Over Memorial Day weekend, 72 percent of the Maltese electorate—about the same number of Maltese who go to mass each Sunday—went to the polls to vote on a referendum to legalize divorce. With just over 50 percent of the vote, the victory went to the pro-divorce movement. After some fine-tuning, a divorce bill is expected to pass the parliament this July, leaving to the Philippines the distinction of being the only country in the world where divorce is still not legal—well, the only country where 90 percent of the citizens aren’t celibate.
The divorce bill, its proponents say, signals the birth of a new era for Malta and will bring the country into the modern world. It’s a bold claim, and to those of us already comfortably situated in modernity, the actual referendum question may seem a bit tame: “Do you agree with the introduction of the option of divorce in the case of a married couple who has been separated or has been living apart for at least four years, and where there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation between the spouses, whilst adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the children are protected?”
Four years? I could be divorced four times by then in Nevada! But Malta isn’t looking to rush into modernity. Malta doesn’t want “Las Vegas-style” divorce, according to Joseph Muscat, the leader of the Labor Party and a supporter of the bill. Not yet in any event. Although it’s particular legislation may differ from our own divorce laws, the arguments made by the pro-divorce faction in Malta are reminiscent of the arguments made for no-fault divorce in the United States four decades ago.
There is the charge of hypocrisy. Malta does not grant divorce, but it does grant civil separations and civil annulments (as well as recognizing Church annulments). Married couples who procure a separation cannot remarry and are, therefore, forced to remain in loveless marriages or, should they meet someone else, into cohabitation. Married couples seeking a civil or Church annulment may be forced to lie in order to meet the criteria for annulment.
Better to call a spade a spade. Divorce legislation would allow couples in loveless marriages to stop living a lie. It would, according to one blog, “uncover the social problems prevalent in broken marriages but which are swept under the carpet, and provide a way to address them.” Divorce, in fact, would make marriage better.
No fault divorce proponents in the United States made a similar point. Rather than forcing those who want a divorce to remain in an unhappy marriage or to fabricate stories of abuse or infidelity, give them an honest and easy way out. Getting rid of those unhappily married would raise the tone of the whole institution.
As Brad Wilcox pointed out in National Affairs a few years ago, though, that didn’t work. “Marital quality fell during the ’70s and early ’80s. In the early 1970s, 70 percent of married men and 67 percent of married women reported being very happy in their marriages; by the early ’80s, these figures had fallen to 63 percent for men and 62 percent for women. So marital quality dropped even as divorce rates were reaching record highs.” Wilcox has a plausible solution: “Widespread divorce undermined ordinary couples’ faith in marital permanency and their ability to invest financially and emotionally in their marriages—ultimately casting clouds of doubt over their relationships.”
Another argument offered by the Maltese divorce proponents is that we must think of the children. Children should not be made to suffer through the long, drawn-out breakup of their parents’ marriage. Again, a similar argument was made by no-fault divorce proponents: Children will be happier if their parents are happier. So, if divorce makes parents happier, it will make children happier too.
And again, the facts haven’t born this out. As Wilcox points out, “the divorce revolution’s collective consequences for children are striking. Taking into account both divorce and non-marital childbearing, sociologist Paul Amato estimates that if the United States enjoyed the same level of family stability today as it did in 1960, the nation would have 750,000 fewer children repeating grades, 1.2 million fewer school suspensions, approximately 500,000 fewer acts of teenage delinquency, about 600,000 fewer kids receiving therapy, and approximately 70,000 fewer [attempted] suicide attempts every year.”
A final argument made in Malta, is that the current system is inequitable. While Malta does not grant divorces, it does recognize divorces granted in other countries. In Malta, divorce is the privilege of the rich who have the means to establish residence abroad, obtain a divorce, and return to Malta. Those without the means must make do with the current system of legal separation, annulment, or just toughing it out.
Here is another sign that Malta is new to modernity. In our thoroughly modern country—the home of “‘Las Vegas-style’ divorce”—intact marriages are now the privilege of the educated and upper-class while divorce is the burden of the poor. Many have observed as well that—despite the best intentions to give women an easy way out of abusive marriages—liberal divorce laws tend to benefit husbands and harm wives. When New York legalized no-fault divorce just last year, the Catholic Church was joined by the National Organization for Women in arguing that no-fault divorce takes away bargaining power from women.
Malta’s vote to loosen divorce laws comes just as some Americans begin to carefully look at the costs of divorce and to consider ways to tighten the ties that bind. In 2006, for instance, Congress provided five years of funding for a Healthy Marriage Initiative that would help married couples “acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage.” Wilcox and others have recommended reforms like one-year waiting periods and mandatory counseling before divorce and preferential treatment by courts for spouses divorced against their will who “have not engaged in egregious behavior.”
But changing a culture of divorce once it has taken root is a daunting task. Of course that doesn’t mean simply maintaining a culture of respect for the importance of marriage, the family, etc. is not also hard. Just a little less so than working from scratch. It surely would have been better for Malta to learn from the mistakes of the modern world before rushing to join it. Maybe the Philippines still will.
Meghan Duke is Managing Editor of First Things.