The hippos, kangaroos and penguins adorning the cover of Piccolo Uovo (Little Egg) give little hint of the political and religious storm the childrenâ€™s book has caused. While following the adventures of an egg may seem harmless enough, its discovery of different family types â€“ including same sex â€“ has prompted a backlash by conservatives who accuse Italian author Francesca Pardi of promoting a pro-homosexuality gender theory.
In the book, the egg encounters a pair of gay penguins, lesbian rabbits successfully bringing up a family, as well as other family models, including a single parent hippo, a mixed race dog couple, and kangaroos that have adopted polar bear cubs.
The book, however, was met with disapproval by Veniceâ€™s new mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, who in June banned Piccolo Uovo and about 50 other titles from schools. The decision led more than 250 Italian authors to demand their own books be removed from the cityâ€™s shelves, a move one writer described as a â€œprotest against an appalling gesture of censorship and ignoranceâ€.
Now Pardi has found an unlikely supporter in Pope Francis, who through his staff has written to the author praising her work. â€œHis holiness is grateful for the thoughtful gesture and for the feelings which it evoked, hoping for an always more fruitful activity in the service of young generations and the spread of genuine human and Christian values,â€ wrote Peter B Wells, a senior official at the Vatican secretariat of state.
The letter, dated 9 July and recently seen by the Guardian, was a response to a parcel of childrenâ€™s books sent by Pardi to the pontiff in June. The collection from her publisher, Lo Stampatello, including seven or eight books which deal with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues (LGBT), was accompanied by a heartfelt letter from the author describing the attacks she has come under in recent months.
â€œMany parishes across the country are in this period sullying our name and telling falsehoods about our work which deeply offends us,â€ she wrote. â€œWe have respect for Catholics … A lot of Catholics give back the same respect, why canâ€™t we have the whole hierarchy of the church behind us?â€
Pardi said she had not expected a reply and was surprised to receive the letter at her Milan home. â€œItâ€™s not that I think that heâ€™s for gay families, because thereâ€™s the Catholic doctrine, but we mustnâ€™t think that we donâ€™t have rights,â€ she said.
The Vatican said the closing blessing of the private letter was addressed to Pardi and not in support of teachings which went against church doctrine on â€˜gender theoryâ€™.
The Vatican deems homosexual relationships â€œintrinsically disorderedâ€ and â€œcontrary to natural lawâ€, preaching that gay people must live a life of chastity in order to be good Catholics. While such a doctrine has effectively excluded people in same-sex relationships from the church, Pope Francis has adopted a more welcoming approach during his papacy.
â€œIf someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?â€ he said in 2013. The same year, a gay man in France told his local newspaper he had received a reassuring phone call from the pope â€“ a claim the Vatican denied.
The popeâ€™s more inclusive approach has been countered by those within the Vatican. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vaticanâ€™s secretary of state, said Irelandâ€™s decision to legalise gay marriage in May was a â€œdefeat for humanityâ€.
Despite the popeâ€™s praise of Pardiâ€™s work, a significant shift in the Vaticanâ€™s view of gay relationships is unlikely. The pontiff will next month head to the World Meeting of Families, gathering Catholics from across the globe in Philadelphia in the US, but LGBT groups have not been invited to air their views.
Catholics worldwide have started campaigning against the popeâ€™s openness, with more than half a million signing a petition calling on Francis to reaffirm church teachings on gay people and divorcees.
Signatories of the Filial appeal aim to have an impact on the Vaticanâ€™s synod on the family in October, when church teachings will be discussed by the worldâ€™s leading churchmen. The petition has notably been signed by traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was demoted by the pope last year.
Catholicism has a strong influence on Italian society, and Pardiâ€™s letter to the pope also took aim at the countryâ€™s â€œwe defend our childrenâ€ committee, which in June brought hundreds of thousands of people to Rome to protest against gay parenting.
But attitudes in Italy are changing, with recent polls showing the majority of voters are in favour of giving rights to gay couples. Pardi is herself in a same-sex relationship with her business partner, Maria Silvia Fiengo, but the pair had to travel to Spain to be legally married. Granted no legal rights to have a family in Italy, they had their four children in the Netherlands.
Although gay marriage and adoption are off the government agenda, Italyâ€™s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has pledged to legislate for same-sex unions this year. He has come under growing pressure to fulfil the promise following a decision by the European court of human rights, which ruled that Italy failed to protect same-sex couples.