily the cure. Benedict sees Christianity, especially in Europe, as a “creative minority,” long past the moment when it could pretend to shape mass culture. Ruini is less willing to throw in the towel on the church’s social clout, believing that a focused and united church can still mobilize the vox populi. Ruini’s triumph will lend credibility to his side of that argument.

It remains to be seen where the Italian church will want to spend this new political capital, or how long it may last, but for now the church can bask in a clear win after a long, dry spell at the ballot box.