[Note: Quotations in the following piece from speakers at the World Congress of Families may be paraphrased. They are based upon my own notes taken at the time, and in the case of speeches not given in English, based on the simultaneous translations provided by the Congress.]

I was privileged to attend and speak at the most recent World Congress of Families (WCF), held in Verona, Italy from March 29-31. Only after hearing what the Italian speakers at the Congress had to say did I realize that this may have been the most controversial of these events—in its own country—held so far.

The most frequently cited (and refuted) criticism of the WCF was that its views are “medieval.” After two days of hearing references from the podium to the attacks upon the Verona Congress, I finally went online to find Italian news in English to document what had gone on.

The source of the “medieval” charge was an Italian politician named Luigi Di Maio. He is the leader of a relatively young political party in Italy known as the “Five Star Movement” (abbreviated M5S), and is a co-deputy prime minister. He also asserted that the WCF was for “right-wing losers.”

Some Americans may not realize the extent to which a parliamentary system creates strange bedfellows. The Five Star Movement—described by Wikipedia as a populist party taking a “big tent” political position—won the most seats in the Italian Parliament in the 2018 elections, but not a majority. Therefore, it had to form a coalition with The League, a more conservative party centered in Northern Italy (where Verona is). Several League politicians were stronger supporters of the World Congress of Families—meaning that Di Maio’s attack was directed at his own coalition partners. Di Maio had said, “The League in Verona celebrates the Middle Ages, we do not.”

When a criticism is repeatedly cited by those who were the target of it, it has probably backfired (think of Hillary Clinton and the “basket of deplorables”). That may well have been the case with the “medieval” charge, which speaker after speaker at the WCF seized upon.

“This is an open community.”

For example, Luca Zaia, President of the Veneto Region where Verona is located (roughly the equivalent of a governor in the U.S.), told the opening session of the Congress, “You must thank those who attacked you—you have become well known!”

Part of the reason defenders of the World Congress were able to take the high ground from critics was because of the heavy-handed efforts not only to stigmatize the event, but to prevent it from taking place at all. This had the effect of turning defenders of free speech into defenders of the World Congress, and vice versa.

Zaia reported, “I’ve been attacked a lot—people said we should not have this event in Verona.” However, he declared, “This is an open community as long as I am here. There is freedom for everyone to talk. The fundamental rule is to have respect for everybody . . . I do not consider this the middle ages.”

“Everyone has a right to express their own ideas.”

Federico Sboarina, the Mayor of Verona, struck a similar note. “In my city, everyone has a right to express their own ideas—no one has a right to intimidate them. Verona is being depicted as a ‘medieval’ city. It’s those who stop people from speaking freely who are ‘medieval.’”

“The worst thing you can do is prohibit [an] idea.”

This theme of free speech even led to an unscheduled appearance by Italian radio host Giuseppe Cruciani. He said bluntly, “I’m not one of you,” as far as pro-family and pro-life policy is concerned. However, he noted that “for weeks now, there has been a campaign against this event.” He said he had learned from his experience in radical politics, “If you want to fight an idea, the worst thing you can do is prohibit that idea.” Therefore, Cruciani pledged, “Every time they want to stop you from expressing your opinion, I will be with you, even though I do not agree with you.”

“The media . . . want to suppress freedom of expression.”

Writer Maria Giovanna Maglie said, “The controversy actually attracted me; but I didn’t think the attack would be so violent. If you read the papers, you would think we were here to create an outrageous scandal, to celebrate the funerals of freedom and liberty.”

Actually, she said, “Freedom is of fundamental importance—but much of the media is here to stop it. They want to suppress freedom of expression.”

“Does the World Congress of Families promote hatred?” she asked. “No, it promotes the family” (and “so does the Italian constitution,” she noted. Article 29 of that document says, “The Republic recognizes the rights of the family as a natural society founded on marriage.”).

“If you are pro-life, why should you be called ‘medieval?’” asked Maglie. She referred to political correctness as “a new authoritarianism,” and drew prolonged applause when she concluded by calling on all to resist its “tyranny.”

“This event has become a symbol of freedom.”

Sandro Oliveri, President of the Federation of Italian Pentecostal Churches, praised the organizers of the Congress, saying that they “have been very brave in light of what you have faced in the last few days,” including “aggressiveness and violence.”

“This event has become a symbol of freedom,” he declared—although not the kind promoted by those who “think that freedom is [only] to say what they agree with.”

“Why should people be afraid of talking about family?” Oliveri wondered. “This is about protecting the weakest people, the children.”

“Saying no” to practices that harm women and children “does not limit anyone’s freedom,” he insisted. “It does not mean to be ‘medieval.’”

“So much hatred”—but toward the World Congress of Families, not from it

For Lorenzo Fontana, Italy’s Minister for the Family and Disabilities, the attacks on the WCF had a personal cost. “I saw so much hatred in the polemics of the last few days,” he said. “I had to be accompanied by twice as many police as usual in my own city. Many people suffered: my wife was ill-treated at work because of the polemics. My child has been discriminated against at kindergarten because she is the daughter of Minister Fontana.”

Fontana addressed another stereotype about the Congress. “I was told that those at that Congress are against women who work,” he said. “I was told I wanted to keep women at home.” In reality, he insisted the opposite is true—“All the women in my life work!” Instead, what he wants to do is to aid female employment by facilitating “work-life balance.”

“Having a child is positive for business,” Fontana declared, citing research showing “an increase in productivity” with mothers in the workplace. “Unfortunately,” he lamented, “some people in Italy still have a ‘medieval’ view and don’t understand these things!”

The real “backward thinkers”

The fieriest speech at the Congress came from Giorgia Meloni, a member of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Italian parliament) and president of a conservative political party known as the Brothers of Italy. One article describes Meloni as the “leading lady of Italy’s right.”

“They said we are medieval, depressives, losers,” Meloni said. “I reject these [charges] and send them back to those who formulated them.” They are the real “backward thinkers,” she insisted. “A loser comes to insult us when we talk about families,” she declared. “Losers are those who accept abortion at the ninth month!”

“The fascists are gone.”

The highest-ranking government official to address the Congress was Matteo Salvini, who serves as both Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the current Italian government, and who was described last year by Time magazine as “the most feared man in Europe.” Salvini said that the criticism of the World Congress of Families had been “surreal,” with people asking him, “Are you sure you want to go to Verona? It’s the middle ages, losers, right-wing people.”

Several of the officials who spoke at the Congress are referred to in the media as “far right” or even “neo-fascist”—but it is hard to know how seriously to take those characterizations, coming from outlets that unquestioningly accept the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of mainstream conservative organizations like the World Congress of Families and Family Research Council as “hate groups.” Responding to such attacks, Salvini said wearily, “The fascists are gone;” but then added wryly, “There are still communists, though.” Salvini also declared, “Racism and excessive religious beliefs are not here in this room—it is others who are [wrongly] judging us.”

Grazie, Italia!

Given the ferocity of the attacks, the organizers of the World Congress of Families (especially Chairman Antonio Brandi) deserve tremendous credit for persevering. And the speakers who braved the criticism to address and/or actively support the Congress deserve the thanks of all those of us who attended. Special kudos to those not even part of the pro-family movement who nevertheless stood for the principal of free speech. To all of these, I say—Grazie, Italia!