Voters in the tiny island nation of Malta supported the right to legally divorce in a referendum held this weekend. Though legal separation is possible (and some say common) in Malta, it is one of two countries in which divorce is not legalized, leaving many obstacles to remarriage.
The referendum, which passed by a mere 53 percent, asked voters whether divorce should be legalized “in the case of a married couple who has been separated or has been living apart for at least four years and where there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation between the spouses, whilst at the same time ensuring that adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the welfare of the children is safeguarded.”
The majority (95 percent) of the population of Malta—which totals just over 400,000 people —identify as Roman Catholic and, though the church claimed it did not run a campaign against the referendum and the pro-divorce movement, church officials did speak out. In a letter read at Masses in Malta, Valletta’s Archbishop Paul Cremona warned: “By this vote, the citizen will either build or destroy. A choice in favor of permanent marriage is an act of faith in the family, built upon a bond of love which cannot be severed.” And, priests reportedly threatened to refuse communion to those who voted “yes” in the referendum.
Malta’s Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi was disappointed in the vote but has said he will not stand in the way of follow-through: “This is not the result that I wished for, but the will of the people has to be respected and parliament should enact a law for the introduction of divorce.” The referendum was non-binding and it is now up to the parliament to pass a law reflecting the voters’ wishes. Despite the narrow margin of this victory, the legislation is expected to pass.
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When it does, the Philippines will have the distinction of being the only country left (apart from the Vatican) in which divorce is not legal as Chile legalized it in 2004 amid public pressure. Lawmakers in the Philippines are using this weekend’s vote in Malta as a rallying cry. In fact, a committee in the Philippine House is set to begin discussions on bill legalizing divorce as early as tomorrow. As one lawmaker explained: “Let us not keep our country in the dark ages. I appeal to my colleagues in Congress to let the legislative mill run its course on the divorce bill without further delay and give Filipino couples in irreparable and unhappy marriages this option.”
The measure is not without opposition, however. Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III argued: “Let’s not get into the habit of copying what other countries are doing.” And church leaders in the country have said they would oppose any attempt at changing the law. Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz said that it would not be bad if the country were to stay the only one in which divorce remained illegal: “It means that the Filipino cultural values are still solid, that we are pro-family, which is a wonder because you cannot find that anywhere else in the world.”