The only country in Europe in which divorce is illegal, Malta today began voting on a referendum to legalize divorce. The new law, if passed, would require couples to be separated for four years before a divorce would be finalized. With 40 percent of the electorate still undecided according to the latest polling, the result of the referendum is uncertain – this in a country in which more than seventy percent of the population identifies itself as regular mass-attending Roman Catholics.
Motivated in part by a personal desire to get divorced from his wife, last year the current chairman of the Maltese Green party single-handedly began a crusade to pull Malta into the modern age and allow divorce. His contention was that Malta, as one of only two countries in the world in which divorce is banned [the Philippines being the other] – was maintaining an antiquated and ridiculous policy on divorce, as Malta bans divorce domestically but recognizes it internationally. In other words, if a couple could afford to leave the island nation and get a divorce, it would be recognized. Clearly this affects lower income couples more than upper income couples.
The opposition argument is not based in what is best for the citizens of the country, but is based in the desire for the Catholic Church to maintain its power position in Malta within a European trend in which the church has increasingly less influence. In recent years, traditionally Catholic countries like Spain have annoyed the church by passing progressive legislation such as gay marriage, and the Catholic Church, essentially hiding behind ridiculous and tired “what would Jesus do”-type arguments, is afraid of becoming irrelevant. Church-sponsored anti-divorce billboards in the country read “Christ Yes, Divorce No.” What they do not understand is that the fastest way to become irrelevant is to not realize they are operating in the twenty-first century.
Of course, in a country in which the church has considerable power, strong-arm tactics are being carried out to artificially influence the results of the referendum. When things are desperate and you feel like you are losing power, why let the people decide when you can cheat to win? According to Reuters:
[The church has been] sending ambulances to ferry the elderly to voting stations, pumping them with anti-divorce propaganda en route; excluding 2,500 (typically liberal-minded) 18-year-olds from the vote by using an electoral roll from 2010; and threatening to withhold absolution and communion from anyone voting yes to divorce. These are no small matters. In Malta, with its tiny population, the last general election was decided by around 1,500 votes.
The world will know very soon the outcome of the referendum. Increasingly so, the Catholic Church is realizing the fruits of its ignorance, losing power and influence because it is wedded to antiquated and ridiculous medieval policies. If the divorce ban is not repealed, despite that win, Malta may very well be the next place the church loses.