ROME Across the road from the Colosseum, the ancient Roman stadium consecrated as a holy Christian site, clients at a busy bar are raising a glass to the pope: toasting the departure of the worst Church leader they can imagine.
For drinkers in Rome's best known gay bar, Benedict's abdication is a blessing.
"He was less human than the last one," said Flavia Servadei, co-owner of "Coming Out" a small bar in Via San Giovanni in Laterano which has been so successful since it opened in 2001 that the road has been renamed "Gay Street".
In warm Roman summers, the bar attracts scores of men and women, spilling onto the pedestrianised street. On the chilly February day when Benedict announced his abdication, drinkers huddled inside to absorb the news, unprecedented in the past 700 years.
"This was the most reactionary pope ever, who made homophobia one of his battle cries," Franco Grillini, founder of Italy's biggest gay advocacy group Arcigay, said in a telephone interview. "So his resignation was good news."
Italian gays and lesbians resent the influence that the Catholic Church, from its headquarters in a walled city state on the other side of Rome, continues to have on politics, despite dwindling congregations and a largely secular society.
While Britain, France and several U.S. states have allowed or are considering allowing gay marriage, in Italy attempts to create some limited form of civil partnership for same-sex couples have failed.
"In Italy, politicians are much more servile to the Vatican, they are very obedient, there is an element of cowardice," said Grillini.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are a "grave depravity" and "do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity". Homosexuals themselves, however, should be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity".
Although remembered by many people as a gentler figure than his successor, Pope John Paul II criticized an international gay pride parade through Rome in 2000 as an "offence to Christian values" and reaffirmed that the Church considered homosexuality "objectively disordered".
Benedict, 85, who in his youth was considered a liberal theologian, made the battle against Western secularism a central part of his papacy and called gay marriage a threat to "human dignity and the future of humanity itself".
"I'm not even talking about marriage," said Servadei, one of three women who co-own the bar, instantly recognizable by the rainbow logo above the door which has become an international symbol of gay rights.
"Just the right to visit my partner if she is ill in hospital. In Italy they can stop me doing that ... I want the recognition of equality between people that is in our constitution."
The 41-year-old accepts that no pope is ever likely to endorse her views on many issues - "He's a pope!" - but said she was shocked when he received an African politician who is pushing anti-gay law through parliament, something she saw as a papal stamp of approval.
In December, the pope welcomed Ugandan parliament speaker Rebecca Kadaga, one of the proponents of a bill that, in its first draft, sought to impose the death penalty on gays.
At the heart of Africa where Catholicism is thriving, the Ugandan parliament is still debating the bill, which no longer has the death penalty clause but would still punish anyone who "abets homosexuality".
The Catholic Church is totally opposed to the death penalty but Grillini blames Benedict for encouraging the developing world to make laws that oppress gays.
Under Benedict, Grillini says, the Church has gone to more conservative "extremes" due to the "fierce competition" from radical Islam and evangelical Christianity.
"They are trying to stem the competition posed by the religious radicalism of Islam or Christian fundamentalism by adopting the same message ... The Catholic Church is squeezed by competition from new religious extremes that I believe represent the real danger in today's world."
As the pope retires to a convent in the Vatican gardens, anyone hoping that his successor will be more liberal on homosexuality or other social issues such as contraception or divorce, is likely to be disappointed.
All 117 men who will enter the conclave next month were appointed cardinal - giving them the right to vote in the secretive papal election - either by Benedict or his predecessor John Paul.
"The college of cardinals is made up of very old people - a male chauvinist gerontocracy," said Grillini. "So we have no illusion about a new pope having more moderate views about civil rights and homosexuality."
(Editing by Philip Pullella and Alison Williams)