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Prehistoric: Chilean Catholic Church Campaigns Against Divorce

Over 100 years behind England, Chile is the only country in the Western Hemisphere, in which divorce is still prohibited. The Socialist government is pushing forward a bill to change that
Divorce in Latin America has been always a controversial issue, since the region has suffered from far right-wing military regimes during long periods of time in the twentieth century.

Thus, the region has a poor record, despite the existence of a strong feminist movement at the start of the 1900's. As such there are countries, where divorce laws were passed early last Century -Uruguay, 1913; Cuba, 1918-, and some others where the legislation that brings family relations into modern times, had to wait longer. That is the case of Argentina that only obtained the law in 1986, after its return to democracy.

Chile's society is still doing the battle against an extremely conservative Roman Catholic Church and its political allies in the main right-wing party and the still powerful national Army. Opinion polls indicate that 70 percent of Chileans favor legalizing divorce. However, mistreating the people's will, these prehistoric forces insist in fighting against modernity.

Quoting copious research, the Church is campaigning on TV to discourage civil society. They say the new bill would eventually increase in psychological problems for children, as "prostitution", "homosexuality" and "drug use", as could lead to more violence in such families. Also, it became known that hierarchy has been lobbying members of Congress, especially those from the center-right Christian Democratic Party, and hinting about excommunication.

Ceding to Church pressure, Chile's right is willing to introduce amendments to the original bill introduced in the Congress six years ago to reduce its effects. They aim to include compulsory mediation, waiting periods of up to five years and no possibility of divorce unless both partners desire it. In the name of human rights and family values (of the Middle Age), they are also demanding that couples be allowed to choose marriage with a "no divorce" option.

"Things are getting a bit complicated, and some of these features are going to create problems," said Maria Antonieta Saa, a member of Congress who introduced the legislation in 1997, to the foreign media. "But in the end, I think we will be able to pass a quite reasonable bill that will finally give people in Chile an honest and civilized way to terminate a marriage."

After Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship ended in 1990, four unsuccessful attempts were made to give the Civil Marriage Code its first major overhaul since the 1880s. The lower house of Congress finally approved a divorce bill in 1997, and after more than five years of hesitation, the Senate voted last month, 33-13, to take up a committee's recommendation in favor of the bill.

If a couple wants to divorce, Chile's legislation allows civil annulment, which requires both parts to say that their marriage was against the law. So, they have to lie before the courts saying, for instance, that neither of them lived in the jurisdiction where they wed. Also, some women abandoned by their husbands appear before the Judge asking to be considered widow.

Opponents say a divorce law could destroy families. However, statistics has already probed the contrary: the number of marriages recorded has sharply dropped since the return of democracy in 1990, to just over 60,000 annually from more than 100,000, and nearly half of all children here are now born to unmarried couples. The reason: with no divorce, couples do not want to get married.

Foundations of the opponents are, when not outraging, funny. "All this is being done in the name of dressing the country with the image of modernity, but it's going to allow people to destroy a marriage on a whim and will produce a lowering of values", said Flavio Angelini, leader of the Casa de la Familia Foundation, a conservative Roman Catholic group.

Welcome to the new century Mr. Angelini. The world has changed since Inquisition: read some Bacon, Descartes and get noticed about the French Revolution. Or at least, catch up the United Kingdom, where the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes took over the jurisdiction for matrimonial affairs from the Church in 1858.