The Church’s campaign against divorce is motivated by financial considerations because it stands to lose its “hegemony” on marriage annulments, according to a retired judge.

Hitting out at what he described as a “crusade”, Judge Philip Sciberras said the Church’s struggle against the introduction of divorce was less of a battle between religion and secularisation and more a reaction to the loss of privileges it enjoys today.

“I believe there are financial motivations behind the Church’s anti-divorce campaign because it stands to lose its hegemony on annulments. The Church is afraid of losing its privileges and, like it did in the past, it starts scaring people with the bogey man.”

The only way separated couples can re-marry today is by obtaining an annulment. However, according to a 1995 agreement between Malta and the Vatican, Church tribunals take precedence over the civil courts in annulment proceedings if one of the spouses decides to take the case to the tribunal.

Referring to the various anti-divorce statements during the processions of Our Lady of Sorrows two weeks ago and the official Church leaflet that urges people to make a declaration in front of the crucifix before voting according to their conscience, Judge Sciberras said the campaign was a flashback of the 1960s political-religious battle.

“The Church has every right (to impart its teachings on) divorce but it has no right to use undue influence on voters, which is a corrupt practice,” he said, pointing out that the Electoral Polling Ordinance made it illegal even to threaten spiritual harm.

He insisted that the debate should be conducted on the level of rational argumentation. Asking people to vote according to their conscience, he added, but suggesting they did so by consulting the crucifix, was akin to the 1960s, when the Church paraded the crucifix during Labour Party meetings.

Coming from a Labour-leaning family, Judge Sciberras had experienced the threat of mortal sin first-hand in the 1960s.

“I am a practising Catholic and this motivates me to support minority rights. What the Church is doing is a crusade and it hurts me. Some Church exponents have even taken it upon themselves to be direct spokesmen of God or the Virgin Mary.”

But if Judge Sciberras believes that some of the comments made by the Church and its exponents constitute undue influence on voters, anti-divorce campaigner and lawyer Kevin Dingli sees things very differently.

“While I cannot rule out the possibility that certain exponents, acting under misplaced and misguided zeal, may well have, to some extent, overstepped recognised boundaries, I do not believe that threats to inflict any temporal or spiritual injury in a bid to induce or compel people to vote against divorce, such as would be required to constitute a corrupt practice, have actually been committed.”

Dr Dingli pointed out that the Church had a constitutional right and duty to teach which principles were right and wrong, which also included pronouncing itself against the immorality of divorce.

“Acting within its constitutionally acknowledged remit, therefore, the Church surely cannot be (accused of) exerting undue influence simply in the teaching of principles, unpalatable though that might be to those championing the cause for divorce,” Dr Dingli said.

Dr Dingli, who attended the Our Lady of Sorrows procession in Vittoriosa, said it was “impeccably conducted”.

He said no excesses could “properly be attributed” to the official Church and if it could be proved that anyone actually committed the offence of undue influence, the person could be charged.

Nobody is above the law, Dr Dingli added, but he cautioned against what he described as the application of “legal technicalities” by some who wanted to win some support.

“One must also be careful of this before rushing to accuse anybody of anything,” he said.

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