Catholic Church Fights Chile Divorce Law

The Roman Catholic Church has begun airing ads on network television against the approaching passage of a law permitting divorce in the only Western Hemisphere country where it's banned.

Five times a day, a sonorous male voice broadcasts an ominous warning: a divorce law will push children of divorced couples to drugs and booze, school dropout rates and domestic violence will climb, family incomes will plunge.

"Chile wants a united family. Let's not divide it," the announcer intones.

The church and conservative groups have already managed to force amendments that make the legislation much tougher than originally planned — so tough, in fact, that some critics say things may as well have stayed the same.

Not that anyone likes the existing system. In the absence of a divorce law, the only way out of a marriage is by annulment, and these usually require lies and subterfuge. The preferred way is to testify before a judge that when you got married you gave an erroneous home address. That, plus $600 in lawyers' fees, is all it takes.

Some 6,000 annulments are granted every year. President Ricardo Lagos and his wife both got annulments of their previous marriages. Reformers say this system is demeaning and discriminates against the poor who can't afford a lawyer.

The new law will do away with such dodges except in extreme cases and set proper rules for alimony and child support. But getting a divorce still won't be easy. The original draft legislation has been hardened to require a couple to prove they have tried counseling, and they will have to wait three years for their divorce — five years if one side contests it.

Chile's Civil Matrimony Law dates to the 19th century, and 12 attempts in the past 90 years to change it have failed. It stipulates that all couples must wed in a civil registry, and that once married, they can never divorce. Religious nuptials are optional.

The law applies to all Chileans, including the 30 percent of the population of 15.5 million who didn't list themselves as Catholic in the last census.

In 1997, the lower house of the bicameral Congress approved the new law, and last August the more conservative Senate voted 33-13 to recommend its ratification. It can become law by the end of the year. Opinion polls say 70 percent of Chileans are in favor.

Sen. Nelson Avila of the governing Socialists expects the law to pass. "But the pressure from the Catholic Church has been very strong, very effective, so we will probably have a very weak divorce law," he said.

The church has apparently given up on blocking the law altogether, and instead is pushing for more restrictions. It wants an amendment giving newlyweds — regardless of religion — the option of signing away any future right to divorce. Another church-backed change would make all marriages binding for life if they are performed in a religious ceremony and reported to civil authorities within 30 days.

Congresswoman Maria Antonieta Saa strongly objects. "Everybody gets married thinking it will be for the rest of his or her life. So I think it would be cruel, inhuman to put Chileans before the alternative of saying whether they want to marry with or without divorce," she said.

Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, Chile's highest prelate, attacked the law at a religious ceremony on Sept. 18, Chile's independence day, in the presence of the nation's political and military leaders.

He begged them to back the divorce-waiver clause for newlyweds, and Avila said afterward he expected it to be included "because of the influence of the Church on Catholic senators," especially those of the conservative Christian Democratic Party.

But Jorge Pizarro, a Christian Democratic senator, said he will oppose such a measure because "we must legislate for all Chileans, not only for Catholics."

The government also opposes the waiver option. "The law must be the same for all citizens," said Justice Minister Luis Bates.

Catholic leaders deny unduly pressuring lawmakers. "The Church is simply exercising its right to make its opinions public," said the Rev. Jaime Fernandez, architect of the TV campaign.

"A divorce law will have serious, bad effects on our society," he insisted in an interview, and "will inevitably increase the number of divorces."