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Italy: Divorce on the Docket

3 minute read

At 5:40 one gray morning in Rome last week, Italy’s Chamber of Deputies ended a tumultuous 19-hour session by approving legislation permitting civil divorce for the first time in more than 150 years. At 5:44 a.m., the first of a tide of telephone calls from impatient clients roused slumbering Milan Lawyer Giovanni Bovio. The quick response, grumbled Bovio, must be something of “a speed record.”

Even before President Giuseppe Sa-ragat signed the long-awaited divorce bill into law a few hours later, it was clear that Attorney Bovio and his legal colleagues would be getting little sleep for some time to come. An estimated 1,000,000 or more Italians are ready to start divorce actions under the new law. Echoing the entire Italian bar, Rome Attorney Vinicio de Matteis declared: “We are now in a state of emergency.”

Profound Suffering. The bill that was approved last week by a 319-to-286 margin was the 15th divorce measure proposed since 1878. First introduced back in 1965 by Socialist Deputy Loris Fortuna, the compromise measure will hardly turn Italy into a divorce mill. Under the new law, couples seeking divorce must be legally separated for at least five years (when the separation is mutual) and for as long as six or seven years (when one partner is opposed). Other grounds cited in the new law: foreign divorce or remarriage by one spouse, long prison sentences, incest, attempted murder of family members, criminal insanity and nonconsummation —but not adultery.

Limited as it is, the measure aroused bitter opposition from the Christian Democratic Party, leader of Italy’s ruling four-party coalition, and the church, which insists that Catholic marriages can be dissolved only by ecclesiastical courts. When news of the final vote reached Pope Paul in Sydney in the midst of his Asian tour, he expressed his “profound suffering.”

There is a possibility that Italy’s Constitutional Court could declare the law unconstitutional, or that a popular referendum could reject the measure. Even if Italian anti-divorziati fail in both efforts, however, some disorder seems inevitable because of the country’s Jurassic judicial system. By Deputy Fortuna’s reckoning, 4,000,000 men and women living together illegally and their 1,000,000 children—one-tenth of the entire population—are “matrimonial outlaws.” Among those who have had to resort to fancy foreign legal footwork to avoid being cast as bigami are Vittorio De Sica, who became a French citizen and got a French divorce to marry his second wife, and Carlo Ponti, who went the same route to wed Sophia Loren. Under the new law, Gina Lollobrigida can Italianize her 1968 Austrian divorce from Milko Skofic, and Maria Callas can shed Giovanni Battista Meneghini, from whom she has been separated for eleven years.

Even with the new divorce law, though, most are likely to remain outlaws for some time. In Rome, the court that will hear divorce pleas is already struggling with a backlog of 2,400 family cases—enough to keep it busy through mid-1972. The expected addition of 30,000 divorce cases to the docket means that many Italians will not get a chance to savor divorce Italian style until 1975 or so.

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