How the Catholic Church continues to hinder LGBT rights progress in Europe

By Gregory Lens

The most recent annual ILGA Rainbow Europe report painted a bleak picture on the current level of progress for LGBT rights in the eastern part of the European Union. Commitments to equality are either stalling, or even completely vanishing from national political agendas. In eastern member states, governments are backtracking on their commitments, abolishing equality policies, and introducing restrictive legislation.

One only needs to glance at the public debates in countries such as Poland, Hungary, or even “western” Italy to notice that the often violent anti-LGBT rhetoric is laced with religious arguments. But to what extent does the Catholic Church influence policy in these countries? And what is there to gain?

Minority rights activists in the aforementioned countries have long decried the influence of the Church, while demanding the sidelining of an unelected moral institution that they say has no place in shaping government policy. However, many ruling political parties are closely tied to the Catholic Church in various states, most noticeably PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary. These vast connections to religious institutions have led to successful lobbying campaigns by the catholic clergy on family policies. 

EU member states where the Catholic Church used to exert the greatest influence over society and its morals are now on the progressive side in regard to LGBT equality; the noteworthy examples being Ireland and Spain, which both have extensive legislation to protect LGBT rights. Most western countries have undergone rapid secularization, which led to the sidelining of religion in daily lives. This occurrence has diminished the influence of the Church on policy-making to a practically non-existent level. 

The Eastern Catholic Churches seem to be fully aware of the effects of secularization on a population’s moral views. The best way for the Church to safeguard its influence is, it seems, by teaming up with conservative parties which are looking for scapegoats to blame every problem their country faces on as a way of deflecting their own shortcomings, such as diverting attention away from Covid-related issues

This connection between far-right parties and the Church appears to be a marriage out of convenience. Far-right parties need a minority group to vilify, while the Church is keen to push its own agenda. The Polish Catholic Church describes the LGBT community as “pedophiles” and “the plague”, statements with which the ruling party wholeheartedly agrees. The school curriculum has been adjusted by the ruling PiS party to include more courses on religious education, immersing students in the discourse of “traditional” values. By outright banning education on the topic, acceptance of LGBT individuals has stagnated severely in recent years. 

Eastern Catholic Churches have recently started labeling LGBT rights as a western phenomenon, stimulated by godless societies which have “lost their way”. Hungary has started to undermine existing LGBT rights, claiming that they are not compatible with the traditional Christian way of life in the country. However, the Roman Catholic Church was never a source of Hungarian patriotism and irreligiousness runs deep. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Orban claimed that Christian culture was the unifying force of the nation in 2016. Soon after this declaration, the Fidesz government retracted its laws regarding transgender individuals and outright banned sex conversion and gender identity policies, none of which seemed to have been particular issues in the Hungarian public debate. In an attempt to forge a stronger national identity, Fidesz teamed up with the Church sacrificing LGBT rights to attain its goals. 

By bestowing religious values on future generations and invigorating conservative sentiments in older voters, the Church tries to guarantee fulfillment of its goals to create a pious society. In that way, the electorate will vote for parties that affirm their beliefs. And it should come as no surprise that these political parties are closely affiliated to the Church. To garner even more support, leading members of national Churches nowadays actively inflame public sentiment by demonizing LGBT individuals as a vote-boosting measure. As long as religion remains connected to the ruling parties of a state, thereby blurring the separation of Church and State, LGBT equality will remain a distant reality.

And yet, signs of hope for the future do exist. The presence of the Vatican and influential bishops in national politics have caused Italy to lag behind on LGBT rights in comparison to the rest of western Europe. Before the vote on same-sex unions in 2016, the then-prime minister Matteo Renzi took the unprecedented step of publicly rebuking the esteemed Bishop’s Conference -the country’s leading religious body- when they attempted to interfere in the voting process, by stating that “they are not the ones to decide”. This could be considered as part of Renzi’s effort to clearly separate Church from State. A majority of Italians now support the protection of LGBT individuals and their rights, while, at the same time, the Italian parliament approved an LGBT+ hate crime law. If staunchly catholic Italy is ready to break away from the influence of the Church, eastern EU member states might one day be able to follow Italy’s example. 

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