Maltese courts no longer subservient to Ecclesiastical tribunals

Government and Holy See sign new protocol repealing controversial clauses that put marital

Apostolic Nuncio Mgr Aldo Cavalli and foreign affairs minister George Vella signing the agreement. (Photo: Photocity, Valletta)
Apostolic Nuncio Mgr Aldo Cavalli and foreign affairs minister George Vella signing the agreement. (Photo: Photocity, Valletta)

The Maltese government has brought to an end the subordination of the Maltese civil courts to the Ecclesiastical tribunals over marital annulments, in a historic agreement brokered 21 years after Eddie Fenech Adami signed an understanding with the Holy See.

Agreement was reached to repeal Article 4(1) of the Agreement, and Paragraph III of the Additional Protocol that prohibited the civil courts from continuing a hearing of a request for a marriage annulment celebrated in the Catholic Church, once an action for its nullity was also launched before the ecclesiastical tribunals.

The new agreement also repealed the Second Additional Protocol to the Agreement, whereby a marriage confirmed as valid by the ecclesiastical tribunal meant that no further action could be taken by the civil courts.

Under the new Third Additional Protocol, judgements of the ecclesiastical tribunals over marriages concerning Maltese nationals, will retain their civil effects if their registration is ordered by the Court of Appeal, as laid down in the Marriage Act.

The Court of Appeal in such case will not re-examine the merits of the case, but ascertain a number of factors, including that the procedure before the ecclesiastical tribunals did not violate the Constitution's fair trial principles, and that the judgement of the church tribunal does not go against a previous judgement contrary to the Maltese civil courts' jurisdiction.

"Government is showing its firm belief in the separation between church and state, but we are ready to cooperate in mutual respect with the Vatican. This is a secular state, while the church has its own rights to voice its opinions. We will legislate according to the needs of a country whose nationals have different beliefs," foreign minister George Vella said, adding however that the government will listen to what the church has to say.

The agreement was signed with Apostolic Nuncio Mgr Aldo Cavalli.

Effect of third protocol

As laid down in the new protocol, parties in a marriage annulment will now be able to continue an action for the nullity of a marriage celebrated as a canonical marriage before the civil courts, even if a request for annulment has been filed in the ecclesiastical tribunal.

If a civil court declares the marriage to be annulled, the civil annulment will be considered valid even if the ecclesiastical case is ongoing.

In the "exceptional cases" - because the process tends to be long and judicious - where the ecclesiastical proceedings are concluded before the civil case is decided, the decision of the Church tribunal can only be given civil effect if it is registered by the Court of Appeal.

The fact that an ecclesiastical tribunal would have upheld the validity of the marriage will no longer prohibit a civil tribunal from declaring the same marriage to be null for all civil purposes even on the same grounds of nullity.


Informal talks regarding the future of the 1993 Church-State agreement concerning marriage commenced when Prime Minister Joseph Muscat visited Pope Francis I at the Vatican in June.

Muscat, who won a landslide majority in last March's general election, announced his intention to revisit this contentious agreement immediately upon taking office. One of his first initiatives as Prime Minister was to a send a 'note verbale' to the Holy See to initiate discussions on the abrogation of the concordat.

Singed by former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami and Foreign Minister Guido de Marco in 1993, the agreement envisages a partial concession to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal over the local civil courts when it comes to the annulment of Catholic marriages.

The signing of the Third Additional Protocol took place between foreign minister George Vella and Mgr Aldo Cavalli, Apostolic Nuncio, in the presence of parliamentary secretary for justice Owen Bonnici, Joseph Cole, Permanent Secretary, Dr Peter Grech, Attorney General and Archbishop Paul Cremona, Gozo bishop Mario Grech, Auxiliary Bishop Charles J. Scicluna, with Mgr Simón Bolívar Sánchez Carrión, secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature.

Out they go. The arrogant men in frocks interfering in everything.
How this could have been permitted in the first place by the "Patriotic" PN is beyond me.
Hlisna minn gerha ohra ta missier Beppe.
This is indeed a historic moment in the annals of our political history. Malta is a secular independant state.
Fl-ahhar il-hidma medjovali li ghamel Fenech Adami biex il-Kurja Lokali tibqa ghaddejja minn fuq l-Istat Malti-issa spiccat! Tal-misthija Fenech Adami!
Keep the church where it belongs. A ramshackle business who's main concern is child abuse and preying on ignorant peoples' gullibility.
Good, I hope the government continues in these steps to keep the state a completely separate entity from the church. Especially since the number of people estranged from the church continues to increase.