The splits on divorce
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The splits on divorce

Divorce should be permitted if it is scientifically proven that society is better off with it than without it. On this basis, Fr Peter Serracino Inglott tells Kurt Sansone, even a Catholic politician can vote in favour.

Nationalist politicians speaking publicly in favour of divorce have always been few and far between, so it is no surprise that Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's comments last week created a stir.

He joins the solitary voices of former minister Michael Falzon and ex-party president Frank Portelli, who had publicly declared their stand in favour of divorce together with former minister John Dalli, who called for the divorce debate to begin.

Divorce has always been a stickler for the PN, and during the hastily convened parliamentary group meeting last Wednesday, some MPs described Dr Pullicino Orlando's initiative as a wake-up call for the party to debate the matter seriously.

However, it may very well have been also a rude awakening, because the Żebbuġ MP presented Parliament with a fully-fledged divorce law and not simply a motion for discussion. It was a move that caught everyone, including the Prime Minister, by surprise.

Some even questioned how it was possible for a divorce law to be presented by a politician from a party that has strong Christian Democratic roots.

The answer to this question will not be straightforward. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi will have to tussle between his own anti-divorce conviction, the political implications of any decision on the party's fortunes at the polling booth, and more importantly, the impact on the party's cohesion.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, a former adviser to former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami, says Dr Gonzi has to deal with with two distinct groups within his party on the divorce issue.

There is a disgruntled group of MPs, who, though not questioning Dr Gonzi's leadership, may very well think he is not being "sufficiently dialogic" despite the obvious efforts he made when previous problems erupted.

"These MPs would be supportive of Jeffrey's initiative because they want to applaud initiatives taken by backbenchers. They would say the party has not formally expressed itself on this issue and it is only Dr Gonzi who has expressed himself," Fr Serracino Inglott says.

However, he also speaks of another group of MPs who are against divorce because they believe it is not consistent with Christian Democrat tradition.

Achieving the balance between these two groups is not only hard but also fraught with dangers that can threaten the PN's soul.

However, Fr Serracino Inglott believes it is not anathema for a Catholic politician to vote in favour of divorce. He provides a justification based on the premise that scientific research must first be conducted to ascertain whether divorce is a social necessity.

"I tend to agree that to put forward a Bill at this stage is premature because it is not so much discussion that we need, but research. I have always maintained that we do not have enough knowledge of the facts on cohabitation; how many people are cohabiting and for what reason?"

He says divorce will have no impact on couples that cohabit as a trial period before getting married, but it may solve some of the problems of separated couples who live with new partners.

Fr Serracino Inglott insists divorce should not be forbidden because it is morally bad, a position the Church has always advocated from Thomas Aquinas to Pope Benedict XVI.

"It would be wrong for the state to forbid all morally bad behaviour because it would amount to tyranny, and God's most precious gift is freedom," he says.

For the state to be in a position to decide on divorce, Fr Serracino Inglott adds, it has to assess the social consequences of retaining the status quo and introducing divorce.

If a situation arises where without divorce there would be more cohabiting couples than married ones, this would be more disruptive for society - because it removes marriage as the basis of the family more drastically than the introduction of divorce.

"In this kind of circumstance the state should not only allow divorce but I would almost say it's its Christian duty to introduce divorce," Fr Serracino Inglott says, insisting this is a general political principle and undoubtedly a Christian Democratic way of dealing with issues like this.

However, his position contrasts with that of the Archbishop, who said it was only logical for Catholic politicians to vote against divorce.

"The Archbishop not only has the right but a duty to express his views, but in my perspective the weight of the decision lies solely with Members of Parliament," Fr Serracino Inglott says, pointing out that it is obvious that the Archbishop and his advisers think that the kind of circumstance which he envisages where it would be right for a Christian MP to vote for divorce cannot arise.

"I have no doubt the (Arch)bishop's advisers are perhaps the people who have most scientifically studied this situation and formulated their advice on the grounds that this teaching of Jesus is a general human and sociological rule, which means having divorce will never be better than not having it.

"I do not agree with this, which is not a doctrinal teaching but a sociological and psychological judgment on human nature. The Archbishop is not the ultimate authority on these issues and nor does he carry moral responsibility for such decisions. These decisions fall squarely on secular MPs."

However, on Dr Pullicino Orlando's Private Member's Bill, Fr Serracino Inglott does not believe it was the right strategy in order to obtain acceptance for divorce.

"If I were him I would rather have presented a motion for Parliament to discuss the matter than actually present a Bill because it would be submitted for the first reading where there is a strong probability it will be rejected and this will more or less end the formal parliamentary discussion, which (Dr Pullicino Orlando) wanted to stimulate in the first place," he says.

However, Fr Serracino Inglott also disagrees with a referendum as the sole decision-making process on the issue.

After the parliamentary group meeting, Dr Gonzi said people should take the final decision on the matter without suggesting whether this should be through a referendum or in a general election with divorce forming part of the winning party's electoral manifesto.

"I would not be against using a referendum at some stage in the proceedings but it would be wrong to present divorce as a single issue because people would more likely vote on ideological grounds. A proposal to introduce divorce should be part of a bigger package where the intention, which even Dr Pullicino Orlando professes, is to strengthen the institution of marriage," he says, adding this was the reason why the proposed Bill was the wrong approach.

Fr Serracino Inglott takes a diversion to explain that the crisis of marriage became more pronounced after the industrial revolution.

He says that in agricultural societies, men and women worked in the fields together. They were an economic partnership and not just an emotive partnership or just aimed at procreating children. Capitalist society eventually led to a different economic order where men and women worked in separate environments. This led to an increased divorce rate.

"We are now passing through an electronic revolution, no less significant than the mechanical revolution, and one that is again making possible a lot of home working and the formation of new partnerships not just based on emotional or sexual satisfaction.

"It is possible that with this revolution we will have conditions to make it much more possible for marriages to succeed. We may recover the idea of the family as a productive unit or household and this should be kept in mind when reviewing taxes and social services," he says in defence of what he believes should be a holistic package that not only includes divorce if necessary but also encourages the success of marriage.

Within this context Fr Serracino Inglott believes that any divorce proposal should be in a party's electoral manifesto that encompasses a package of family-friendly measures.

But if Dr Pullicino Orlando insists on his Bill being debated in Parliament should the PN grant its MPs a free vote?

"There should always be a free vote on such issues. I am surprised when I hear Joseph Muscat say he would give his party members a free vote on this matter. I am horrified if a leader of a party claims to direct how people vote on this issue. I don't think Dr Gonzi would ever say the party is against divorce therefore you must vote against it. I think what he can say in a case like this is that it is the wrong strategy to propose divorce in this way."

Fr Serracino Inglott's argument in favour of a free vote seems to contradict his position of preferring divorce to be included in an electoral manifesto. People voting for a party that includes divorce in its manifesto may feel short-changed if that party's MPs vote in accordance with their conscience against divorce.

"The candidates would have to take this into account when standing for election. If the party has included in its manifesto something which goes against their conscience like divorce, then they should not stand as a candidate for that party," he says.

This argument may sound like an admonition for candidates on both sides of the divide as well as the political parties themselves. While the PN still does not know what direction it is going to take, the Labour Party is stuck with its leader's position of presenting a Private Member's Bill on the matter and MPs being given a free vote.

However, while the introduction of divorce still seems to be a longish way off, Parliament could be expected to debate a law regularising cohabitation, which some would say is an alternative to divorce.

Fr Serracino Inglott disagrees with this line of thinking, and while arguing in favour of a law regulating cohabitation that would defend the weaker party in a relationship, he insists this would not solve the problems for which divorce may be a solution.

Raising the issue of cohabitation takes Fr Serracino Inglott back to the Church and the argument made by another priest, Fr Joe Borg, that Dr Pullicino Orlando may have been "provoked" into presenting this bill because of the whole issue that erupted about cohabiting MPs during the Papal Mass on the Granaries.

"We know he was very hurt by what happened during the Papal Mass when the Church invited only one partner according to a protocol list it was given. This and the subsequent controversy over cohabitation and the Eucharist may have created a backlash. It was Marlene Pullicino's comments which led me to this conclusion. Her reaction was mellow when compared with her strong position some years ago against divorce."

In such a charged debate with social, economic, moral, and for many, religious consequences, it is more than obvious that the separation of State and Church comes to the fore.

Rabid secularists are concerned about the blurring of the lines between the two institutions when it comes to marriage, especially after the 1995 agreement with the Vatican, which allowed priests officiating in religious marriages to also act as civil servants for a state marriage, and more importantly giving Church tribunals primacy over the country's courts in annulment and separation proceedings.

Fr Serracino Inglott says he disagrees with the precedence given to Church tribunals in the 1995 agreement and advocates a complete separation of State and Church on the issue of marriage. He also goes as far as saying that the Church should abolish its tribunals, leaving annulment and separation up to the State.

"The Church is concerned with the inner forum of the individual, the conscience," he says, insisting the best way for the Church to deal with marriage failure is through a sacramental approach.

"I am familiar with a couple where one of the partners was homosexual and I am sure that he was not able to take up the duties of marriage. This is a reason for nullity. But this could not be proven in front of the Church tribunal even though it later emerged that this man left his wife and went to live with another man. She could not prove this was the case before marriage, so her marriage was not annulled.

"However, I also know of another case where somebody deliberately told his friends he did not want to have children in order to have grounds for nullity should the issue arise, and this chap did get his marriage annulled.

"This is the tragedy if the Church has tribunals that function like civil secular tribunals. The Church should never proceed in this way. There is the sacramental system. It is the conscience of the individual that determines the value of the act.

"I do not think, because of the ease of self deception, that the matter should be left completely to the individual, but there could be the usual consultation with the priest in confession and perhaps also expert advice. But it is in this forum that the Church should be acting."

Within this context Fr Serracino Inglott believes that divorce legislation should be a matter for the state to decide on and he has no doubt that the weight of that decision should fall squarely on the shoulders of elected politicians.

Whether his direction will be followed by the PN, or any other political party, is a different matter altogether and one that is expected to colour the contentious debate in the months to come.

Watch excerpts of the interview on timesofmalta.com

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