BUENOS AIRES — The debate is incendiary. It consumes priests, politicians, the press and the people with extraordinary passion and rhetoric.
In Argentina, when it comes to divorce, there is no middle ground. There has been none for a century.
Jose Alberto Furque, a freshman congressman from the remote mountain province of Catamarca, is at the center of the furor. Furque, 37, says he has in mind only an overdue updating of the civil code, but he keeps meeting people who think he wants to destroy their beloved Argentina.
"Back home, the pressure from the church is tremendous," Furque complained the other day. "The bishop says things like, 'How can a legislator from a province where the Virgin of the Valley is adored have sponsored legislation allowing divorce?' "
The bishop of Catamarca, Pedro Alfonso Torres Farias, says stronger things as well. In an open letter to Furque, he prayed: "May God free our nation from the divorcist scourge and forgive those who want to destroy the basic cell of our Argentine society."
The issue is state versus Roman Catholic Church; the elected, secular representatives in a democratic government are challenging the doctrine of the nation's predominant religion. The weight of public opinion appears to lie with the Congress. The weight of history rests with the church.
Argentina's controversy is typical of the clash between traditionalism and modernization that colors life at all levels in Latin America today. Divorce as a flashpoint is startling because the whole idea is so anachronistic. All other countries in Catholic Latin America, with the exception of isolated Paraguay, already acknowledge at least a limited form of divorce.
Outside of Latin America, only Andorra, Ireland, Malta, the Philippines and San Marino still do not allow divorce.
2 Million in Limbo
Supporters of divorce here say it is a question of pragmatism, a practical advance for as many as 2 million people who are in a kind of limbo, who are separated but cannot legally remarry in Argentina. Historically, this has invited social opprobrium and dispute over inheritances and the legitimacy of children born to de facto second marriages.
"We are not trying to change the basis of society, simply to overcome this country's cultural underdevelopment," said Furque, who has proposed legislation that would permit divorce in strictly limited circumstances. His is one of a number of divorce bills awaiting consideration in the Chamber of Deputies.
"Spanish and French colleagues tell me about their concern for legislation governing genetic engineering and test-tube babies," he went on. "When I tell them about divorce, they ask what we've been doing this past century."
Furque's bill, which is certain to be modified during debate, would allow divorce after one year of separation by mutual consent or for causes ranging from adultery to alcoholism, drug addiction or prison sentences of more than three years.
Opponents of congressional action portray divorce as a decisive moral issue fraught with religious, social and ideological overtones.
Argentina, they warn, must not succumb to the virus of moral laxity that has already afflicted 98% of the world's people. Not many ramparts remain unstormed, they note. The Philippines and Malta are safe, but Ireland is weakening and San Marino seems lost.
According to Cosme Beccar Varela, president of an ultra-conservative Catholic lay group called Tradition, Family, Property, it is a left-right issue. "The Marxists want free love," he said. "Indissoluble marriage is as far as you can get from that."
A bright red banner in the street outside the group's headquarters features a heraldic lion rampant, along with the warning: "Divorce=Successive Polygamy."
Beccar Varela said: "Divorce is a cancer of society that attacks first one family, then another, then another, until it ends with the death of society. Mercifully, our country has been faithful to the law of God."
In all, more than a dozen militant lay groups are girding for battle alongside the church. It is an old fight. Argentina's first divorce bill went to Congress in 1888 and died in committee. Deputy Carlos Olivera, who sponsored a divorce bill in 1901, complained that he was "the target of insults by the priests of the whole country."
'Will Go . . . Like Butterflies'
Deputy Ernesto Padilla, in opposing Olivera's bill, thundered, "With divorce, husbands will go from wedding to wedding like butterflies from flower to flower."
After three months of congressional debate punctuated by rival street demonstrations, Olivera's bill lost, 50-48.
"Divorce is too important an issue to be decided by a mere majority," Roberto Bosca, an official of a pressure group called Union of Families, said recently. "Congress has no right to approve divorce. If it is to be considered at all it should be by individuals with specialized knowledge, not deputies who never addressed the issue with the voters who elected them."