The Malta Independent 22 July 2019, Monday

Dealing Honestly with marital breakdown

Malta Independent Friday, 20 May 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

In many ways, the coming referendum on divorce in Malta mirrors discussions that I was party to in Ireland some years ago.

There, it took two referendums before the combined forces of the conservative political establishment and the Church hierarchy were overcome so that Irish people, the vast majority of whom were Catholic, could honestly deal with marital breakdown. 

Just as in Ireland, a huge lobbying campaign has preceded the Maltese divorce referendum. Some of the loudest voices are those of the local Catholic hierarchy, including the bishops and members of Malta’s Church Tribunal. Of course, they have the right to have their say, but I have serious doubts as to whether they are accurately representing the views of Catholics or the totality of Church’s teachings.

A variety of polls seem to show healthy majorities in support of allowing divorce. Perhaps that is what has the bishops running scared; how else do we explain the vitriol that we have heard? The bishops’ desperation is shown by the threats they have levelled at judges and lawyers who would defend the right of couples to obtain a civil divorce. To call it a “grave sin” to act according to the law of the land seems excessive. While it is certainly legitimate for the bishops to counsel Catholics against divorce, it goes against Church’s teachings to oppose the law itself.

In addition, Catholic leaders and the tribunal are being disingenuous about the need for divorce. The Catholic Church has long recognised that some marriages fail. It claims power for itself to dissolve marriages “in favour of the faith,” effectively ending a marriage and allowing people to be eligible to remarry if they wish. The proposed referendum on divorce would simply make it possible for the Maltese people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to exercise the same right for themselves in circumstances they deem appropriate.

The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom called upon all Catholics to respect people of other faiths and positions to avoid resorting to any “hint of coercion” to influence others. In a place such as Malta, where the Church is already woven very deeply into the fabric of society, it is especially important to understand if the local hierarchy is really trying to protect the spiritual wellbeing of the citizens who are seeking a divorce. Or, whether it may be closer to retired judge Philip Sciberras’ characterisation: “(When) the Church is afraid… it starts scaring people with the bogey man.”

In reality, the Church authorities acknowledge that Catholics are motivated not by fear, but by what the Catechism calls “the certain judgement of his conscience.” The Church’s Judicial Vicar, Mgr Arthur Said Pullicino, recently said in a homily that “the Christian judge and lawyer have to examine their position according to a well-formed conscience, by reflecting on the word of God and the teachings of the Church, before deciding whether to cooperate with a law that goes directly against God’s law.” This was even upheld last year by a Church position paper that said Catholics should be able to vote for divorce legislation according to their “formed and informed” conscience.

The Church can act as a force for healing and advocate for families’ right to decide what is best for the adults and children involved. Or the hierarchy can try to reserve conscience as a privilege for only the most conservative Catholics. In truth, all people of faith must follow the dictates of their conscience. Religion has a lot to offer the world, but all those involved need to be aware of the dangers of permitting religion too much influence.

These showdowns over individual freedom – meant to come off as shows of strength – only serve to illustrate columnist Anna Mallia’s view that the threat of “grave sin” was a “clear sign of fear on behalf of the Church which has failed to deliver its message to the brethren.” They also tell progressive Catholics that we must work to counteract the power of the Catholic hierarchy and present an alternative and authentic representation of true Catholic teachings remains a vital part of public policy.

Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice

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