On Saturday, the Maltese people go to the ballot box to decide whether or not their country should make divorce legal.
Malta and the Philippines are the only two countries left in the world where divorce remains unavailable, with the exception of Vatican City. Marriage laws have been a politically contentious issue in the island nation for decades. While it is currently not possible for Maltese courts to dissolve a marriage, divorces obtained by citizens overseas are legally recognised, which is not the case in the Philippines. Those unable to seek a divorce elsewhere have two alternatives. Legal separation enables the division of shared property but partners cannot remarry. Annulment allows for this possibility but then the couple’s own marriage is considered to have never existed. They need to show that it was invalid from the start.
Saturday’s referendum will ask voters to say whether they agree with the introduction of divorce if a couple have been living apart for a minimum of four years, all avenues for reconciliation have been exhausted and the interests of children and dependents are protected. The referendum is nonbinding and MPs will then be asked to vote for or against it in the legislature. The debate is generally divided along party lines, with the ruling Nationalist party speaking out against divorce and the Labour party in favour, but leaders of both parties have promised MPs a free vote on an issue that is considered a matter of moral conscience in Malta.
It is no coincidence that both Malta and the Philippines are strongly Catholic nations and the church’s position on the divorce referendum has been clear, with pamphlets being sent out to Maltese homes stressing that Christ would not allow remarriage and that divorce is socially harmful. Such material has the potential to seriously influence the outcome of the vote in a country where 98% of people identify themselves as Catholic.
The Maltese church’s official stance is to abstain from campaign debates but in reality its voice has been clearly heard. One parish priest erected a billboard that showed a man injecting a child with a needle beside the message: “Divorce: a sickness injected in the minds of youths,” although he was quickly ordered to remove it by the archbishop of Malta. Meanwhile, billboards funded by a lay Catholic campaign group that show the face of Jesus and read “Christ Yes, Divorce No” have remained prominently displayed because they are not directly linked to the church. Warnings have also come from outside the country, with one independent American researcher telling the Catholic News Agency that if Malta chose to legislate for divorce it “would open the door to radical Islam” by showing signs of religious weakness.
More worryingly, it has been suggested that some individuals in positions of authority have used their influence to intimidate believers. Several prominent figures have repeatedly warned that divorce is forbidden by Christ and the moral code of the church. One bishop reportedly labelled those in favour of divorce “criminals” who are not entitled to receive the Eucharist. Others have claimed that a number of local priests refused to grant absolution to parishioners who were planning to vote yes to divorce.
These are the actions of individuals rather than an organised campaign on the part of the Maltese church. Notably, one friar has publicly expressed his concern about how the issue has been handled over recent months and another has stressed that Maltese law must see to the needs of all its citizens, Catholic or otherwise. Nonetheless, the impact of such actions is still being felt. Figures within the church – like anyone else – have the right to clarify their position on divorce but this must be done responsibly. Whether the answer is yes or no, the outcome of the referendum must reflect what the Maltese people believe to be most beneficial to their society and not the result of what one politician apparently referred to as “spiritual terrorism”.