The politics of Italy has long been intertwined with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the policies of the Vatican. Although Italy became a secular state in 1948, the constitution recognised a special status for the Catholic Church, and the separation of Church and state has frequently come under threat since then. But despite this long history, the latest attempt from the Holy See to meddle in the Italian parliament’s business is a particularly brazen move, involving as it does high-profile legislation designed to combat homophobia.

The so-called “Zan bill”, named for its author, the gay politician and activist Alessandro Zan, is a piece of legislation that would punish discrimination and incitement to violence against LGBT people, as well as women and people with disabilities. If the legislation passes, those found guilty of hate crimes could face up to four years in prison. On 22 June, the Vatican sent a letter to the Italian government protesting the bill, calling it “an unprecedented act in the history of relations” between Italy and the Vatican. The letter also argued that it would be in violation of the Lateran Treaty, which in 1929 recognised Vatican City as an independent state.

The interference has come as a surprise to some, given the apparently more liberal stance adopted by Pope Francis since his election in 2013, when he famously answered a question about a gay priest with his own question, “Who am I to judge?” While this made headlines, however, since then the Pope has reiterated the Catholic Church’s position that homosexual acts are a sin.

The Vatican contends that the Zan bill will jeopardise the freedom of thought and expression of Catholics in the country. Senior lawmakers in Italy have pushed back, while Roberto Fico, the president of the lower house of parliament, said on Italian TV that “parliament is sovereign and won’t accept interference”. National polls, while varying in their results, show that between half and two-thirds of Italians support the Zan bill.

All of this highlights a deeper underlying issue. It was Benito Mussolini who signed the Lateran Treaty with Cardinal Pietro Gasparri. Since then, Vatican City has presented itself to the world as a sovereign city state, governed by the Holy See, defined as “the juridical personification of the Church”. Today, it is recognised as a state by more than 170 other states, including the UK. But there are many ways in which it does not meet the traditional requirements of a state. You cannot, for example, become a citizen of the Vatican by being a native of that territory or inheriting citizenship from your parents. Citizenship only comes on having a job or an office with the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Vatican City occupies a tiny amount of territory, covering just over 100 acres of land, one-eighth the size of New York’s Central Park.

Zan has warned that given its current status, meddling by the Holy See in the affairs of the Italian state counts as “foreign interference”. Any change made to the bill, which has been passed by the lower house of parliament and now needs to pass the Senate, would set a dangerous precedent in the relations between Italy and the “state within a state” seated in its borders. Humanists International has called on the Italian government to reaffirm its independence and to resist this pressure from the Vatican.

But this might also be an opportune moment for a reassessment of the status of the Vatican itself. It may well be one of the oldest sovereign entities in history, as defenders of its current status have pointed out. But that is not in itself a reason for it to wield the power and influence it does today. The Catholic Church is the only religion that has been given the privileges of statehood, and whose leader is given immunity as a head of state. It should also not be forgotten that the Lateran Treaty now being invoked was a law signed by a fascist dictator.

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