This article originally appeared in
2 March, 2007
Vatican, not Afghanistan, sank Prodi

The plan to give same sex couples some legal rights was able to hijack an
essential and poignant issue such as the Afghanistan-NATO vote, illustrating
the Vatican's level of influence in Italian politics.

Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome
for ISN Security Watch (02/03/07)

Nobody knew it at the time, but the
fate of the Romano Prodi government
that suddenly collapsed on 21 February
was almost surely sealed two days
before Prodi handed in his resignation,
during what seemed to be a seemingly
insignificant closed-door meeting with
officials from the Holy See.

Officially speaking, the government failed
after Prodi's allies fell two votes short
of the majority needed to gain approval
on a vote backing Italy's peacekeeping role within the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.
But while the debate over Italy's 1,900 Afghan-based troops may have been the final
act in Prodi's nine-month tenure, the real culprit now appears to be Prodi's plans to
legalize same-sex marriages in Italy.

Italian newspapers report that Prodi, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and around a
half dozen high-ranking government officials met on 19 February in the Vatican with
several high-level advisers to Pope Benedict XVI. The meeting was called to give the
Vatican officials a chance to lobby Prodi to remove the so-called "civil union proposal"
from his agenda. At first, it seemed the effort failed.

While the transcript of the meeting has not been released, the local media reported that
67-year-old Prodi left the talks looking flushed. Asked how the talks went, the prime
minister, known for his long, rambling responses, managed only a single unconvincing
word: "bene" - Italian for "well."

In retrospect, it did not go well at all. Abandoned two days later by three proudly
Catholic Senators, the Prodi coalition's modest majority in the Senate became a
two-vote minority, and the Afghan security vote failed (the left-leaning daily
newspaper La Repubblica noted that all three Senators had backed similar policies in
the past).

Hours later, Prodi resigned. And when Napolitano asked him to form a new government
a few days later - "There was no other realistic alternative," Italy's leading daily
Corriere della Sera quoted Napolitano as saying - Prodi was able to pull one together
with the support of the three wayward Catholic Senators and a few others.

After several long nights of negotiations, Prodi's backers and several fence-sitters all
signed off on a 12-point plan for governance essentially identical to the plan he
adopted before his resignation, save one conspicuous absence: the plan to legalize
civil unions, including same sex unions - the one government plank strongly opposed
by the Vatican - was nowhere to be found.

Beyond the normal power level

A spiritual touchstone for the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, the Vatican city-state is the
world's smallest and least populated country with an ancient history that includes the
legend that the apostle Peter was buried at the site. But it exists as in its current form,
as an independent city-state, only since 1929, recent enough that no pope has been
born since then (the 79-year-old Benedict was a baby when the Vatican became

Nineteen twenty-nine is the year Italian strongman leader Benito Mussolini sought to
reduce friction from Italy's 1871 unification by forging a deal to create the Vatican as a
tiny, independent nation with fewer than 600 citizens and territory small enough to
walk across in ten minutes.

The Lateran Treaty that created the truce granted the Vatican autonomy, its own legal
and postal system, internationally recognized sovereignty and the military protection of
the Italian state. In return, the Vatican agreed to stay out of Italian politics.

In practice, that is a promise that has rarely been kept.

"The Church and the Italian state have endured a long and uneasy relationship since
the start," University of Bologna historian Massimo Crippa told ISN Security Watch. "The
Vatican is an absolute monarchy surrounded by a modern democracy, a state whose
first duty is to God contained within one whose first duty is to its constituents or
countries it allies itself with."

While Mussolini made the Vatican independent from Italy, there is some debate about
the extent to which Italy is truly independent from the Vatican.

After Mussolini was deposed, Italy went through a steady stream of governments -
Prodi's new government is Italy's 62nd in just under 61 years - and a single and
unabashedly pro-Vatican political party, the Christian Democrats, provided almost all
the prime ministers between 1946 and 1992, when the party was disbanded amid
corruption allegations (Prodi himself is a former Christian Democrat). That series of
prime ministers included the iconic Roman power broker Giulio Andreotti seven times.

The 88-year-old Andreotti is a polarizing figure in Italy, with allegedly strong ties to both
the Mafia and the Holy See. The fictional figure character Don Licio Lucchesi from the
film "The Godfather Part III" - a pro-Church political kingpin with Mafia ties - is said to
have been modeled on Andreotti, who is the only active member of the current Italian
parliament elected when it was first created in 1946. And, not coincidently, Andreotti
was one of three Italian Senators who held the government hostage by voting against
the Afghanistan security measure as a way of forcing a change on the civil union
issue the Vatican so strongly opposed.

With the tiny Vatican city-state coiled in the heart of the Italian capital and more than 90
percent of Italy's population at least nominally Catholic, it may not seem a surprise that
the Holy See has some influence over some Italian politicians. But true situation goes
far beyond normal levels of power.

Same sex issue hijacks Afghan vote

Many would argue that the Vatican's influence has slipped over the last generation -
over that time divisive issues like divorce and abortion have become legal despite
strong opposition from the Church - but recent events prove that the Vatican still
wields enough power to have a direct impact on the affairs of the Italian state, and
under the right circumstances it can even bring down a government.

That the issue that illustrated the point - the plan to give same sex couples some legal
rights in the eyes of the state - was able to hijack an essential and poignant issue such
as the Afghanistan-NATO vote makes the case even more striking.

"Anyone who believes there is a true separation of Church and State in Italy is not
paying attention," one-time Italian parliamentarian and author Gianfranco Rey told ISN
Security Watch. "There are many reasons why this kind of truce is less than ideal, but
the main one is that it distracts from the business of running a modern democratic

The notion of the modern nation independent from both the Holy Roman Empire and the
Church dates to 1648, the date of the Peace of Westphalia. That peace ended the
Thirty Years' War and created the now-accepted notion of sovereign nation-states that
should operate free of control from religious leaders and began the modern era in
Europe, starting a chain reaction that led to revolutions in the US, France, across Latin
America, and in Russia. But in many ways, having the Vatican so close prevented Italy
from following suit and achieving complete sovereignty, as recent events illustrate.

Italy's revolving door of governments proves that politics on the boot-shaped peninsula
is inherently unstable, making Italy a less reliable partner internationally and a less
effective governor domestically. What is not clear is the extent to which Italy's unique
state-within-a-city balancing act is one of the engines keeping that door spinning.

Eric J. Lyman is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Rome.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the
International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
Image: The Vatican