Italy govt challenges Vatican over civil unions

Rome, Italy - Romano Prodi's new centre-left government on Sunday fired the opening salvo in its widely-expected battle with the Vatican over giving legal rights to unwed heterosexual couples.

Family Minister Rosy Bindi said Italy had a responsibility to discuss some kind of recognition of civil unions even in the face of warnings from the Roman Catholic Church it will fight any move it believes undermines the traditional family.

Bindi added the new parliament would also reconsider dismantling Italy's strict law on assisted procreation. Attempts to change the law failed last year after bishops urged the faithful to boycott a referendum on it.

"The Church cannot but say what it is thinking. But politics cannot fail to assume its responsibility for making its ... own choices," Bindi told Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Prodi's coalition in the run-up to the April elections promised some sort of legal recognition for civil unions and the issue has been expected to become a major source of friction between the church and state.

The Vatican warned Prodi before the vote it condemned unwed unions, let alone gay marriages, causing some leftists to accuse the Church of trying to write Italy's political agenda.

Pope Benedict reiterated his condemnation on Saturday in a meeting with the Spanish ambassador to the Vatican.

The ties of traditionally Roman Catholic Spain with the Church have strained since it legalised gay unions in 2005, a step taken by Spain's then incoming Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Benedict, who condemns divorce, artificial birth control, free-style unions and gay marriages, told Spain's Francisco Vazquez family values were "non-negotiable".

The Church also condemned unions aimed at "ousting and blurring" the rite of marriage, he said.

In an effort to head off a similar confrontation in largely Roman Catholic Italy, Bindi promised to consider legalising civil unions through the light of her Catholic faith.

"We must avoid an ideological fight," she said.

Lawmakers from across the broad eight-party coalition welcomed her comments, but they were condemned by members of Silvio Berlusconi's conservative opposition, who had campaigned as the Vatican's coalition of choice.

"There is nothing Catholic in the confused and contradictory programme of the new family minister Rosy Bindi," said Lorenzo Cesa, secretary of the Union of Christian Democrats.