In a defeat for both the Catholic Church and the government, just over half of the voters of the Mediterranean island of Malta (pop. 412,000) voted Saturday to allow divorce. Malta is the last European country -- and one of the few left in the world -- where divorce is illegal.
The Prime Minister, Lawrence Gonzi, had campaigned for a No vote. "The referendum outcome is not the one I wished for," he said, "but the will of the majority will be respected and parliament will enact legislation for the introduction of divorce,"
The divorce law will be far stricter than the "no-fault" divorce which prevails in the rest of Europe. The Referendum question asked whether divorce should be available to "a married couple who has been separated or has been living apart for at least four years", where there is "no reasonable hope for reconciliation between the spouses", and once "adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the welfare of the children is safeguarded."
But in this predominantly Catholic island, where 95 per cent of the population is baptized and more than 70 per cent go to church each Sunday, the result -- 54 per cent voting YES, on a 72 per cent turnout -- marks a substantial shift in relations between Church and state. Because almost all marriages are solemnized in church, in the absence of a civil divorce law annulment has been the only option available to couples.
For NO campaigners, this is one of the reasons that Malta is sucha tight-knit community; because divorce is not available, it has meant that couples are more likely to tough out the difficult periods of their marriages, rather than seeking divorce. Above all, they argued, children benefit from the absence of a divorce law: one NO campaign poster showed a sad little girl saying "Vote in my name, vote No", while another showed a small boy with his head in his hands, and the words: "With Divorce our children suffer".
YES campaigners however argued that a divorce law recognizes the reality that there are already plenty of legal separations in Malta, and that women and children suffer from the lack of support of men who abandon them. About a third of children in Malta are born out of wedlock. Another injustice is that wealthy Maltese can secure divorces abroad.
Although the NO campaign was funded by church-run groups -- NO posters across the island proclaimed: Christ yes, divorce no" -- the bishops themselves did not officially campaign. But it was clear where they stood. The Archbishop of Malta, Paul Cremona, said in a pastoral letter that voters faced a choice between "building and destroying family values", while Mario Grech, the Bishop of Gozo, the most conservative of the archipelago's three islands, said YES advocates who presented themselves for Communion were "wolves in sheep's clothing".
"The wolf is now saying he is Catholic. This is falsity, deceit. I am ready to dialogue with everyone, but do not be false, do not lie. If you are not in communion with Christ's teachings, you are not in communion with the Church and you cannot receive Communion. There are brigands among us who are utilising every means possible to lead the flock astray," he went on. "They are going after marriage, and then other things will follow."
In an indication of how bitter the campaign became, a letter from the Maltese bishops released on Saturday evening (before the votes had been counted) called for reconciliation. "We have just come to the end of the referendum," it said, "and each and every one of us must now look to where we were a source of pain to others, even personally ... To those who had an active role on both sides, we would like to show you our sorrow if anyone felt hurt by any word or action from members of the Church."
The leader of the yes movement, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, an MP with the governing Nationalist party, said the result "brings Malta into a new era where the state and the church are separate".
That view is supported by Fr Rene Camilleri, a theologian at the University of Malta. The result, he said, was a positive sign that society is "adult" and aware of reality. "The Church lives in a pluralistic society in terms of values and beliefs and has to come to terms with this reality," he told the Times of Malta. "The campaign was an eye-opener as we have to acknowledge Malta is really changing... people are feeling free to believe independently of the Church."
He believes that the Church made a tactical mistake by allowing the impression to be given that voting YES was a sin.
"The Church did not give enough attention to what the Church itself teaches about separation between Church and state... that the Church acknowledges the right of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. In this debate these were not highlighted as much as they should have been," he said.
But Marthese Borg, vice-president of the pro-family Cana movement, told the BBC that she was concerned about children and spouses being provided for.
"If a man goes into another relationship and has more children, he's going to find it difficult to support two families. What will happen then? The burden will fall on the taxpayer, which is not going to solve our social problems."