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December 4, 2021

The hijacking of referendums

Romania is preparing to amend the Constitution. At stake is the elimination of the possibility of homosexual marriages, which at any rate were nothing more than a desideratum until now. Some, however, fear the European trend in this direction and have chosen to constitutionally harden the heterosexual monopoly. The term “between spouses” will be replaced with “between a man and a woman.” What is worrisome is the confusion of the debates on this topic. We are talking only about an aspect of a much wider campaign on topics of sexuality, campaign coordinated by the Orthodox Church of Romania. We can also mention the desire to ban abortions, but also sexual education in schools – topics that are far from being a Romanian speciality. Throughout the world there are conservative circles that set the same objectives of this type. Donald Trump’s administration is the example given most media coverage, but similar options exist wherever militant religions are given political credit, whether we are talking about Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Islam. And we are talking, in each separate case, about extremely wide popular support. Only the upcoming referendum will more clearly point out the true ratio of forces, although the Romanians’ chronic absentia from the ballot box will dent some of its relevance.

Although Christian denominations have registered bitter defeats on sexual topics over the last century, there are also virulent reactions in favour of a return to more restrictive provisions. In principle, Christianity evolved toward the wide-scale censuring of non-regulated sexuality. And the interdictions proliferated beyond measure, even though real life took them into account only partially. Today it’s difficult to impose new rules as harsh as that, after a part of humanity has once again tasted the fruit of a less contained sexuality. Consequently, the reactionary strategy has set only certain targets for itself, considered to be more vulnerable. The first one is abortion – at risk is another defenceless human being. The polemics over its character as murder have only served to entrench the two conflicting sides, the argument being considered by some as impermissible emotional blackmail that only prepares the enslavement of the woman in the name of the child. Not even the dilemma concerning the point in which an embryo gains the status of a human person did not remain one pertaining to responsible arguments, prematurely poisoning any debate. After all, Churches do not love contraception, regardless of its type. The Catholic Popes’ persistence against the condom, for example, has already been a topic for sarcasm for years – except for Francis, less conservative than his predecessors when it comes to such issues. As for the Orthodox, the regulations still in force stipulate as acceptable only sex as part of marriage, virginity before it, abstinence on days of fasting and the refusal of any contraceptive means. In practice, most believers break at least a significant part of these interdictions. Especially in what concerns contraception.

Another vulnerable point where conservatives chose to wage war is homosexuality. Decriminalised with difficulty, under EU pressure, it has remained an option that is poorly seen. Only the stake of sanctifying heterosexual marriage as the only legitimate one denotes the older theological problem of accepting sexuality as anything but a vehicle of procreation. In recent years, particularly in Catholicism, efforts are being made to overcome such a restrictive and, after all, repressive view. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is more attached to the old rhetoric, potentiated by a nationalist orientation in which women must bear and raise sons and daughters for the fatherland. Just as the Metropolitan Bishop of Cluj has recently and ridiculously stated, wanting at least a third child per family for this purpose. All paternalist policies converge in this direction, because what difference is there between such ideals and the ideals of the Muslim President of Turkey Erdogan?

Politically speaking, the majority of Romanian political parties support such an initiative. Starting with those currently in power. Precisely during the bitterest days of the huge popular protests, Liviu Dragnea staked on the counter-offensive. The millions of supporters of exclusively heterosexual marriage are seen by PSD+ALDE as their people’s army. Opposition parties are not far from such an option either, except for USR’s left wing and those Liberals who are less opportunistic and more consistently liberal. Nevertheless, the referendum can partially invalidate this impression of a crushing majority. The number of those opposing the Orthodox Church of Romania’s campaigns is on the rise, and the simple refusal of one topic can trigger the refusal of other topics too. For instance, refusing the religious view on the education of children can tip the scales in what concerns homosexuality too, without there necessarily being sympathy for the latter. A spill-over effect, in other words, should not be overlooked.

Maybe the most worrisome aspect of this constitutional change is that it could become a precedent for others. Popular referendums, which do not even have effective consequences all the time, can become a perverse practice for certain political circles. Is Romanian democracy sufficiently immune to such easily-perverted practices? Had President Iohannis not proposed a referendum on the anti-corruption topic in his own turn, the current ruling power would have toyed in an even more unhindered fashion with such popular consultations with constitutional stakes. Let’s not cherish illusions: any good Constitution is the work of a responsible, visionary and well-intentioned political-juridical elite.

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