The move prompted cries of political meddling from liberal politicians and gestures of gratitude from conservatives. A church historian called it “an unprecedented act.”
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has expressed concerns to the Italian government about a gay rights bill working its way through Parliament, prompting cries on Tuesday of church interference from liberal politicians, gestures of gratitude from conservatives and renewed tensions in the historically complicated relationship of neighboring governments that both call Rome home.
The Vatican confirmed Tuesday morning that the Holy See’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, hand delivered a letter at a Vatican event last week to the Italian ambassador to the Holy See expressing deep reservations about the bill.
Advocates for the legislation say it offers overdue protections to L.G.B.T. Italians from violence and discrimination. But the Vatican said on Tuesday that the bill infringed upon guaranteed religious liberties, and risked exposing the church’s core beliefs, such as limiting the priesthood to men, or only recognizing marriage between a man and a woman, to charges of criminal discrimination.
Those guarantees, it argued, were established in a historic 20th-century agreement, known as the Lateran Treaty, that created the Holy See as a sovereign city state.
Church historians said the letter amounted to a unique escalation of Vatican attempts to influence the affairs of the Italian state.
“It’s an unprecedented act,” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian in Rome. “This is not a sermon, it’s a diplomatic, a political act.”
The Vatican’s expression of concern comes against the backdrop of what critics consider another intervention by the church into politics in the United States. American bishops overwhelmingly voted last week to draft guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist that some conservatives have pushed for, in order to deny communion to President Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
In that case, Pope Francis and the Vatican sought, unsuccessfully, to steer the American bishops away from entering the political fray. But apparently, the pope’s Italian backyard is a different story when it comes to political involvement.
“Certainly if it’s a worry for the Holy See, it is a worry for each one of us,” Cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell, the prefect for the Vatican office for Laity, Family and Life, said when asked about the letter in a news conference on Tuesday. “And a concern of which we naturally agree with.”
An official from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State said that the letter did not get into details, but referred to an article of the Lateran Treaty that clearly guaranteed religious liberty for the church in the practicing and teaching of its beliefs. He said the proposed law, if passed as is, would trample on those rights.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the letter’s contents, said that while the Vatican often sent such letters after the passage of laws, it decided in this instance to intervene early, during the legislative process, to try to stop it. The Vatican, the official said, considered itself well within its rights to do so, given the terms of the treaty.
In the Vatican’s reading of the bill, only admitting men to the priesthood, restricting marriage to a man and a woman, and refusing to teach gender theory in Catholic schools would all be considered discriminatory, and a crime. Asked why the Vatican had not intervened so strongly in other countries that have passed similar laws, the official said that, as far as the Vatican understood, the proposed law went further than other places.
The letter delivered to the Italian government, the official said, asserted that in the long tradition and teaching of the church, the differences between the sexes is critical, and that recognizing that difference was not discrimination, but part of its belief system. He added that the treaty guaranteed that the church would have the right to practice and teach that difference in Italy.
On Nov. 4, Italy’s lower house of Parliament approved a bill to add anti-L.G.B.T. motives to an existing law that makes discrimination, violence or incitement based on someone’s race or religion a crime punishable with up to four years in prison. To improve awareness and sensitivity to the issue, the law also establishes a national day of awareness about the dangers of anti-L.G.B.T. violence, including in schools.
Most Western European democracies have implemented similar laws, but in Italy, its passage in the Senate has met opposition from Catholic associations, right-wing politicians and even some feminist groups.
But the Vatican’s involvement caught lawmakers by surprise.
“It’s an important question,” Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, said at a news conference on Tuesday, adding that he will be ready to answer questions on the topic in Parliament on Wednesday.
“No one can interfere with a sovereign Parliament that has the right and the duty to legislate in full independence,” Alessandro Zan, the bill’s sponsor, said in an interview on Tuesday, adding that the protections it afforded were not exceptional, but well within the European norm.
But the Vatican found some unexpected allies in the bill’s opponents.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the nationalist League party, who rose to popularity demanding Italian sovereignty, and who incessantly criticized Pope Francis for lecturing Italians to be more welcoming of migrants, suddenly embraced the pope.
“I thank the Holy Father,” Mr. Salvini, who has sought to redefine himself as a defender of traditionalist Catholics, told reporters on Tuesday.
For centuries, popes ruled broad areas across much of Italy. But by last century their territory was reduced to a small, Roman pocket. In 1929, Benito Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri signed the Lateran Treaty to resolve the so-called “Roman question” by creating the Holy See as a tiny sovereign city-state.
In 1984, the two countries updated the agreement to better reflect the secularization of Italy and the end of Catholicism as the state’s official religion. Rome also lost its status as a “sacred city,” a title that had allowed the Vatican to oppose sex shops or strip clubs in the capital.
The updated agreement also included provisions that explicitly gave the Catholic church the freedom to carry out its pastoral mission and freely spread its beliefs. It is those articles that the Vatican said the proposed law would violate.
Mr. Zan said his bill already protects freedom of speech and that it allows Catholic schools to opt out of certain observances in his bill, such as a national day against anti-L.G.B.T. hatred.
The Vatican official said he saw no such clause about schools in the proposed legislation.
While church teaching holds that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” and opposes same-sex marriages, Pope Francis has expressed support of civil unions and of guaranteeing gay couples equal rights.
Mr. Melloni, the historian, said that by politically attacking the anti-discrimination law, the Vatican had put itself in a no-win situation. If it managed to kill the bill, the church would look reactionary and opposed to the extension of now common civil rights to L.G.B.T. Italians. If it failed, it would look uninfluential in a land it used to rule.
News of the letter rippled beyond the church and the state to the top of the pop charts.
“Friends in the Vatican: We are a secular State,” said the Italian pop star Fedez, who has become a champion of the bill on his social media accounts, which have millions of followers. He said the government had a chance to make progress on civil rights, “abolish an anachronistic agreement and claim the secularity of the Italian State.”