I had decided not to write on the issue of divorce for the time being. I am tired of hearing the same old understatement that we must concentrate on “the strengthening of the family”, as if one excludes the other. Surely we can manage to do both. We ought to. My plan was to come back to this topic when the debating is over, when we have finally decided not to remain the backwater of the world, and got round to seriously work on the technical nitty-gritty of divorce legislation.

I went back on my decision while visiting a couple of elderly constituents who told me that, during Mass, the priest said that we must thank God for Lawrence Gonzi who has declared himself against Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s divorce Bill proposal.

I later confirmed that this was true with others who were also in the congregation. I have the details, which I am not publishing here since my purpose is to make my point and not to start some witch-hunt against the priest involved. But if someone in the Church authority wishes to know where this occurred, I will oblige. I did speak to the parish priest about the incident though. He said that he was unaware that this is happening, remarked that it is wrong and that in Church one ought to be served with the Gospel and not with politics.

This episode reminded me of something Lino Spiteri said a while ago. One Saturday morning last May while in the car, I chanced upon Fr Joe Borg and Joe Pirotta interviewing Mr Spiteri on Campus FM. One of the questions was on whether he saw the possibility of another politico-religious struggle.

Mr Spiteri remarked that it seems that we have not learnt much from the Church’s interference with state affairs of the 1960s. In his own words (translated from Maltese “I am very sad about the 1960s .... in spite of what our country went through in the 1930s, we had to go through it again in the 1960s. I would say never again .... I’m sorry but it’s not going to be like that ... moral issues will be brought in. There is going to be a lot of chattering on divorce. While the Church will not interfere as much as in the 1930s and 1960s, we will have a situation which we shouldn’t have. We haven’t learnt enough.”

(For those who wish to listen to the whole interview, it’s here: www.campusfm.um.edu.mt/pages/webcastspages/mhux_kelma_bejn_tnejn.htm#latest).

The afore-mentioned Church incident rightly worried the elderly couple and others who, like Mr Spiteri, have been there before. Have we or haven’t we learnt enough from our recent history? Maybe it would help to look at our neighbours. It’s interesting that way back in the seventies in Italy, Carlo Carretto – who, like our Lawrence Gonzi had served as president of the Catholic Action Movement – publicly opposed the Church’s campaign against divorce, on grounds of tolerance. In 1974 during the campaign for the abrogative referendum to repeal the divorce law, Mr Carretto sided with and helped the group of Catholics in favour of divorce as he did deem this right to be imposed as civil law, even though he personally believed in the indissolubility of marriage.

The attempt to repeal the law permitting divorce in Italy was defeated by a margin of 19,093,929 to 13,188,184. Mr Carretto, while showing his concern for the disunity within the Church, stuck to his position. The headline in La Stampa on the day of the result ran: “Italy is a Modern Country” ... “it has turned from its traditional Mediterranean, clergy-dominated past towards the modern, secular social idea of northern Europe”. This was 36 years ago.

In an article Potere Della Chiesa E Matrimoni Falliti (the power of the Church and failed marriages) published in 2006 in the Rivista Teologia Morale, Basilio Petra points out that the Church allows a valid and licit marriage to be dissolved in the case where one of the spouses interferes with the practice of the Catholic faith of the other spouse.

Also it then allows the Catholic former spouse, now free to marry, to do so even if with an atheist as long as the latter allows the Catholic spouse freedom of religion and practice. This Pauline/Petrine privilege implies that the Church has the divine right to interpret the command of Jesus Christ regarding the indissolubility of marriage – what God united let no man put asunder – except when there is danger of losing one’s faith.

What is also instructive is Bishop Frendo’s 1973 thesis Indissolubility and Divorce in the Theology of Thirteenth Century Scholastics. In the present Maltese context it is illuminating to read the arguments of St Thomas Aquinas and other theologians which justify the separation of married couples and how this may apply to divorce.

But in a lay state, we do not even have to go into all this. When all is said and done, I suppose that an important point to keep in mind is that the laïcité of the secular state is tantamount to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. That too is the teaching of Jesus Christ.

With regard to religion and politics: let’s not mix the two.

Dr Dalli is shadow minister for the public service and government investment.

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