ROME (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI made an official visit to the Italian president on Friday, just two weeks after the Roman Catholic Church was accused by some of interfering in a national referendum on assisted fertility.

Both the pope and President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi agreed that Italy and the Vatican must be autonomous. But Ciampi said he took pride in the fact that Italy was a secular state, while the pope said the church reserved the right to speak out on ethical matters.

The pomp-filled visit to the Quirinal Palace was arranged before the June 12-13 referendum that sought to loosen restrictions on assisted fertility.

The referendum was declared invalid, however, because only a quarter of the electorate voted, while more than 50 percent was required. The church urged Italians to boycott the polls.

Benedict was driven in an open-top limousine, with crowds waving from the sidewalks in downtown Rome as he crossed the Tiber River and headed to the presidential palace.

In his speech, the pope said he approved of a “healthy secularism without excluding those ethical references which find their final foundation in religion. The autonomy of the temporal sphere does not exclude an intimate harmony with the complex and superior needs which derive from an integral vision of man and his eternal destiny.”

He said Ciampi could understand that “not a few worries accompany the beginning of my ministry,” listing marriage, “the defense of life from conception to natural end” and the problem of education.

“The church sees in the family a very important value that must be defended from every attack aimed at harming its firmness and questioning its very existence,” Benedict said.

Ciampi said he often showed visitors of whatever religion the view of St. Peter’s dome from the presidential palace.

“I am proud to be able to tell them: “There is another state – the state of Vatican City. Here is a tangible example of how one can resolve in a spirit of peace controversies between states,”‘ the president said.

“I am proud to affirm, as president of the republic and as a citizen, the secular nature of the Italian republic.”

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