VALETTA, Malta (ChurchMilitant.com) - Once described as Europe's "most Catholic" country, the island nation of Malta has given the go-ahead to same-sex "marriage."
In a final round of ballotting Wednesday night, Parliament passed the Marriage Equality Bill almost unanimously, with 66 out of 67 votes cast in favor of the measure.
The lone holdout was Nationalist Party member Edwin Vassallo. Vassallo, a Catholic, cited his religious beliefs as the reason for his dissent. The law, he said, was "morally unacceptable."
"As a Christian politician I cannot leave my conscience outside the door," he declared.
The vote marks a victory for the governing leftist Labor Party and its leader, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who pledged to make "marriage equality" his top priority following his June re-election. Applauding the vote as "historic," Muscat said it demonstrated that Malta had reached "an unprecedented level of maturity."
Designed to "modernize the institution of marriage," the bill eliminates "gendered" terminology from official use. Civil marriage ceremonies will no longer conclude with "you are now husband and wife," but "you are now spouses." References to "father" and "mother" will be changed to "parent," and "maiden name" to "surname at birth."
Passage of the Marriage Equality Bill sparks a series of amendments to existing laws, and will secure Malta's place at the forefront of European gay rights legislation and policy. This is in keeping with Prime Minister Muscat's vision for the country's future.
"Malta wants to keep leading on LGBT issues and civil liberties," he told the BBC earlier this month, "to serve as a model for the rest of the world."
Archbishop Charles Scicluna came out against the bill during its debate in Parliament, reminding theMaltese that "marriage, whatever the law says, remains an eternal union exclusive to a man and a woman."
But Scicluna has been criticized for his weak defense of Church teaching on same-sex relationships. In 2014, he condemned the Marriage Equality Bill's predecessor, the Civil Unions Bill, warning Catholic lawmakers that "to vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral."
It was not long, though, before his position shifted. In a 2016 video interview with Malta Indep, Abp. Scicluna described civil unions as a "service to the dignity of these people," saying, "I think that we should support legislation that gives same-sex partners their dignity and their social protection."
Scicluna's apparent metamorphosis in view mirrors that of his countrymen.
Malta was long one of Europe's most traditional societies. It legalized divorce only in 2011, and maintains a complete ban on abortion. But by 2016, it had become far more permissive, with nearly two thirds (61%) of the population in favor of legalizing same-sex "marriage."
Assuming power in 2013, the Labor government began working to overturn the traditional social order and has since enjoyed a string of legislative victories. Prior to Wednesday's legalization of same-sex "marriage," Parliament passed a bill legalizing civil unions and establishing adoption rights for same-sex couples (2014) and outlawed reparative therapy, or any treatment aiming to "change, repress or eliminate a person's sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression" (2016).
As prime minister, Muscat has consistently worked to roll back the influence of the Church on Maltese society.
"The crucial point here," he said in 2013, "is to recognize the realities that there are small communities that may not feel they have a bond with the Catholic religion."