According to a ruling earlier this month by Italy’s highest court, there is no legal difference between a cohabiting couple and a lawful marriage, a decision that earned a sharp rebuke from the Vatican. The Court of Cassation in Rome, the country’s court of last resort, ruled that a cohabiting couple, especially one that has produced children, which is characterized by coexistence based on common ideals and lifestyles, is the legal equivalent to lawful marriage.
In the case of a man accused of theft against the former cohabitant, the Court ruled that the same rules applied to cohabiting partners as for marriage. The Court said that marriage needs "to adapt to changes in its rules to conform with the social reality of the family today". According to a report by Agenzia Giornalistica Italia , the Court said marriage has acquired a different meaning and is more "broad" now than it was when the penal code was established.
Article 29 of the Italian Constitution stipulates that the family is founded on marriage.
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Ennio Cardinal Antonelli, the head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that the breakdown of traditional family life should be cause for efforts to support, not weaken the marriage covenant.
These things, he said, "demand the strengthening of the marriage covenant, and to make stronger and more explicit awareness …of the public role of the family. I see with concern the gradual shift toward a further privatization of the family, almost an irrelevance of the family to society".
Cardinal Antonelli pointed to the numerous sociological studies that have highlighted the benefits of traditional marriage and, conversely, "the amount of damage claims that the new forms of family – such as the single-parent families and cohabitation in fact – bring to society". A marriage, he said, is publicly contracted, not just in a church but in front of the whole community – an act which brings a high level of accountability.
In the same interview, lawyer Giuseppe Dalla Torre, rector of Libera Università Maria Santissima Assunta, a private Catholic university in Rome, told Vatican Radio that the decision "represents a blow for the family".
He challenged the legal facts of the case, saying that the differences in law between marriage and cohabitation are "substantial". "This is not the first time that the Cassation has these smears in its jurisprudence," Dalla Torre added.
"While marriage is a public, formal act of will in which both parties assume duties and rights that last over time, in the case of de facto unions, there is a precariousness which can last for a very long time but not be binding on either side."