While the world watched with bated breath for the rescue of 33 Chilean miners last Wednesday, Malta was gripped by a different sort of drama, as the divorce issue took on a different genesis.

The divorce debate has been characterised by peaks and troughs ever since Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando pushed the issue onto the national agenda with the presentation of a Private Member’s Bill last July.

After the initial flurry of comments and analyses that filled the airwaves and occupied newspaper columns, the space devoted to the issue in the media shrunk as divorce was temporarily pushed aside by the shenanigans in various local councils.

This changed after a top Church official, Mgr Arthur Said Pullicino, reignited the debate earlier this month with his warning to judges that they would be committing “a grave sin” if they presided over divorce cases.

His comments provoked a strong reaction from members of the legal profession, with a retired judge even describing the monsignor’s comments as “a medieval imposition”.

However, last Wednesday a number of unrelated incidents coalesced, possibly making it a defining moment in the divorce debate to date.

In the morning, seven influential priests issued a position paper arguing that voting on divorce was a matter of conscience. Although not condoning divorce, they steered clear of the fire and brimstone unleashed by Mgr Said Pullicino, insisting Catholics had to choose the lesser of two evils when faced with a stark choice in determining what benefitted the common good.

The priests’ personal initiative anticipated the Curia, which had until then avoided answering questions on whether Mgr Said Pullicino represented official Church teachings on divorce.

It was after the position paper was made public that a spokesman for the Curia confirmed that the Archbishop endorsed the stand taken by the seven priests.

With a non-confrontational tone and arguments bereft of any crusading tendencies, the priests attempted to put a lid on the debate of whether voting for divorce is a sin or not.

Just as news of the position paper sunk in, Dr Pullicino Orlando opened a window into a conversation he had with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and the leader of the House, Tonio Borg, two days earlier.

Dr Pullicino Orlando said the Prime Minister himself had expressed the wish to hold a referendum after next year’s parliamentary debate on divorce.

It was the first time the referendum option as a means of approval for divorce legislation was floated so forcefully by the proponent of the Bill.

What seemed to be heading towards a parliamentary showdown – Dr Pullicino Orlando had said he expected the debate on his Bill to start in January – suddenly took on the semblance of a more protracted debate that would end with a referendum at some undefined point next year.

The frenzy that in 2011 the electorate could be asked to vote in a divorce referendum was immediately toned down by the Prime Minister, who said it was too early for people “to speak of referendums yet”.

No further details were forthcoming on what actually passed between Dr Pullicino Orlando and Dr Gonzi, but the backbencher was criticised for jumping the gun by making such a declaration himself rather than leaving it to the Prime Minister.

The controversy of who said what, and whether Dr Pullicino Orlando should have been the one to spill the beans, may have clouded the more important issue surrounding the procedural mechanics to have a divorce law approved by Parliament also endorsed by a referendum before coming into force.

Emeritus President Eddie Fenech Adami, who opposes holding a referendum on matters of principle, expressed doubt over the legality of such an approach.

“If the Bill passes through Parliament after a third reading, then the President has to sign it as early as possible,” he said, adding it could be unconstitutional for the President’s approval to then be subjected to popular will.

His view was contradicted by former Nationalist minister Michael Falzon who, although opposed to a referendum, likened such a scenario with situations where Parliament approves laws that only come into force when the minister publishes a legal notice.

Whatever the outcome of such a technical and legalistic debate, the country may be heading into unchartered legal waters that only serve to further complicate matters.

In all this, though, there seems to be consensus – a need to start the parliamentary debate on Dr Pullicino Orlando’s Bill despite the difficulty created by the fact that the major political parties hold no official position on divorce.

This political void may yet be filled by others as shown by two less significant events on Wednesday.

On the day, student organisation Move said its survey among university students showed 54 per cent agreed with divorce. Later, the European Greens condemned the lack of divorce legislation in Malta during a summit in Tallinn, Estonia.

Dr Pullicino Orlando may have been the instigator of the divorce debate but as time passes and the two major political parties continue dilly-dallying over the matter, it could very well be civil society that leads the way.

Government may have tried to strategically take the issue under its wing over the past week and consequently rob the Labour Party leader of his political platform.

Historian and former Labour general secretary Dominic Fenech has shed doubt as to whether the government really has some grand political strategy judging by the confusion that reigned in the wake of Dr Pullicino Orlando’s statement and Dr Gonzi’s subsequent cold shower.

He may not be alone. Former Labour Justice Minister Joe Brincat, in comments on timesofmalta.com, said he was “at a loss” trying to understand the scenario that was unfolding.

With a raging divorce debate unfolding, at some point, parliamentarians will have to carry the can, although people have their doubts.

Posting her comment on timesofmalta.com, Anna Maria Bartolo criticised the referendum proposition.

“It looks like the politicians have found a convenient way of worming themselves out of a sticky situation to the detriment of others,” she wrote.

The final destination of the debate is as clouded as the future looked for the 33 miners when the access shaft to their mine collapsed last August. Whether next year will provide the ray of hope some have been waiting for or simply confirm the status quo remains the million dollar question.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

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