Sexuality Policy Watch

An interview with Massimo Prearo: The Zan Law failure, the neo – Catholic movement and Vatican’s Politics:  

In the last Special Issue of last year we did a brief assessment of Vatican politics. Concomitantly, we published an article by the Italian political scientist Massimo Prearo on Pope Francis’s speech act on same-sex marriage that, in October 2020, had a major media impact. Since then, on many other occasions, the pope has manifested his opinion on this same issue,  but also on abortion and gender. With respect to gender, his stronger speech was deployed in his visit to Slovakia when, in conversation with a group of Jesuits,  he said that “ gender exerts a diabolical fascination on people because it is too abstract in respect to the concrete life of a person”.

A month later, in Italy, the Senate stalled the processing of a provision known as the Zan Law, which aimed at criminalizing hate crimes and discriminatory speeches. These two events did not seem unconnected. The defeat of the Zan Law – which was a major disappointment for the Italian LGBTTIA+ movement – seemed a productive site to be looked at, to better grasp the state of art of the Vatican’s position on gender and its role as a political actor.  We have, therefore, invited Prearo to share his views on the trajectory of the law and the actors involved. He, graciously, accepted.

In his analysis of the failure of the Zan law approval, Prearo indeed analyzes Vatican politics, but not in isolation. Rather, looks at the relation of the Vatican with the wider anti-gender camp in which both the conservative neo-Catholic movement and gender-critical feminists have played key roles. We dearly thank Massimo for sharing his exceptional contribution to the understanding of this episode that may, significantly impact, the future of anti-gender frays in Europe and worldwide.

Question: The Vatican has always had a political role, especially when it comes to matters related to gender, sexuality, and procreation. For obvious reasons, Italy is a privileged place to look at the Vatican as a political actor. In October, the Zan Law against hate crimes was shelved by the Italian Senate in a complex political dynamic in which both the anti-gender movement and the Vatican played key roles.  Departing from this event, what can you tell us about Vatican politics today?

Prearo: I look at the Vatican not as a Vatican expert but through the lens of the anti-gender movement. Looking from that perspective, I can say that Francis I is, perhaps, accomplishing something that was expected to be achieved during the papacy of Benedict XVI but was not attained. I depart from the Vatican’s long-term elaboration of the assemblage that gave birth to “gender ideology”, a “theory” that includes and challenges many topics ranging from LGBTTTIA+ rights to women’s rights, abortion, or education.

As we know, in the last few years, this agenda has been shifted from the Church to political arenas by what I call the new Catholic or the neo-Catholic movement. For the Vatican, it may be unexpected to see its “theoretical work” unfold into a political battlefield, a political issue, or a political program. Today, in many countries worldwide, and I would say particularly in Europe, political parties are framing programs based on the Vatican’s fight “against gender ideology”.

Looking at it from the point of view of the Italian debate on homophobia and transphobia is indeed helpful because the very definition of gender was at its center. Francis and the Vatican’s hierarchy had a role but we cannot say they were the only force that stopped the processing of the Zan Law, someone else did it for them: the neo-Catholic movement. This is how I name the organizations that, some time ago,  specifically emerged as “anti-gender”  and their institutional political allies. At least in Western Europe, this is a quite novel situation because it opens for the Vatican the possibility to become once again a legitimate political actor, both at national and international levels. Of course, as a state, the Vatican has always been a political actor. Yet, during Benedict XVI’s papacy, the Church’s religious discourse has, somehow, become illegitimate in the political arenas. However, when this discourse was transported to the “gender ideology” frame, it underwent a transformation that allowed the Vatican to assume a new political role. For instance, in a secularized context, through the new political discourse on the family anchored in the fight against “gender ideology”, the Vatican can support the new Catholic movement without being directly involved in the political process, let’s say, without getting its hands dirty.

Question: Having written about it how do you define the neo-Catholic movement?

Prearo: The core driver of neo-Catholic movement is the fight against “gender ideology”,  a political agenda to defend and promote a “natural” and traditional idea of the family. But this is not so new. So,  what is new about the new Catholic movement? What is new is a project to reconstruct Catholic political action, to establish a new form of Catholic agency in a context that is very different from the past era of the Christian-Democratic  Party. In my book, I define it as a new Catholic political project and positioning. I do not want to suggest that a new Catholic religion or a new Catholic identity has emerged. I propose a “soft” hypothesis that allows us to observe and better understand the changes that are reshaping this field and the strategies of the actors that inhabit it. Maybe, this hypothesis only works in the Italian context. It would be interesting to make cross-countries comparisons.

The second observation to be made is that in Italy, as elsewhere, we can find in this neo-Catholic field many actors that come from the past, as it is the case of “pro-life” groups and other organizations associated with them. Actually, since the very beginning of the anti-gender mobilizations (2012-2013) old actors have been involved, which wanted to do something new. Their ambition was to forge new tools, new modes of action, and new forms of mobilization that fit better in a world, which they see and perceive as very different from the past. For them, a neoliberal democracy is something very new because it opens the ground for the emergence of new issues and “problems”, such as LGBTTIA+ rights. Of course, homosexuality has always been a problem for Catholicism, but LGBTTIA+ rights are not only a question of morality, it is something very different because it may produce effective social changes.

Early on, when they began organizing to demonstrate against the law on same-sex civil unions, they had to figure out how to do it. Many of them continued to work the way they did before, a religious and Catholic way of mobilizing politically. For example, organizing the March for Life which is a very big strong, and radical Catholic demonstration. But the anti-gender mobilization in Europe, and in particular the French “La Manif Pour Tous” model,  offered them a different choice: to reshape their political discourse from one based on religious references towards a completely new one, based on somehow anthropological, biological, and philosophical, somehow, scientific, arguments.

In addition, they began to collaborate and exchange with political parties. The old Catholic actors always worked politically, but they did not exchange with parties, from outside. They were political insiders, also occupying positions in high-level institutions. But the anti-gender movement did something different, they began to act as a contentious social movement, claiming and exchanging political resources with right-wing parties.

Through this political and institutional work, the anti-gender movement has engaged in a sort of a “mainstreamization”. Although they partnered with traditionalist Catholic organizations, they wanted to become the mainstream in this particular camp, avoiding the marginality to which traditionalists are often relegated, because they stay outside the political arenas and do not have strong connections with mainstream right-wing parties.

The anti-gender movement is also less problematic for the Vatican than the traditionalist streams, which in Italy are the ultra-Catholics who want to return to the mass prayed in Latin. These two streams collaborate, of course, especially when they take over streets, but they do not have the same position towards the Vatican. While traditionalists contest the Vatican and Francis in many areas, the anti-gender movement does not confront officially the Vatican. They say, eventually, that Francis is too moderate because he seems to open the door to compromises, which for them is very problematic. But officially, they never confront Francis and at the end of the day they say: “Pope Francis is our reference because we are Catholics and respect the pope. But we do a different type of work, which is political”.

Question: How does Francis politically manage this difference? The more rigid and contrarian ultra-Catholics, on the one hand, and the more flexible and respectful anti-gender forces, on the other?

Prearo: There are several things to be said about that. The first is that, in Italy, differently from other places, the traditionalist sectors are quite marginal, they are present but peripheral. On the other hand, neo-Catholic ground activists are often also very critical towards the Vatican and Francis. But the leaders of the movement do their best not to be offensive towards the Vatican,  even when their base is much more aggressive. So, their politics vary depending on where you look at it: from the perspective of the base, more critical, or if you take the standpoint of the leaders, more respectful of the Vatican and Francis.

The second is that a problem indeed arises for the Vatican when these groups contest  “too much”.  For instance, when the World Congress of Families was held in Verona,  in 2019, this was a problem for the Vatican because too many traditionalist actors attended the event. The Vatican expressed quite clearly that it did not support these streams or their “methods”, as the Vatican state secretary Parolin declared on the occasion.

On the other hand,  the neo-Catholic movement has been very successful in engaging the political arena. The Vatican supports them because they are doing what the Vatican has dreamt of doing without the hierarchy having to do much. This is very different from the 2000s when we began (seriously) discussing the civil union bill. At that point, the reaction came from the bishops, the Italian Conference of the Bishops, and many other Vatican institutions. They were each and every day on the press declaring that the law was dangerous for Italy, for the family, for the Church, and for everyone.

In the last two years, however, as the Zan Law was being debated, we have not seen many declarations from the bishops. This was so because the political work was done by the anti-gender movement, by the laity and not the clerics. Even so, days before the law was voted, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith released a note making clear that Pope Francis I is against “gender ideology”. This is a very interesting episode to look at. Although the note was written by the Vatican it was not a Vatican’s initiative. In July, a neo-Catholic organization, ProVita & Famiglia, asked the Vatican to issue an opinion on the specific section of the law that addresses gender identity, the Vatican responded positively and made public the note a few days before the voting at the Senate. This was not accidental.

Let me explain, in examining policy processes we usually look at top-down instrumentalization: from parties to movement, from the Vatican to the laity, and so on. What I tried to explain in my book is that if we reverse the point of observation,  and look at bottom-up instrumentalization we see differently and can better understand the processes. My view is that this is what happens today with the political use of religion. In the course of last year, we saw the neo-Catholic movement instrumentalizing the Vatican and not the contrary. The Vatican is happy with the movement doing this political work and the movement is happy to know that the Vatican is still here, to be called upon when they need a higher power to intervene in the political process. As it happened with this last-minute note issued by the Congregation.

This helps us understand why the Vatican is so respectful of the neo-Catholic movement. The traditionalist organizations and movements are somehow outside the Church’s camp. In contrast, the very core of the mainstream anti-gender movement is within the perimeter of the Church, especially considering that most of its leaders are part of an official ecclesial movement named Neocatechumenal Way. When they speak with the bishops or other Vatican’s institutions they do it through this internal channel. Francis cannot say he will not deal with them because, actually, they “are the Church”.

Question: Can you provide our readers with more detailed information on the Zan Law and its processing? Why and how its approval has been stalled?

Prearo: The Zan Law aimed at the criminalization of hate crimes and hate speech related to sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. Before it was tabled several other proposals were discussed by the Parliament, but never arrived at their final stage. In the case of the Zan Law, the processing began quite well in the first chamber,  because a compromise was reached within the center-left and between the center-left and some elements of the center-right. The was adopted but had yet to pass through the Senate.

During the debate in the first chamber, it should be said, an unexpected issue aroused: the concept of gender identity was contested. This was surprising. Of course, the  “problem of gender identity”  was flagged by the religious conservative anti-gender movement, which also raised other problems in relation to the law, namely freedom of speech and religion. But we had not expected that sectors of the Italian feminist movement would also interrogate the concepts of gender and of gender identity. Gender critical feminists addressed the Parliamentarian debates arguing that “gender” would deny sexual difference and “erase women”.

Although the question was raised during the first chamber debates this did not jeopardize the approval of the law. We may, however, raise the hypothesis that the law was approved simply because the parliamentarians felt that it would not survive the second step of the process. Some of them may have thought that the Senate would never begin processing the law. But it did happen. Then, in this second phase, as you know,  the law provision was sent back by the Senators to initial procedures as to be substantially revised. This means that it will take a very long time before a new text matures to be discussed again and eventually approved.

Question: What exactly happened during the Senate proceedings?

Prearo: During the Senate proceedings, gender identity became the main political problem debated not just at the Parliament but in Italy at large, in particular because of its connection with education. One key aspect is that at this stage the oppositions raised by the feminists of sexual difference – as gender-critical feminists define themselves in Italy – were perceived, of course, as a leftist point of view and not a conservative standpoint. Even when these feminist streams do not pertain to the same political camp as the wider anti-gender movement, they ended up using the same “anti-gender” language. I would not say that they belong to the exact same ecology but they do share the same gender-critical episteme, so to speak.

This is, in my view, one of the main achievement of the Vatican’s original anti-gender mobilization: it has reshaped the terms of the debate. Today, gender-critical feminists do not only criticize the concept of gender identity just because it “erases women”, but they also circulate the same tropes used by the Vatican,  even when they are in the same political ideological camp. This is also true for all the political parties that positioned themselves against or in favor of the law in the process. At a certain point, all of them were engaged in the debate around the “gender theory” problem. The public debate has been decidedly “contaminated” and re-shaped by the anti-gender mobilizations sustained since the early 2010s.

Question: How did the Vatican behave throughout this process?

Prearo: It should be noted that the last-minute note issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith did not influence the Senate debate, as it got there very late. But the Vatican had intervened in the process a bit earlier. This happened in the summer in a very critical moment of the process, when the Justice Committee of the Senate began examining the bill and held public hearings for experts and civil society organizations to express their views on the law. This was exactly when the Vatican expressed its concern with the Zan Law.

Before examining the content of the Vatican’s earlier intervention it is worth mentioning that one of the senators of the Justice Committee, affiliated to the Lega, is also a founder of the anti-gender movement.  He made an agreement with other senators to propose a list of almost 150 names to be heard,  who either belong to Catholic religious institutions or are part of the pro-life and anti-gender movement. Several gender-critical feminists also participated in the consultations. In contrast, just 15 or 20 people who attended the hearings supported the content of the law. This was a huge imbalance, and, from the point of view of the anti-gender movement a clear demonstration of power.

The concern the Vatican raised, at that point, was that the approval of the Zan Law would infringe on the Italy-Vatican Agreement, known as the Lateran Agreement, which was signed in 1929 between the Vatican and the Fascist regime of Mussolini. The Vatican supporters also argued that the Zan Law would infringe the Constitution itself because the agreement is enshrined in the constitutional text. This had a strong impact on the debate of course, as it gave a very strong argument to those who were against the law to brandish.

Question: Did the Vatican make explicit how exactly the Zan Law would infringe the Lateran Agreement?

Prearo: Fundamentally, the argument turned around the place and role of Catholicism in Italy that is guaranteed by the agreement and the protection of freedom of religion. In other words, the argument that criminalization of hate speech would potentially violate the right of the Catholic Church to express its view on sexual orientation and gender identity. This intervention had a major weight.  But to fully understand why the law has been sent to the drawers it is important to also take into account the question of education. While the first part of the bill addressed hate crimes, the second instituted May 17th as the National Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The point raised by both the conservative anti-gender movement and the gender-critical feminists is that this would mean the imposition of “gender ideology” or “gender theory” on children. This was a strong point of convergence between these two streams.

When finally the Senate decided to send back the law to stage one, all the senators who were against it celebrated the victory. It was scandalous to watch this major demonstration of joy because a law against violence and discrimination had been stalled. LGBTTIA+ people are outraged.

Question: Can we read the Zan Law defeat as a symptom that Francis has changed his strategy in relation to “gender ideology”?  He began his papacy speaking rarely about the topic. The mentions were strong but sparse. Then, in 2019, the document on gender and education was released that substantively reiterates the doctrine of the 2003 Lexicon,  but it was written in a dialoguing tone, not in a warlike mode. It seems, however, that we are entering once again an era of fierce battling. Is the defeat of the Zan Law a turning point in that respect?

Prearo: On the one hand, I totally agree. On the other, however, we know that it is always very difficult to interpret what the Vatican says and does. This is always a problem! But assessing last year’s process, or better yet the last few years, in both Italy and globally, we see strong signs that this may be so. It is not exactly trivial that the Vatican resorted to an agreement signed with the Fascist regime to debunk a hate crime law because of its gender identity content. Or else, to see the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith replying so substantively to a request from an anti-gender organization. The Congregation has not just positively responded, it has thanked the organization for the work they do “defending life and the family”.

This is very revealing of what we began observing in 2013-2015. Since then we studied systematically these dynamics in order to better understand and reveal that the Church had a clear position on gender. Now it is quite clear that this position has not changed, even if it is differently manifested in political arenas. Maybe, it has even become more radical. I want to end with a commentary on a scene that happened last year in the early days of the pandemic: the image of the pope walking alone in the Vatican City. I imagine that most readers have seen it.  In this scene, it was, somehow, as if Francis was very lonely and dark, surrounded by the apocalypse,  while doing his pastoral duty. It was both photographically beautiful and politically suggestive.

I have been thinking much about this image and the power it projected of Francis as a strong figure. At the beginning of his papacy, we did not know exactly who he was or what he would do. It was as if he was soul-searching to find the pope within himself. But this image, which was spread out worldwide through all channels possible, has shown him as a strong pope,  a pope who has the strength to defend the Church and its power in this particularly troubled moment of the world, including against  “gender” and other gender-related issue, especially gender identity and LGBTTTIA+ rights.


Massimo Prearo is a political scientist, member, and scientific coordinator of the research center PoliTeSse – Politics and Theories of Sexuality at the University of Verona (Italy). He has already published in the field of LGBTQI+ movements studies: Le moment politique de l’homosexualité. Mouvements, identités et communautés en France (PUL, 2014) and La fabbrica dell’orgoglio. Una genealogia dei movimenti LGBT (Edizioni ETS, 2015). With Sara Garbagnoli, he co-authored La Croisade anti-gender. Du Vatican aux manifs pour tous (Textuel, 2017, also available in Italian at Kaplan, 2018).

Image: La Parole des Autres, Leon Ferrari accessed from Dantebea

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