When Italy's most influential cardinal received an award recently, he was heckled by a group of students opposed to his stand against full legal rights for unmarried couples.
"Shame! Shame!" the students shouted at Cardinal Camillo Ruini, holding up posters saying "Free love in a free state" and "We're all homosexuals."
It was a remarkable display, not just because cardinals are rarely booed in Italy.
The students' anger was a measure of how the Roman Catholic Church has regained its role as a powerful force in Italy's political debate, weighing in on hot campaign issues and forcing politicians to take a stand ahead of general elections next year.
"Certainly it is one of the periods of maximum mobilization of the Church," Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli said Monday. "I believe the Church is worried that the traditional family based on marriage is attacked and weakened through legislation."
The Church in Italy kept a lower profile after the Christian Democrats, with whom the Vatican had close ties, collapsed under the corruption scandals of the early 1990s. But a successful campaign asking Italians to boycott a referendum on easing assisted fertility restrictions in April appears to have emboldened the bishops, analysts say.
"The referendum gave Ruini the belief that he had more sway over public opinion than even he imagined," said Giuseppe Alberigo, a Church historian.
In one of his first acts in office, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the secular nature of the Italian state during a visit with the Italian president. But he also made it clear during the June 24 visit that that wouldn't stop the Catholic Church from intervening in ethical matters or issues that dealt with man's "eternal destiny."
Ruini, Benedict's vicar for Rome, seems to have taken that message to heart. During a speech last week, the cardinal, who is also the head of Italian bishops conference, discussed the upcoming Italian budget, the state of the school system, and even the fate of Italy's embattled central bank governor.
But most significantly, he chimed in on the hottest issue of the day, saying that giving full legal recognition to unmarried couples would represent an "eclipsing of the nature and value of a family and a very grave harm to the Italian people."
Although he did suggest that common-law norms might offer some protections, opponents seized on what they saw as unwarranted interference by the church in domestic affairs.
"The bishops' conference is the most powerful, listened-to, courted _ and feared _ lobby on the political scene," La Repubblica, a left-leaning Rome daily, said in a recent editorial.
Ruini's comments came on the heels of intense recent activity by the church on the national political front.
Earlier this year, the bishops' conference organized the boycott on the assisted fertility referendum. And the conference's newspaper has defended embattled Bank of Italy Governor Antonio Fazio, known to be a practicing Catholic, who is facing calls for his resignation over his handling of two recent bank takeovers.
The Vatican's influence in Italy is long established, and seems to endure even if citizens have strayed from Church doctrine _ notably by approving divorce and abortion in referendums decades ago _ and the country, like the rest of Europe, becomes ever more secular.
More than 90 percent of Italy's 58 million citizens are, at least nominally, Catholic.
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