MANILA, Philippines—Overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Malta has voted to legalize divorce, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi announced on Sunday after a referendum, leaving the Philippines as the only country where it is banned.
The vote in Malta spurred moves in the House of Representatives to legalize divorce amid an already widening split between the influential Catholic hierarchy and the administration of bachelor President Benigno Aquino III over a population control measure.
Gonzi, who campaigned against the introduction of divorce ahead of Saturday’s nonbinding referendum, said it was now up to the Mediterranean archipelago’s parliament to legalize the dissolution of marriage.
“This is not the result that I wished for, but the will of the people has to be respected and parliament should enact a law for the introduction of divorce,” said the conservative prime minister.
The divorce measure was passed by a majority of 53.2 percent of those who cast ballots, although nearly a quarter of eligible voters did not bother to go to the polls, election officials said.
Apart from the Vatican city-state, Malta is one of only two countries in the world—the Philippines is the other—that bans divorce. Chile was the last country to legalize divorce in 2004 after overwhelming public pressure.
Saturday’s nonbinding referendum asked the country’s 306,000 mainly Catholic voters whether parliament should introduce a new law that would allow couples to obtain a divorce after four years of separation.
Legal separation is widespread in the European Union’s smallest member state, but there are many legal obstacles to re-marrying.
The Church, which looms large over the archipelago where 95 percent of the population claim the faith, did not campaign officially in the referendum.
However, Valletta’s Archbishop Paul Cremona had warned churchgoers in a letter they faced a choice between building and destroying family values.
“By this vote, the citizen will either build or destroy. A choice in favor of permanent marriage is an act of faith in the family, built upon a bond of love which cannot be severed,” said the letter, which was read out at Masses.
In addition, priests have reportedly threatened to refuse communion to those who vote “yes” in the referendum.
Following the vote in Malta, the Philippine House committee on revision of laws announced it would begin on Wednesday discussions on a bill seeking to legalize divorce.
“Let us not keep our country in the dark ages,” said Gabriela Rep. Luz Ilagan. “I appeal to my colleagues in Congress to let the legislative mill run its course on the divorce bill without further delay and give Filipino couples in irreparable and unhappy marriages this option.”
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, a widower, told reporters that he favored the move. “It is very difficult to let two people who cannot live together continue to live together.”
Sen. Pia Cayetano, chair of the Senate committee on youth, women and family relations, said it was time to expand the definition of annulment of marriage granted under Philippine law on grounds of psychological incapacity.
“Call it divorce, call it another animal (but) there has to be some change because the reality is, it is one of the discriminatory practices we have (against women),” she said.
But Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III is adamant: “Let’s not get into the habit of copying what other countries are doing.”
Not a question of votes
The Philippine Catholic hierarchy, echoing the position of the Church in Malta, announced that it would oppose any attempt to introduce divorce in the country through a referendum as the Mediterranean country did.
“Referendums are merely a political, not a moral exercise,” said Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, head of the bishops’ Episcopal Commission on Family and Life.
“What is right or wrong is not dependent on how many voted for it,” said Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, judicial vicar of the National Appellate Matrimonial Tribunal. “What is moral or not moral is not a question of popular vote.”
Cruz is happy that the Philippines remains to be the only country without divorce.
“It means that the Filipino cultural values are still solid, that we are profamily, which is a wonder because you cannot find that anywhere else in the world,” he said. With reports from AFP, Cynthia D. Balana, Gil C. Cabacungan Jr., Christian V. Esguerra and Jocelyn R. Uy