ROME — The question seemed harmless enough: For public school students desiring religious instruction, what hour should be set aside for it?
But by Wednesday, amid runaway rhetoric and rising tempers, the matter had come close to crisis. It had strained relations between the Italian government and the Vatican and, as some saw it, was threatening the stability of Prime Minister Giovanni Goria's three-month-old coalition government.
Goria met Wednesday for the second time in four days with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, in search of a compromise that would satisfy both the church and anti-clerical elements in the five-party government.
Afterward, a joint communique was issued, emphasizing the "great cordiality" of the meeting but containing no hint of a solution.
What set off the conflict--some Italian commentators call it one of the gravest between the Italian state and the Vatican in the past half a century--was a government plan to schedule religious instruction either at the beginning or the end of the school day. Students who choose not to take part would be offered alternate "cultural or educative" instruction.
The Vatican objected. In a letter expressing "profound concern," the Vatican reminded Goria last week that state and church had agreed in a 1984 Concordat that the voluntary hour of instruction would come "within the context of the school schedule."
Although about 90% of Italy's public school children take religious instruction, the Vatican obviously feared that many would find it tempting to skip a first-period or last-period religion class.
The first-or-last option is itself a compromise growing out of the 1984 Concordat, which for the first time made religious instruction optional in Italian public schools. Initially, anyone choosing not to take the religious instruction would have been given a free period. But the Vatican argued that students given a choice between studying religion and studying nothing would have little trouble deciding.
The government agreed in 1985 to offer alternative instruction to students choosing not to study religion. Some parents protested that forcing children to study additional subjects would in effect punish them for opting out of religion classes. A court agreed, forcing the latest attempt at compromise.
Goria is being pressured not only by the church, which in the past has openly supported his Christian Democratic Party, but also by conservative Catholics in the party.
On the other side are coalition partners and opposition parties that insist that there must be a clear distinction between church and state in a secular democracy.
Barring last-minute agreement, the question is sure to come up for debate in Parliament beginning Friday, and it could force a vote of confidence in Goria's government.