Malta, the last real stronghold of the Roman Catholic church, was shaken by a small step towards a more liberal nation. Since May 2011 divorce is legal in Malta. Now the last EU nation in which divorce was not an option has voted in a controversial referendum to allow it under certain circumstances.
“A friend of mine, just before the referendum overhead a lady at a bus-stop: ‘If divorce comes in, we’re going to be up to our necks in gays and abortion’, David Vella, a technical developer from Gozo, one of the Maltese islands, recalls a public reaction.
Despite an estimated 30% of Maltese marriages ending in separation, both Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and the Catholic Church backed the “No” campaign, sometimes with questionalbe forms of intimidation before the vote:
“There were some priests who said they’d refuse giving communion to people who vote Yes,” Vella told Not on the Wires.
Monsignor Anton Gouder, a senior official within the Maltese Archdiocese, explained the fears of the Catholic Church to the BBC:
“Not having divorce is special in a positive way. Statistics show that divorce brings much more marriage breakdown and more cohabitation,” he says.
Maltese voted yes
The vote ended with 52% of the Maltese population deciding that it was time to accept the wish to end a marriage legally in order to be able to marry again.
And suddenly Malta’s PM Gonzi and the Labour opposition party leader Joseph Muscat seemed to agree on the need to work together in favour of the public.
“The will of the majority now had to be respected, without ignoring the minority, he said. And all must work for stronger families,” Muscat said according to the Times of Malta.
“Even though the result is not what I wished for, now it is our duty to see that the will of the majority is respected,” Gonzi, Malta’s PM, said in a speech on TV.
Yet, the vote is not a real surprise – no matter how close or controversial it was.
Divorce has happened before the referendum.
However, you had to either move abroad or one part of the couple had to be from a different country. Divorces done elsewhere were accepted by the Maltese courts.
Also, people could have their marriage annulled by the Church, which happened rarely.
“Malta is the only country in the world which doesn’t have divorce but does recognise those obtained abroad.
Therefore, if you have the means you can get divorced but if you don’t, then you can’t,” Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, an MP with the Nationalists, said to the BBC.
Maltese citizen, David Vella, does not think that any more liberal decisions will be made soon.
“I don’t see hot topics like abortion coming anywhere close to being discussed anytime soon. There is a lot of ignorance which needs to be addressed before we can have meaningful discussions,” he says.
Malta remains a Roman Catholic bastion at the border of Europe but now with the legal acknowledgement of separations and divorces.
Labour party leader Muscat said in a speech after the referendum that “a new Malta had been born”.
But with only 52% of the population voting “yes” has Maltese society really moved on?
This article was also published on Not on the Wires.