Vote on divorce issue splits chuch and state in Ireland Catholic Church, prime minister at odds on Nov. 24 referendum


DUBLIN, Ireland -- With less than a month before a referendum on whether to abolish its constitutional ban on divorce, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland is witnessing a rare clash between the leaders of its government and those of its church.

The referendum on Nov. 24 will decide whether Ireland, the only country in Europe that forbids divorce, will permit people to divorce and remarry. Recent polls suggest that if the vote were held now, the abolition of the ban would be approved 2-to-1.

But polls suggested the same thing in 1986, shortly before voters defeated a similar proposal.

There are no predictions of victory with any assurance from either the church, which vehemently opposes divorce, or the government, which actively supports the right to divorce and remarry.

Both the government and the church plan to send campaign booklets and leaflets to virtually every family in this country of 3.5 million. Last week, the country's influential bishops, led by the primate of all Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly, issued their formal campaign statement condemning divorce.

They were immediately contradicted by Prime Minister John Bruton, who leads a coalition government unanimous in favor of removing the ban and is supported by the main opposition political party, Fianna Fail.

In their statement, the bishops appeared to be changing tactics. In 1986, the church emphasized the problems divorce would create in property rights.

Since then, the government has established procedures for dealing with property.

This time, the bishops argue that "any undermining of the meaning of the marriage promise would profoundly damage the stability of society," without mentioning property.

Cardinal Daly said the issue was "over to the consciences of the voters" but did not say Catholics who did not vote against divorce would be committing a sin.

Mr. Bruton said in a statement that the church attitude was "unproductive" and argued that the bishops were wrong in stating that permitting divorce would devalue the marriage vows of Catholics.

Mr. Bruton said broken marriage was "a growing reality in Ireland today, which the Catholic Church, despite its extensive influence on the opinions of many, has not so far been able to reverse."

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