VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican is becoming increasingly alarmed at what it regards as official anti-Roman Catholic sentiment and secular trends in Europe, as government after government approves measures on abortion, family law, and scientific study that run counter to Catholic teaching.
Vatican concerns rocketed into view during a controversy in the European Parliament this month over remarks on homosexuality and women by an Italian politician who has close ties to the Holy See.
On Oct. 5, a committee of European Parliament members voted to oppose Italy's nomination of Rocco Buttiglione, a Christian Democrat, to be the European Union's justice commissioner. During a hearing before the Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee, he had labeled homosexuality a sin and asserted that the family exists so a woman can raise children under a man's protection. Buttiglione is a friend of Pope John Paul II and various high-ranking Vatican officials.
''It looks like a new Inquisition. It is a lay Inquisition, but it is so nasty," Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, told reporters this week in response to the dispute. ''You can freely insult and attack Catholics and nobody will say anything. If you do so for other confessions, let's see what would happen."
The controversy was new proof of the heat of a long debate in Europe over issues of women's equality in the workplace, gay marriage, abortion, scientific research using human embryos, and separation of church and state.
Such debates are also intense in the United States, where the Vatican has waged a campaign against abortion, advising US bishops on the inadmissibility of giving Communion to Catholic politicians who persist in supporting abortion rights. It did not specify names, but some bishops in the United States have said they would not administer the sacrament to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential candidate.
Yet trends that go against the preaching of the pope are more advanced in parts of Western Europe than in the United States, some Vatican officials contend. To the Vatican, Europe's moral landscape is bleak.
Vatican officials and media outlets have expressed alarm over new policies being prepared in Spain by the Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. His government is considering legalizing gay marriage, speeding up divorces, and ending obligatory religious instruction in public schools.
Concurrently, Britain has approved research on the curative possibilities of stem cells from human embryos. In the Netherlands, the practice of euthanasia continues over church objections. In Italy, secular politicians have mounted a campaign to hold a referendum aimed at loosening a new law on laboratory-assisted fertilization. The law currently prohibits the use of donor sperm, frozen embryos, and surrogate mothers.
In a speech on Sept. 20, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the head of Italy's bishops conference, criticized Spain for ''emptying the family of its significance." He accused the Italian press of ''hammering" the issue of artificial insemination in order to promote a referendum. Stem cell research in Britain and euthanasia for children with incurable diseases in the Netherlands ''clearly demonstrate developments that result in the loss of recognition of the uniqueness and inviolability of the human subject," Ruini said.
The lay offensive, as some Vatican officials call it, has prompted the pope to intensify the search for common ground with non-Catholics on moral and ethical issues.