.- The Vatican daily, Osservatore Romano, has accused former Italian premier Romano Prodi of undermining marriage and the moral framework of society by proposing that cohabiting couples be granted the same legal rights and benefits as married couples.
Prodi added Monday he would not exclude same-sex couples from these benefits, but he denied that his proposal-a move that would create civil unions-was related to same-sex marriage.
The Vatican newspaper said Prodi is sacrificing family values for the sake of election considerations. The leader of Italian Parliamentâs centre-left opposition is expected to run in the upcoming presidential elections.
The former European Commission chief argued that-given the rising number of long-term, cohabiting couples-a law protecting their legal rights was long overdue, reported ANSA. The number of unmarried couples living together in Italy doubled from 227,000 in 1994 to 555,000 in 2003.
"There are people who have lived together for years, who have children and have problems over inheritance, housing and pension issues. We are talking about millions of people affected by such problems and we must do something about it," Prodi was quoted as saying.
The legislation he is supporting is similar to France's Civil Solidarity Pact (PACS).
Other centre-left parties support his stance, but it has generated a strong reaction from the Italian public, which is mostly Catholic, and the centre-right governing coalition.
"We must be very clear, the family is only that which is recognized by the Constitution, as that this must be protected and strengthened," Deputy Minister of Industry Adolfo Urso told AGI in Milano Monday.
"The recognition of individual rights for cohabiting partners is another matter, one that we are working on. The two things cannot be put on the same footing, we want to protect, or rather strengthen the traditional family, which is an entirely separate matter to the legal recognition of de-facto civil unions," Urso continued.
Critics have also compared Prodi to Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who legalized same-sex marriage in Spain.
There are currently nine bills before Italian Parliament on the issue but the opposition of many Catholic lawmakers has stalled progress.
Italy is one of three countries in the 25-member European Union that does not grant legal rights to cohabiting couples.