Malta: collapse of Catholic marriage law's last stand

In a defeat for both the Catholic Church and the government, just over half of the voters of the Mediterranean island of Malta (pop. 412,000) voted Saturday to allow divorce. Malta is the last European country -- and one of the few left in the world -- where divorce is illegal.

The Prime Minister, Lawrence Gonzi, had campaigned for a No vote. "The referendum outcome is not the one I wished for," he said, "but the will of the majority will be respected and parliament will enact legislation for the introduction of divorce,"


The divorce law will be far stricter than the "no-fault" divorce which prevails in the rest of Europe. The Referendum question asked whether divorce should be available to "a married couple who has been separated or has been living apart for at least four years", where there is "no reasonable hope for reconciliation between the spouses", and once "adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the welfare of the children is safeguarded."

But in this predominantly Catholic island, where 95 per cent of the population is baptized and more than 70 per cent go to church each Sunday, the result  -- 54 per cent voting YES, on a 72 per cent turnout -- marks a substantial shift in relations between Church and state. Because almost all marriages are solemnized in church, in the absence of a civil divorce law annulment has been the only option available to couples.

For NO campaigners, this is one of the reasons that Malta is sucha  tight-knit community; because divorce is not available, it has meant that couples are more likely to tough out the difficult periods of their marriages, rather than seeking divorce. Above all, they argued, children benefit from the absence of a divorce law: one NO campaign poster showed a sad little girl saying "Vote in my name, vote No", while another showed a small boy with his head in his hands, and the words: "With Divorce our children suffer".

YES campaigners however argued that a divorce law recognizes the reality that there are already plenty of legal separations in Malta, and that women and children suffer from the lack of support of men who abandon them. About a third of children in Malta are born out of wedlock. Another injustice is that wealthy Maltese can secure divorces abroad.

Although the NO campaign was funded by church-run groups -- NO posters across the island proclaimed: Christ yes, divorce no" -- the bishops themselves did not officially campaign. But it was clear where they stood.  The Archbishop of Malta, Paul Cremona, said in a pastoral letter that voters faced a choice between "building and destroying family values", while Mario Grech, the Bishop of Gozo, the most conservative of the archipelago's three islands, said YES advocates who presented themselves for Communion were "wolves in sheep's clothing".

"The wolf is now saying he is Catholic. This is falsity, deceit. I am ready to dialogue with everyone, but do not be false, do not lie. If you are not in communion with Christ's teachings, you are not in communion with the Church and you cannot receive Communion. There are brigands among us who are utilising every means possible to lead the flock astray," he went on. "They are going after marriage, and then other things will follow."

In an indication of how bitter the campaign became, a letter from the Maltese bishops released on Saturday evening (before the votes had been counted) called for reconciliation. "We have just come to the end of the referendum," it said, "and each and every one of us must now look to where we were a source of pain to others, even personally ... To those who had an active role on both sides, we would like to show you our sorrow if anyone felt hurt by any word or action from members of the Church."

The leader of the yes movement, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, an MP with the governing Nationalist party, said the result "brings Malta into a new era where the state and the church are separate".

That view is supported by Fr Rene Camilleri, a theologian at the University of Malta. The result, he said, was a positive sign that society is "adult" and aware of reality. "The Church lives in a pluralistic society in terms of values and beliefs and has to come to terms with this reality," he told the Times of Malta. "The campaign was an eye-opener as we have to acknowledge Malta is really changing... people are feeling free to believe independently of the Church."

He believes that the Church made a tactical mistake by allowing the impression to be given that voting YES was a sin.

"The Church did not give enough attention to what the Church itself teaches about separation between Church and state... that the Church acknowledges the right of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. In this debate these were not highlighted as much as they should have been," he said.

But Marthese Borg, vice-president of the pro-family Cana movement, told the BBC that she was concerned about children and spouses being provided for.

"If a man goes into another relationship and has more children, he's going to find it difficult to support two families. What will happen then? The burden will fall on the taxpayer, which is not going to solve our social problems."

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david power
8 years 4 months ago

Polygamy ????

That favours us heterosexual males so it is a win-win!
Yes,the Church changes very slowly and deliberately and most often pragmatically and then dresses it up in spiritual clothing.
The last time the Church showed  spiritual balls was 500 years ago.
Since then it has all been power politics.
If there was serious money in the game the bishops would move like tigers towards it .
The Lord Jesus has a long term plan.500 years is nothing to the master of eternity.
Those who would give an annulment to the Princess of Monaco just because she had the money will be recorded  in the eternal books as frauds.
Marriage will survive .
Ratzinger will show that marriage is more than an ideal but a reality. 
The Maltese will discover that marriage is neither imposed or proposed but a singular fact of reality.Papal playing with words to garner sympathy will eventually be seen for what they are.The acts of an ego in search of a love not found.Superior in the eyes of the Lord is the man who has learned to love a woman
Anne Chapman
8 years 4 months ago
David says: "I have many many friends who come from broken homes and never ,I repeat never have they believed it to be anything but terrible."

Coming from a "broken home" is not ideal. My parents separated when I was 10, divorced finally when I was 17. It was a huge relief.  Living with them when they were both at home was not pleasant - it was far better to live only with our mother.  I have a friend who is still trying to forgive her mother (who died several years ago) for staying with her husband, my friend's father, instead of divorcing him. He was alcoholic and very abusive.  Growing up in her home was a nightmare and she would pray that her parents would get a divorce.  You can't generalize - sometimes breaking up a marriage is the right course, not the wrong one.
Anne Chapman
8 years 4 months ago
David says: ''I have many many friends who come from broken homes and never ,I repeat never have they believed it to be anything but terrible.''

Coming from a ''broken home'' is not ideal. My parents separated when I was 10, divorced finally when I was 17. It was a huge relief.  Living with them when they were both at home was not pleasant - it was far better to live only with our mother.  I have a friend who is still trying to forgive her mother (who died several years ago) for staying with her husband, my friend's father, instead of divorcing him. He was alcoholic and very abusive.  Growing up in her home was a nightmare and she would pray that her parents would get a divorce.  You can't generalize - sometimes breaking up a marriage is the right course, not the wrong one.
Crystal Watson
8 years 4 months ago
After reading Anne's comment I should add that when my mom and stepfather #2 got divorced when I was in college it was a relief. I  wouldn't be surprised to find that children in families where there's no love between the parents are actually harmed more by them staying together  than by divorce.  Divorce is a symptom of a bad martriage - I don't understand the church stance that if you deny people the ability to get divorced, somehow that will make everything ok.
Crystal Watson
8 years 4 months ago

I do think marriage should be taken seriously.  Who doesn't get married hoping their marriage will last forever?  But you can't command love - you can command duty, I guess, and maybe that's what some married Catholics settle for?   I don't understand the strange belief that by controlling peoples' behavior through punishment, you can control their inner lives ... not allowing divorce doesn't transform a wrecked marriage into a good one, all it does is encourage people to live dishonest or miserable  lives (I think).

BTW, Keith Ward has an interesting take on what Jesus said and meant about marriage and divorce -
Jim McCrea
8 years 4 months ago
The Catholic Church effectively gives tacit approval to divorce with what has become the charade of annulment.  In their 2002 book, “Catholic Divorce:  The Deception of Annulments”, Joseph Martos and Pierre Hegy state:
“Because the grounds for annulment have become so broad that practically anyone who applies for one can obtain it, many observers now regard annulments as ‘virtual divorces.’  After all, the same grounds for divorce in a civil court have ‘become grounds for the nonexistence of marriage in an ecclesiastical court.’  (Page 23)  To add to the deceit, many couples who receive annulments do so believing that their marriage was, in fact, sacramentally valid – that the marital bond did exist but that, over time, it began to break down.  These couples, understandably, choose not to disclose this part of the story to marriage tribunals so that they can qualify for an annulment.”
In other words it is the Catholic game of nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
8 years 4 months ago
Re Crystal Watson's comment:

The Lawler/Martos observations are rich.  First, those who wanted to softpedal indissolubility so psychologized canonical jurisprudence that not getting an annulment became as hard as not meeting Kant's categorial imperative: it proved an obstacle only for those lacking sufficient creativity.  After we have gone down that road, the critics come back and say that American tribunals pop out annulments like candy bars!  What is particularly interesting is Lawler's theology of marriage, which is so "developing" and so ephemeral that one is really hard pressed, this side of the eschaton, to know whether ANYBODY has really contracted a valid Christian marriage.  Despite all the tired criticism among the commentators about the annulment process, nobody has addressed the problem, which should be sufficiently visible in the United States, how no fault divorce (which has been the state of the law in most jurisdictions for at least 25 years and, in several, for almost 40) has undermined marriage thoroughly.  Then, of course, will come the homosexual objection that the heterosexual divorce rate offers no defense to the argument that we need to protect institutional marriage.  All we are missing are the Humanae Vitae dissenters, who can then amputate procreation from marriage.
Crystal Watson
8 years 4 months ago
My mother was married and divoeced four times so I'm familiar with the effects of divorce.  I don't think easy divorce laws cause problems - no one is tempted to get a divorce unless their marriage is failing - the real challenge is how to create and sustain healthy enduring relationships.  I do find it strange, though, that the church is so against divorce but so sanguine about annulments.

Crystal Watson
8 years 4 months ago
Church sponsored nnulment isn't mentioned  - I've read somewhere that there are many in Malta each year - don't annulments also harm children and make the possibility of financial abondonment possible?
Colleen Baker
8 years 4 months ago
The Church already amputated pro creation from marriage when it began marrying older or obviously infertile couples.  Can't blame that one on gays.
david power
8 years 4 months ago
I think John's comments are very valid but Crystal has experience on her side.
I have many many friends who come from broken homes and never ,I repeat never have they believed it to be anything but terrible.
This is a pastoral problem and that is complicated by the fact that the Church will solemnize anything.If the Church limited catholic marriage to serious contenders you would see almost zero annulments.AAHH they scream "that is not inclusive or big tent" and it is not.But to say that catholic marriage is any different to protestant marriage today is to live in a fantasy world.
I am not married.Who'd have me? But think that marriage is, when lived in real truth and not some idealized form is a very beautiful thing. 
In 1998 divorce was given the green light in Ireland and it is only now we are reaping that harvest.
In Italy there is a great and very controversial art critic called Sgarbi who is known as a womanizer and when asked why he never married he said "I have too much respect for the institution of marriage".
This is a challenge for the Church and so far they have swept it under the carpet.
But marriage will last and make a big comeback .Even the most dissolute of men dream of marriage and the grace of god is backing their desire.   
Anne Chapman
8 years 4 months ago
That marriage should be entered into seriously and with adult expectations is not disputed. The church's right to put conditions on couples who choose to marry in the church is not disputed. Even their treatment of divorced Catholics regarding sacraments is their right - one they should exercise with more compassion at times perhaps, but they have the right to ''make the rules'' for those who choose to be Catholic.

 The issue in Malta was whether or not couples have the right to end a marriage legally - to divorce in the civil sector. Now they do, and that is a good thing.  Staying together when a couple has mutual respect for one another, like one another well enough to live under the same roof for decades, etc is to be encouraged even if the ''romance'' of the early years is gone, but has matured into a long-lasting and respectful love. 

However, not allowing the option for divorce forces some to stay together when doing so harms them and their children. You are asking that people sacrifice to the point of ''pain''. How are you defining ''pain''?  And why inflict deep pain on people if it is not necessary?  Why inflict this kind of pain on children, who, if forced to live in an emotionally toxic environment, are often seriously hurt, sometimes damaged for life, unable to ever have a healthy marital relationship themselves.

  Often the wife will simply leave with her children, but if divorce is not legal, she may be denied the protections afforded by a legal divorce, such as child support. She and her children may face financial risks, perhaps even poverty - but financial poverty can still be preferable to staying in a marriage characterized by physical and/or emotional abuse, or simply living in a household where two people so strongly dislike one another that the children are infected with the poison.

I have been married for almost 40 years, and I thank God every day for my good fortune in my choice of husband. My mother did not have this. David Powers is not married. I don't know if David Smith is married. However, if he thinks that getting a divorce is as ''easy as paying with a credit card'' he has little experience with real people who have gone through the incredibly painful and costly (not just in money, but emotionally) process called divorce.  I do not know a single person for whom a divorce has been casual or less than excruciatingly emotionally painful.  One of my siblings was divorced - I think the marriage ended just in time for him - to salvage his emotional health before it reached the point of incapacitation.  I thanked God that the marriage could be ended with relative ease. Staying in a toxic marriage can be genuinely harmful, not just painful. 

The people of Malta believe that divorce should be legal, and most people who understand the ''real'' world would agree.
8 years 4 months ago
I agree with Anne (gasp!) for the most part.  I think Malta should have divorce (just as the Church has annulments); sometimes the marriage just ain't meant to be.  We probably differ on how difficult it should be to end a marriage; I think that no-fault divorce provides to easy an exit; Malta's higher standard of fault required, like pre-1970s/80s in the US, are needed to give the incentive needed for husbands and wives to try and work things out.  I'm married nearly 20 years and the thought of divorce has crossed my (and probably my wife's) mind many times, though mostly in those early years.  I think my wife and I went into our marriage with stronger convictions, more realistic expectations than most do these days.

The people I know who have gone through painful divorces are the ones who have been left behind; the other partner can't wait to get out, and you don't hear from them much.  Contrary to its innocuous sounding name, there is nearly always a victim, children aside, in a "no-fault" divorce.

And in response to @Colleen B:  As long as the Church was marrying men and women - the only combination of people that is capable of making a baby - the link between marriage and procreation was never severed.  Marriage does not require procreation to be about procreation, it just requires the combination of sexes in which procreation is implicit.  If implicitly non-procreating couples can be considered "married," then that is when the marriage-procreation link is severed.  Present a child with the question, "What's the difference between a man-woman couple and a man-man couple?" and the answer, "the male-female couple can make babies, duhf0003d" will always be listed.  Yes, and that's why marriage is between a man and a woman.
Anne Chapman
8 years 4 months ago

Even paying the lawyer is not always ''easy'' - it can be quite expensive and quite complicated if there are property issues and child support issues, especially.  The financial pressures often exacerbate the emotional pressures.  It's not ''easy'' on any level except very rarely - short marriage, no joint property, no children.  Then it might be relatively ''cheap'' financially and less horrible emotionally than for those with children and property.  I'm curious - if you don't mind my asking - are you married?  Do you have children?
Crystal Watson
8 years 4 months ago
"that's why marriage is between a man and a woman"

Fortunately most marriages aren't made for the purpose of getting an heir and a spare anymore  :) 

About divorce being easy, I'm probably the only one here divorced?  It was easy in the legal sense, but terribly hard emotionally.


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