Malta is the only member of the European Union not to allow divorce, and along with the Philippines is one of only two such countries in the world.
On Saturday, all that could change when this conservative-minded Mediterranean nation – renowned for its courage against Nazi bombardment during the Second World War but now known equally for its sandy beaches and thumping nightlife – votes in a referendum which critics say could open the floodgates to family break-ups and an «unhealthy» society.
On the ballot paper will be the question: «Do you agree with having the option of divorce for married couples who have been separated for four years when there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation, and when adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the children are cared for?»
The debate has split the island nation, which is 95 per cent Catholic, down the middle, and the outcome is on a knife edge. The hierarchy of the Church and the conservative Nationalist Party-run government are strongly against divorce and have thrown all their resources behind securing a «No» vote. Yet while the opposition Labour Party remains agnostic on the topic, the majority of the press, most young voters and a large chunk of the middle class are in favour of dragging Malta kicking and screaming into line with the rest of the world.
The decision has been a long time coming – Mr Privitera himself was among a group of activists who tried to get the Labour Party to support divorce in 1981 – but nobody expected it to happen now or like this. In July last year, Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando forced the issue by introducing a private member’s bill.
«All I meant was for there to be a parliamentary debate,» he told The Sunday Telegraph. «But then the prime minister came out with the idea of a referendum. I’m pretty sure he did this because he thought it would not be accepted.»
In December, in an effort to shore up support, Mr Pullicino Orlando joined forces with Labour MP Evarist Bartolo to present the bill as a cross-party initiative. The decision to hold a referendum passed through the Maltese parliament after two Nationalist MPs voted against their party and the island has been in turmoil ever since.
On Sunday mornings, the church uses the pulpit to try to convince the faithful to vote against divorce – infuriating churchgoers in the southern town of Paola so much that some members of the congregation walked out in disgust. The Bishop of Gozo is said to have described pro-divorce Catholics as «traitors» who were trying to lead the flock astray.
Meanwhile, the Yes movement is holding public meetings immediately after Sunday services in village squares across the country. Generally presided over by the campaign’s chairperson Deborah Schembri, they are informal affairs where members of the audience movingly share their personal stories. Giant campaign posters for and against divorce line the major thoroughfares and the island’s main television news features a special segment on the campaign every day.
Polls show only a slender lead for the yes vote with just a week to go before the referendum, making the result far from certain.
Divorce has been a point of contention in Maltese society for decades. With a little over 400,000 people in an area smaller than the Isle of Wight it is impossible to get away from family without leaving the country, said Bernadette Mallia, a physiotherapist, who is separated from her husband and now lives with her two daughters and partner Vincent. «Everybody knows everybody and family is everywhere,» she said. «It’s like the Mafia.» As a result, the family’s opinion carries a great deal of weight.
The Church is even more influential. Though Malta is theoretically a secular nation, the constitution declared Roman Catholicism «the religion of Malta» and gave the Church «the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong».
According to Fr Anton Gouder, one of the most senior figures in the Malta diocese, «divorce is against the teachings of Jesus Christ and the gospel. In the principle of the common good, some have to suffer for the good of others.»
Reacting to criticism for bringing divorce into is Sunday sermon, he said, «We can proclaim the gospel truth even during the mass.»
The Church’s influence is most powerful on Malta’s older generations. «My grandmother has three kids, two separated and one whose marriage was annulled,» said Ms Mallia’s daughter, Sarah. «I think she is OK with divorce but won’t vote yes because she sincerely believes she will burn in hell.»
Many in Malta have tired of both the yes and no campaigns and are keen for it to all be over. One newspaper editorial lambasted the campaign period as «an unmitigated embarrassment» that has «neither been pretty, nor edifying».
According to the EU’s statistical office, the rate of marital breakdown in Malta is below the EU average, but only by 10 per cent. Malta allows for legal separations, complete with rules on maintenance and custody, as well as annulments granted by the Church, but legally and technically the marriage remains valid. Divorce obtained abroad is recognised by the Maltese state. Last year, 47 foreign divorces were registered in Malta.
One woman, whose husband obtained a divorce in the UK but who declined to be named because of fears of intimidation said she has never met another Maltese divorcee. «When I tell people I am divorced some look shocked,» she said.
Meanwhile, with the referendum only a week away, Mr Privitera has stepped up his personal campaign by writing letters to newspapers demanding divorce and hoping to sway public opinion. «If it doesn’t go through, I will be very disappointed but I will keep campaigning,» he said.
«Some people will say you are 73, why bother? I know we won’t be able to get married in church but that doesn’t make any difference to me, not today. I just want to feel that we are a married couple just like any other married couple. I want to have this before I die.»