On Sunday, Malta Labour party MP Adrian Vassallo announced that he will be standing down over plans to allow couples to divorce.
Let me explain. It may surprise some of you to learn that in Malta, a member of the Commonwealth and an EU state, divorce is still illegal. And this isn’t one of those outdated laws that they somehow never got around to changing, like cab drivers not being able to pick up people infected with plague. Malta was a British colony until 1964, and though divorce has been allowed for an elite few in British law for centuries, and for all citizens since 1857, banning divorce is something the Maltese people chose to do during the 1960s, by omitting it from their new constitution entirely. In the deeply Catholic nations of the Mediterranean this was relatively common at the time. Divorce was still illegal in countries like Italy, Portugal and Spain, and even in the Republic of Ireland. But these places all legalised divorce in the period between 1971 and 1994. Somehow Malta has found itself one of only two countries left in the world where divorce is still illegal, along with the Philippines.
The main issue here can be found in Chapter 1, Article 2 (2) of the Maltese constitution: “The authorities of the Roman Catholic apostolic church have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.” Whilst the constitution does allow freedom of religion, it also establishes Catholicism as the official state religion. Some 98% percent of the Maltese population still identify themselves as Catholic. The remaining 2% consists largely of small Muslim communities created by immigration from Africa and Protestant communities formed by British retirees. Defying the European trend, the population shows no sign of secularisation at all and the issue of divorce is not going to be straightforward.
There have been murmurings about the D-word for a while now. Back in 2008, when Joseph Muscat was elected as leader of the Labour party, he quickly announced that his party was ready to open up the issue for debate and it was clear that he would be in favour of new legislation. In response, prime minister Lawrence Gonzi, leader of the more conservative Nationalist party that is considered to be closely allied to the church, assured the public that he too was willing for such discussions to begin. But nothing much happened.
Then in February 2010, it all kicked off. Muscat finally decided that enough was enough. The Maltese people needed to have somebody representing this as an option for them. He declared that, if elected prime minister at the next election in 2013, he would put forward a private members’ bill in favour of divorce.
The reaction within the party was immediate. Whilst most Labour MPs seem to be in favour of the bill, several expressed their opposition to it. One MP in particular, the aforementioned Adrian Vassallo, sparked controversy last week when he said he would rather live in Iran than a country where morals are lax and pornography is available in hotel rooms. In light of comments like this, it’s easy to ridicule people like Vassallo as outdated and irrelevant. Very easy in fact, when you consider that he is also anti-pornography and pro-censorship. But when you learn that MaltaToday alleges another anti-divorce Labour MP is separated from her husband and lives with another man, it becomes clear that this is more than simply a question of conservatism or dogma.
There is genuine concern here about the effects of legalising divorce. Like most Mediterranean countries, life is very family-centred. Although things are beginning to change, it is still relatively common for people to live at home with their parents until they get married. There is fear that a breakdown of the family unit will mean a breakdown in social structures – and before we leap to criticise these views as shockingly backward, it is worth remembering that our own newly-elected prime minister has similar views himself. When Vassallo warned us all to “Look at the state of the UK, one of the first countries to introduce divorce … it’s a broken society”, he plucked his words straight out of the Conservative election campaign.
Malta has found itself at a crossroads – the same crossroads, in fact, that almost every country in the world has found itself at at some point in the past. Which direction it chooses to take is, as yet, unclear. But though its position will seem to many absurd, we should retain some sympathy for this small country as it navigates a difficult path to reform and legal parity with the rest of the world.