NEWS FEATURE (dpa German Press Agency)

Italy has long lagged behind Western European peers on gay rights, but after last week’s referendum to legalize same-sex marriages in Ireland, calls for change in the overwhelmingly Catholic country are growing louder.

Rome (dpa) – When a centre-left government tried to legalize same-sex partnerships in Italy eight years ago, divisions within the political ranks and furious opposition from the Catholic Church and conservative politicians caused it to fail miserably.

Eight years on, the mood has changed.

Former premier Silvio Berlusconi – the same politician who led the ‘no’ camp for same-sex partnerships in 2007 and once said, “It is better to have a passion for beautiful girls than to be gay” – announced his support for the rights of gay and lesbian couples in a Sunday interview with RAI state television.

“In a civilized country, I do not see why heterosexual couples or even those of the same sex should not be allowed to look after each other when they fall ill or leave something to each other in their wills,” he said.

Berlusconi – whose girlfriend Francesca Pascale is an avid supporter of gay rights – spoke in the wake of a successful same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland.

Italy is one of the last nations in Western Europe with no laws on same-sex partnerships, and “the time is up” to fix that anomaly, said Cristiana Alicata, a gay rights activist and business executive who acts as an informal advisor to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Lawmakers from Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) have submitted draft legislation that would recognize same-sex “civil unions” but not gay marriage. That proposal has been deadlocked in committee discussions for more than two years.

“[We] want to wrap up discussions on the civil unions bill by the summer, and then, within a few months, achieve the final approval of a law that responds to common demands from society and parliament,” PD deputy leader Lorenzo Guerini told Monday’s La Stampa newspaper.

According to ILGA-Europe, a pan-European lobby, Italy has the worst record on gay right protection in the EU after Lithuania, Latvia and Cyprus. Britain and Belgium are listed as top of the class, while Russia and Azerbaijan are at the bottom.

Public opinion seems to be in favor of change in legislation: Only 23 per cent of Italians oppose legalizing marriage or civil partnerships for homosexuals, a poll published by the Corriere della Sera newspaper in October showed.

Even the Catholic Church, officially opposed to same-sex relationships in its teachings, could be open to such a measure.

Under Pope Francis, the Vatican’s position on sexual morality has remained the same, but its willingness to confront sinners has faded. The pontiff gained worldwide notoriety in 2013 with his remark, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”

What remains unclear is how far upcoming Italian legislation will go in establishing same-sex rights.

Beyond the PD, the opposition Five Star Movement, the Left, Freedom and Ecology party and at least parts of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia could back a far-reaching gay rights bill. But other political forces are much more cautious.

The New Centre Right party of Interior Minister Angelino Alfano – a junior partner in Renzi’s coalition – is leading the charge to water down the PD-sponsored reform, saying his party could back the proposal only if gay couples were denied pension and adoption rights.

Granting those rights – allowing a person to inherit his or her deceased partner’s pension and adopt children from a partner’s previous heterosexual relationship – is “unavoidable,” Renzi-advisor Alicata insists.

Renzi is personally committed to same-sex rights, Alicata says, dismissing suggestions that the premier is backing a progressive cause to balance out other reforms – on schools, labour legislation and the electoral system – that have estranged left-wingers in his party.

“It’s not a question of political convenience,” Alicata says. She points out that the prime minister’s circle of friends includes same-sex couples with children.

“He really cares about this battle,” she says.