VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI yesterday endorsed efforts by Italy's Roman Catholic bishops to restrict assisted-fertility treatments, stepping into an emotionally-charged Italian referendum battle.
The German-born pope contended that next month's plebiscite on scrapping parts of a law that regulates assistedfertility treatments posed threats to life and family.
The pope spoke to the Italian bishops' conference, which has called on Italians to boycott the June 12-13 referendum.
He did not mention any details of the law, but noted that the bishops were ''committed to illuminating the choices of Catholics and all citizens" in the upcoming referendum. He emphasized the importance of defending the family and human life.
While it was his first journey into an Italian political issue, the pope's support was not unexpected. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the head of the Italian bishops' conference, is the pope's vicar for Rome.
The current law forbids sperm and egg donation, limits the number of embryos created with in vitro techniques to three, and bans all embryo research. Opponents of the law contend that it restricts scientific research and reproductive rights.
The referendum asks voters to repeal the law's provisions on embryo research, the three-embryo limit, the ban on egg or sperm donation from outside the couple, and any attribution of legal rights to the unborn.
The ANSA news agency reported that 85 percent of the physicians at Italy's largest gynecological hospital in Turin support changes to the law and that more than 100 of the doctors issued a public appeal yesterday for Italians to vote.
A communist politician, Franco Giordano, went on Radio Radicale and called the pope's remarks an ''unwarranted interference in the affairs of the Italian state."
The Vatican faced similar accusations of interference in church-backed referendums in 1974 and 1981 that unsuccessfully sought to overturn laws permitting divorce and abortion.
The bishops are pressing Italians not to vote in the hope that a low turnout will doom the proposed changes to the law. At least 50 percent plus one of eligible voters must cast ballots to make a referendum valid.
Benedict stressed that the family was ''fundamental" to Italian society. But he said that even in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, the family has not been immune to secular trends.
''Even in Italy the family is exposed to the current cultural climate, therefore, to risks and threats that we all know," he said.
He cited the ''tendency of the culture to challenge the unique character and the mission of the family based on a man and a woman," a reference to acceptance in some countries to same-sex marriage.
In a separate development, Vatican officials said the process of beatifying Pope John Paul II, the first step toward possible sainthood, has officially begun. An edict was published during the weekend inviting testimony from witnesses about his virtues and asking anyone with his manuscripts or other documents to give them to the Vatican.
The edict was issued two weeks after the pope announced that he was lifting a five-year waiting period for the start of the process toward beatification, the last formal step before the late pontiff could be made a saint.
Ruini, who signed the edict, said it was produced in response to the many calls for a rapid sainthood process after John Paul died April 2.
The edict, which officially launches the exhaustive investigation needed for a beatification cause, would be displayed on the doors of the headquarters of the Dioceses of Rome and Krakow, Poland, for two months, Ruini said.
It will take years for the Vatican to gather all of the writings of Polish-born John Paul and to hear from witnesses testifying about his virtues. It must then certify a miracle attributed to his intercession after his death for him to be beatified. A second miracle is needed for him to be made a saint after beatification.
Ruini said he was inviting the public to contact the diocesan tribunal of the Vicariate of Rome to offer anything ''favorable or contrary to the saintly fame of the servant of God."
The edict also asked anyone with any of John Paul's writings to submit them to the tribunal -- the originals or authenticated copies. That request applies to manuscripts, diaries, letters, and any other private writings.