Tens of thousands of Italians filled the streets this month to fight for women’s right to abortion and legal recognition of gay unions. Indirectly they protested against the Vatican’s growing influence in Italian politics. The church and politics have always been related, but with the new pope this relationship has changed, says Costanza Giulia Conte.
Costanza Giulia Conte came to the Netherlands at the end of 2004. She is sitting comfortably on her couch wearing warm slippers in the shape of Dutch clogs. While she talks, her hands move through the air emphasising her words.
‘Italians like to demonstrate; we are always in the street – not only to protest, but also to show support for certain things. I have discussions with my friends about the Vatican all the time. We talk about the Vatican more than about the weather. But the relationship between the Vatican and Italian politics is a difficult issue. It is often hard to distinguish between religious beliefs and someone’s own political opinion.
‘The Vatican’s presence in Italy influences the whole society. It is an Italian institution and it is everywhere. You can’t avoid it. Travel around Italy looking at historical architecture. What do you see? Catholic churches. Thousands of them! It’s the same with frescos and statues. You will never see the Buddha, but always the Virgin Mother with her baby.
‘Although I don’t believe in God, I do respect the Vatican. Not because I was forced to go to church as a child, but because I grew up with it and it is part of Italian culture. This is true for many people. Therefore, the protests are directed not at the Vatican itself, but at the Vatican’s involvement in our politics.
‘The pope is a powerful man who represents an institution that has been in Italy for centuries. He preaches the Word and many people base their opinions on that Word. But there is one important rule: both the state and the church have to be free. That is what everybody is fighting for. The pope is not supposed to judge or give an opinion on political issues involving the Italian state. And yet, he does. Every day for at least six minutes news or information from the Vatican is broadcast on television about topics like homosexuality or abortion. We are used to watching television during the lunch hour at home with our families. You see the news and follow whatever is happening in Italy. And then you always hear from the Vatican. In this way, society is influenced by it.
‘Before Pope John Paul II died, it was different. When visiting the parliament he was careful to show respect for the non-political relationship between the Italian state and the Vatican. In Italy we say ‘we had a pope.’ That man made a difference. I believe that with the new pope, our society has taken a step backwards. He is very conservative, which coincides with certain political beliefs. Of course, the previous pope had to represent certain ideas too, but he lived close to young people and saw reality changing. The new pope is not in tune with society at all.
‘Last summer, we had a referendum about artificial insemination. On every square, students were handing out leaflets and asking people to sign petitions. Young people, especially in northern Italy, are standing up. I come from the north too, from Pisa. People are more open minded there than in the south. Not everyone goes to church and many young people have the opportunity to attend university or even go abroad. Students then start comparing what they have at home with the situation in other countries.
‘I think Italian politics will become less conservative in the future, thanks in part to the changing politics of Europe. But change will come slowly. Conservatism is rooted in our culture – a culture born of the union between the Vatican and Italy. We have always been together and surely we will stay together forever.