Malta is in the throes of a debate on divorce. None too soon, one may note. This is one of the last countries in the world to tackle the issue.
I’m not sure, however, that the terms of discussion are correct. The “No to divorce” campaign seems to be under the impression that a civil marriage is exactly the same thing as a Church marriage.
It is most emphatically not. Civil marriage has no connection to the Church, or indeed to any religion whatsoever. That is its point. Remember, the Catholic Church is not co-extensive with the people of Malta. It is a subset of the total – albeit a dominant one. The introduction of divorce for civil marriage does not impose it upon Church marriages. To put it bluntly, the fact that divorce is allowed for civil marriages does not mean that someone who has married in the Church as well will be forced to get a divorce at some time in his or her life. Permission is not an injunction.
This applies even if his or her partner spouse applies for and gets a divorce; the other partner, if divorce remains contrary to his beliefs, need simply take it as a legal separation.
Essentially, the introduction of divorce for civil marriages has no effect whatsoever on Church marriages. That is not to say that there will be no embarrassment for the Church: a number of supposedly solid Catholic church-goers who opt for divorce may be surprising.
That, however, is part of the point. If the belief and commitment in the principles espoused by the Church are strong enough, no Maltese Catholic will use the divorce law. So are the Maltese really commited to these beliefs?
Note that if they are, then there is no need for the Church to oppose a law allowing divorce.
Take now another strand of argument. The availability of divorce in Malta will damage the institution of the family. What we need, this argument goes, are provisions and actions to strengthen family values, not to allow them to be dissolved.
There are too many objections to the valiudity of this argument to list here. Let’s just take two: one emoirical, the other theoretical.
Mariages in Malta are breaking down at an ever increasing rate, even in the abscence of divorce. More and more children are being born out of wedlock: 30%, according to official statistics for last year. Clearly, something is happening. The Maltese family structure is changing, at the very least. The laws that govern the land need to recognise this, and take it into account.
Whether the Church needs to do so as well is open to debate, but not relevant. Divorce relates, as we all know, to civil marriage. The Church has no interest in it.
The fact that the shape of the family, the sort of communal units people are actually putting together to function as a family, is in flux is however of momentus importance to society. It becomes worrying when the gut reaction of so many people is to invoke family values in an attempt to stop this development.
This sort of change cannot be controlled through the law. The transformation has unboutedly many roots, from the sort of economic pressure placed on couples to the strains imposed by expectations of academic achievement. None of these forces, and others besides, are going to go away. And people are not going to stop looking for structures that work for them.
Banning divorce will not change that. At most, what it can do is make it difficult for people to achieve their goals. In the long run, by refusing to accept that marriages on the hitherto accepted format are breaking down in ever increasing numbers, trapping people in a no-mans-land of undefined arrangements, it can contribute to a deep and lasting decay in family values, to say nothing of the suffering of any children caught up in the process.
Herin lies the conundrum. In opposing divorce, the “No” campaigners thing they are protecting the family. However, in reality, they are trying to stop its natural evolution. In so doing, they are undermining family values far more than they fear divorce will.
More ironically, by granting the space needed for the ethical, social and political conversation needed for the heathy evolution of family structures, allowing divorce actually works to strengthen family values.