VALLETTA, Malta — Malta has resisted legalization of divorce for many years, but the country is set to vote on the practice May 28.

Malta is one of the very few countries in the world where divorce is still illegal.  The upcoming referendum will offer voters the option of divorce only for couples who have had four years of marital separation with no prospect of reconciliation and where adequate maintenance is guaranteed for child support.

Only separation and annulment are possible under the current Civil Code and Marriage Act. Catholics in Malta may file for a declaration of nullity (commonly called an annulment), which recognizes that a valid marriage never existed. Others may opt for a legal separation, yet they are prevented from remarrying in Malta.

Malta is the only member state of the European Union that does not allow divorce. Since most Europeans consider divorce a civil-rights matter, the Maltese have been pressured considerably from outside media. In many European newspapers, the illegality of divorce in Malta is called “medieval” and the country “backward.”

The illegality of divorce was written into the Maltese constitution in the 1960s after failed attempts by the Labor Party to make divorce available. The Labor Party since the 1970s has made strides to introduce divorce to Malta by first introducing and legalizing legal separation. Recent polls, however, show that the population is more open to a divorce law; a little less than half support it. 

The country is currently led by the Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista) under Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who has voiced his opposition to divorce. Most members of the National Party also oppose divorce. 

Gonzi has stated, “If we truly want to safeguard the family, I won’t bring divorce to Malta.”

Joseph Muscat, leader of the Labor Party, has actively campaigned for divorce. “The decision to introduce divorce or not to Malta is closely lined with Malta’s identity and in line with the choice made years ago to become a European Union member state,” he said.

Muscat is quick to reject “Las Vegas-style” divorce, but says Malta should aspire to values of “solidarity, inclusion, democracy and equality, which are, however, all underpinned by the value of tolerance … and that the principle of choice should be safeguarded. Choice implies rights, and these rights cannot be denied.”

He also said that “currently Malta was living in a state of hypocritical ‘tolerance’ where couples who experience marital breakdown and then find new partners are forced to cohabit.”

During his apostolic visit to Malta last spring, Pope Benedict XVI spoke repeatedly of the permanence of Catholic marriage: “Your nation should continue to stand up for the indissolubility of marriage as a natural institution as well as a sacramental one, and for the true nature of the family, just as it does for the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death.”

The Church in Malta recently issued a pastoral letter entitled “Commitment and Attitudes With Respect to Marriage and the Family.” It states, “A divorce mentality corrodes in no uncertain terms the bond of marriage, and the introduction of divorce through the enactment of civil laws weakens our understanding of everlasting marriage. This opens a social wound, and has harmful effects on society, as has been the case with other countries.”

Archbishop Paul Cremona of the Archdiocese of Malta, which encompasses the country’s main island, stated, “It is a contradiction to say that we will promote stability of marriage — included in the ‘common good’ — by introducing legislation about divorce, which weakens this same concept.”

Weakening Marriage

Andre Camilleri, chairman of the Anti-Divorce Movement, believes divorce will weaken the bond of marriage. The introduction of divorce in other countries has reduced the number of marriages and increased cohabitation and marital breakdown, he said. Camilleri believes that “the government should focus its energy and resources to boost marriage preparation, provide services for those with marital problems and try to reduce the hurt of people in broken marriages.”

In Malta, many question the possible societal implications of legalizing divorce. Others, however, argue for “freedom of choice.”

“Malta is currently in a situation where whoever is separated, legally or otherwise, cannot move on into another relationship recognized by law,” said Deborah Schembri, chairwoman of the Pro-Divorce Movement. “There is no divorce and not even cohabitation laws. Therefore, people who partner up with someone after they separate from their wives or husbands do so knowing they have no legal rights whatsoever in the new relationships.” Therefore, she contends, the law will help to iron out discrimination between people.

It remains to be seen if the country introduces divorce or not, but, for the Maltese, the issue has become a lightning rod for public debate.

Register correspondent Jennifer Roche writes from Pennsylvania.