IN the Irish Republic, divorce is prohibited not only by the Roman Catholic Church but, since 1937, by the government's Constitution. It is the last government in Western Europe to keep such a ban. On June 26 a majority of voters will decide in a referendum if the time has come to make a sharper distinction between church and state on this important social and moral issue. The facts suggest the time has come. An estimated 70,000 of Ireland's 800,000 marriages have failed. The women involved lack property rights, and many are trapped in abusive situations. While the Catholic Church occasionally annuls marriages and allows remarriages, the state does not recognize such second marriages. Dublin regards the children from such marriages as illegitimate and entitled to no inheritance rights. Some legal recognition of divorce is also widely viewed as a necessity in the event of any eventual Irish accord between the Catholic South and the Protestant North.
The change proposed is modest rather than radical. Divorce would remain in the Constitution but allowed only when the court was satisfied that the marriage had been broken down for a five-year period. Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald, who favors the change, says his government would also try to add a two-year legal separation requirement.
Emotional rhetoric has run strong on both sides. Recent polls indicate that 56 percent of the voters favor state recognition of divorce but that the percentage favoring the status quo is increasing. Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have taken a strong stand against change. Last Sunday a pastoral letter was read from pulpits across the Irish Republic. It was just three years ago that Dublin's longtime legal ban on abortion was strengthened by its insertion in the Constitution. Proponents felt a law could be easily changed.
The Irish Republic has been markedly slow to adapt to social change and to draw the line between issues of church and state. It is only within the last decade that an article in the Irish Constitution giving the Catholic Church a special position in the nation was removed. And contraception has been legally allowed only within the last half-dozen years. Legal recognition of divorce would remove no rights from the majority who hold marriage to be an indissoluble bond, but it would protect the rights of those who may feel unjustly trapped in miserable marriages.