Former judges and lawyers condemned the words of the Church’s Judicial Vicar, Mgr Arthur Said Pullicino, who threatened with grave sin members of the judiciary who presided over divorce cases.

Judge Philip Sciberras, who retired only this week, said the threat of sin was “a medieval imposition” and simply put a burden on members of the judiciary.

“I am a practising Catholic but I believe the state is obliged to regulate such situations by introducing laws. Members of the judiciary should not object to hear divorce cases because of some medieval imposition,” he said when contacted.

“If I were still a sitting judge I would be obliged to apply the law if divorce is legal,” Judge Sciberras insisted.

In a homily delivered during Mass marking the start of the forensic year, Mgr Said Pullicino said judges should be conscientious objectors and warned lawyers assisting people who filed for divorce of committing a grave sin.

Reacting, Judge Sciberras went as far as comparing the monsignor’s threat of sin to the political-religious battle of the 1960s. “My family supported Labour and we lived through those dark days when the Church imposed mortal sin on those who voted Labour. Shall we pass through those times again,” he asked.

The divorce debate has to be profound, he added, leading to serious legislation that regulated situations that caused a lot of hurt.

Former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello insisted on drawing a clear distinction between the civil aspect of marriage and its sacramental dimension.

“Mgr Said Pullicino has every right to say a judge of the civil courts has no jurisdiction on the sacrament of marriage but in our country marriage is also a civil contract. A judge in the civil courts deciding on the dissolution of marriage as a civil contract is in no way entering into religious matters. This distinction has to be made,” Judge Bonello said.

When contacted, recently-appointed Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri said he “took note” of Mgr Said Pullicino’s words but would not comment at this stage.

Mgr Said Pullicino, who heads the Church tribunals that deal with marriage annulments, also targeted lawyers in his homily, saying they would be going against God’s law if they took up the case of somebody who filed for divorce.

Speaking in his personal capacity, Chamber of Advocates president Andrew Borg Cardona hit out at the Judicial Vicar, insisting his words were “unacceptable” and constituted interference in secular matters.

Lawyers Roberta Leprè and Lorraine Schembri Orland agreed that a clear distinction had to be maintained between affairs of the state and the Church.

“While upholding Catholic principles and values, I believe that Church and state should be kept distinct. A judge is in duty bound to apply the laws of Malta and cannot deny the parties their rights under these laws,” Dr Schembri Orland said.

Defending lawyers and their choice of clients, she said it was not for them to determine who the innocent party was because both individuals suffered in such circumstances.

She also expressed concern about the impact of Mgr Said Pullicino’s statement on lawyers who practised before the Church’s tribunal. “Will there be negative repercussions if they also take up the defence in divorce litigation,” she wondered.

On the other hand, Dr Leprè said a distinction had to be made between remedies provided by the Church and those provided by the state. Divorce legislation would not oblige a Christian to abandon his faith.

“People can still seek a remedy in the Church tribunal if they feel it best suits them. There should be a choice and people should decide what is best for them according to their conscience. It is a sin not to live life fully,” Dr Leprè said taking a swipe at Mgr Said Pullicino’s “grave sin” comment.

Mgr Said Pullicino’s strong words are the first from a high-ranking Church official to target the judiciary’s moral responsibility if they were to preside over cases of divorce if this became law.

The use of the word “sin” seems to conflict with the more measured approach adopted by the bishops in the wake of another controversy sparked by another high-ranking Church official a couple of months ago. Mgr Anton Gouder, the Pro Vicar, had said it was a sin for a Catholic to vote for divorce in a referendum.

Excerpts from the homily

Christian society and God’s law
“Judges, the lawyer and other officials of the law courts who are committed Christians understand... that the administration of justice in a society that still adheres to Christian values cannot have strong foundations unless it is based on the obedience to God’s law.”

Laws against divine natural law
“An analysis of the situation in our country shows that we are influenced from what is happening abroad, primarily in Europe, where the administration of justice is faced with a situation where it has to break God’s law because the country’s laws are violating the fundamental principles of divine natural law when it deals with divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia... This is what happened in our society when the divorce discussion was rekindled. This is a situation that directly involves the administration of justice. This is the time when those who administer justice are obliged to make their voice heard in a clear way and invoke conscientious objection.”

Grave sin
“In front of Christ’s clear teachings on marriage, the Church need not discuss anything about divorce and its introduction. All the Church has to do is teach that whoever cooperates in any way with the introduction of divorce, who applies the law and who takes recourse to it, though not the innocent party, would be breaking God’s law and so would be committing a grave sin.”

“...Members of Parliament who profess the Christian faith and administrators of justice cannot morally cooperate with those who ask for divorce... by dissolving a valid marriage.”

Difficult decision
“...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 is not an easy situation that requires difficult decisions. But this is the difficulty of Christian life.”

More items from The Times in the News section

See Fr Joe Borg's blog Ecclesiastical form, substance and perceptions

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