Italy Votes for Divorce
By “Awake!” correspondent in Italy
‘I KNEW that it was raining, but I did not think it would be such a flood.’ That was the comment of Italian Cardinal Poletti after millions of Italians had delivered a resounding defeat to the Roman Catholic Church. They had voted against the Church in connection with Italy’s divorce law.
Divorce had been permitted by law since December 1, 1970. At that time the Church could not muster enough support within the government to keep the law from being passed. Hence, the Church now campaigned for a special vote of the Italian people to repeal the law.
By appealing directly to the Italian people, the Church felt that the ‘silent majority’ of Italians would be loyal to the Church and would vote against divorce. Thus the Church worked for, and obtained, the required number of signatures (500,000) for the government to authorize the vote.
This special vote (a referendum) was held on May 12 and 13. More than 32,000,000 Italians went to the polls. Did most of them support the Church? No! On the contrary, nearly 60 percent of them—over 19,000,000—voted to keep the divorce law! That was about 6,000,000 more than those voting to repeal the law.
The result shocked and stunned Church authorities. It also proved dismaying to government officials who had supported the Church’s position.
Yet the result of the referendum goes beyond a simple choice for or against divorce. The fact that such a large majority of Italians voted against the Church is much more significant. Many feel it is a foretaste of things to come. Why is this so? A brief examination of the relationship between the Italian government and the Roman Catholic Church helps one to understand why.
The Concordat and What It Allowed
Before the divorce law of 1970, matters related to marriage were handled in harmony with the terms of the agreement signed between the Church and the State in 1929. This pact (or concordat) was made between the Mussolini government and Vatican State. It gave the Church many special advantages in return for its support of that government.
Under the terms of the Concordat, the Catholic clergy received financial assistance from the State. The Catholic religion and no other was to be taught in public schools. And the Church was exempt from taxation. Such special privileges gave the Church a place of dominance, enabling it to exercise great influence over the people.
As regards marriage, the Concordat supported the Church’s views. While the agreement allowed for the recognition of civil marriages, it gave the Catholic Church the sole prerogative as to ending marriages. And the Church’s position was that only death could dissolve a marriage. This ignored the position that Jesus Christ himself took on this matter. He allowed for divorce under certain circumstances.—Matt. 19:9.
However, there was a “loophole” in the Church’s claim that there could be no divorce. It allowed “annulments” of marriage. In other words, while there could be no divorce, the Church could assert that, for various reasons, the marriage had been entered into under circumstances not approved by the Church. Hence, the marriage could be declared nonexistent. This enabled a person whose marriage was “annulled” to remarry.
The financial cost of this procedure was high. Because of this, it was possible for only a small number of people to have their marriages annulled. Usually these were stage and screen actors, political leaders, industrialists, and other wealthy persons. Poor people could not afford it, so they did not bother. Those who left their mates without obtaining annulments often took up living with someone else, in adultery. Some estimates say that about 5 million persons lived in this state of concubinage. But by doing so it was impossible for a father to recognize legally as his own the children born from such a union. This resulted in the loss of certain benefits.
Realizing that there were many irregularities in connection with marriage and divorce, over the years various members of Italy’s Parliament tried to get bills passed that would allow divorce. But none were ever accepted, until December 1, 1970. On that date a bill presented by deputies Fortuna and Baslini became law. At last, divorce was permitted in Italy if marriage partners had been separated for at least five years. If one of the parties opposed the divorce, then after six or seven years of separation the other party could apply for one. Special provisions were contained in the law to help the children and the wife.
The 1970 law did not pass without opposition. And this opposition persisted. It came both from within the government and outside it—especially from the Roman Catholic Church. This opposition culminated when antidivorce forces won the right to have the referendum held.
The referendum was opposed by many political leaders. They feared that it would result in a political crisis by breaking up the delicate balance of party alliances that had been achieved after much strenuous effort. But despite this fear, the antidivorce forces pushed ahead.
One result was that a clear division was indeed produced among political parties. The majority party (Christian Democrats) favored abolishing the divorce law. The other leading parties (Communist and Socialist) favored keeping the divorce law.
While this polarization was taking place in the political field, what was happening inside the Roman Catholic Church?
Attitude of the Church
The official position of the Church was expressed in February by the Italian conference of bishops. They flatly stated their support of the antidivorce forces.
Notification of this official view was sent by the bishops to all priests to have it read in the local churches. One interpretation of their view came from Monsignor Gaetano Bonicelli, who declared that “Catholics, or better still those who profess to be such, who vote for maintaining the law on divorce, will not be able to consider themselves as ‘Catholics.’”
Yet, within the Church itself opposition soon arose. In some cities, such as Milan, there were parish priests who chose not even to read the notification in their churches. Other priests spoke out sharply against the Church’s view. Forty-four Venetian priests, in a document to the bishops and priests of their region, expressed their intention to cast their votes for retaining the divorce law. Still other priests tried to soften the official view by stating that the vote was a matter of personal conscience.
Many Catholic laymen reacted adversely to the Church’s tactics. In Mantova a group of Catholics left the church during the celebration of the Mass when the clergyman began reading the bishops’ notification on the referendum. In other cities, there were demonstrations against the Church’s stand. Such events within the ranks of the Church caused a Catholic woman to say: “This referendum, rather than dividing Catholics from the enemies of Catholicism, is tearing apart, and perhaps beyond repair, the world of the Church. Do those who are sponsoring the referendum realize this?”
In his document My Kingdom Is Not of This World, Benedictine abbot Giovanni Battista Franzoni declared that, contrary to the Church’s claim about marriage being indissoluble, the Church had in fact admitted divorce with its famous “Pauline privilege.” According to this practice, a convert to Catholicism who was already validly married could under certain circumstances shed his ‘non-Christian’ mate and remarry in the Church. But even the New Catholic Encyclopedia admits of this “Pauline privilege”: “The term is based on the supposition that St. Paul grants this privilege in 1 Cor 7.12-15, but it is rather a privilege granted by the Church through a broader interpretation of the Pauline text than this in itself allows.”
Thus the Church’s position aroused growing opposition among Catholics. This was admitted by an article published on April 25 in the Vatican newspaper L‘Osservatore Romano. It said: “Educated Catholics and even young priests, some not so young, contested and refused openly the instructions imparted by the Italian Episcopate.” The possibility of religious warfare appeared on the horizon, one priest warning: “If we are not careful, all of us risk finding ourselves in the eye of a typhoon.”
Of course, opposition also abounded outside the Church. The Socialist daily Avanti! charged the Church with “heavy interference in the internal matters of the Italian State.” And, as expected, L’Unita, a Communist paper, called the mobilization of the clergy” an “inadmissible interference in the civil sphere.”
All these events led up to the awaited days of May 12 and 13. Then the referendum was held—and the blow descended.
To the dismay of the Church, and other antidivorce forces, the people of Italy voted overwhelmingly to continue the divorce law. The result was a crushing defeat for the Church. Pope Paul VI expressed the general feeling of Church leaders by saying of the vote result: “This amazes and gives us pain.”
The victory did something else. It opened the way for other popular referendums. And the parties in favor of divorce are in fact obtaining signatures so that the Italian people may express themselves on other issues. One of these concerns the very Concordat between the Church and the Italian State and the privileged status such confers on the Vatican.
The Church had counted on the support of a so-called ‘silent majority’ of Catholics. But that ‘silent majority’ turned out to be only a minority. Thus, the Church badly miscalculated the Italian mood. For this she paid a heavy price—a humiliating defeat by the very people she has claimed as her own. And it has opened the way for more trouble in the very near future.