Thursday, 28 May 2009

EDRC: The Catholic Church in Malta and Membership of the EU - Fears; Challenges; Hopes
European Documentation & Research Centre

Rev. Dr Joseph P. Ellul O.P.

In many ways Maltese society is in a state of constant flux on both the social and the religious level. This is due to the country being an island that has steadily emerged from a position of isolation to one that is in continuous contact with the outside world through travel, tourism and mass communication. It has yet to come to grips with this new situation and its collateral effects.

Right up until twenty years ago there was only one national television station; today the number of radio stations is rising rapidly. This phenomenon has obviously brought about an increased participation of the public in the programmes they produce. In itself pluralism has come to mean that issues of all sorts are constantly being discussed and that everybody has a say, irrespective of whether his or her opinion is informed and worth reflecting upon, or even taking up.

There is an increasing danger that such an approach to pluralism will lead to the possible misuse of the public forum, the possible forming of strong subversive pressure groups, and the possible promotion of strident and well-organised minority movements that are high on demagoguery but low on constructive dialogue. These could not only make for a collapse of traditional values, but also stall development of every kind. It is a well known fact that some sections of the Maltese media do hold talk shows in which religious or moral issues are discussed without the required respect for or deference to the knowledge, culture or social standing of those who are in a better position to speak about them. It is indeed a pity that such shows are intended more to boost the number of viewers or listeners than to enhance an informed public opinion.

One of the results has been a steady increase in criticism of  the Church as an institution (it being equated with civil institutions) as well as regarding its teachings. This is leading towards an increasing marginalization of religion from the public domain and mounting anti-Catholic rhetoric marked by a sharp drop in Church attendance, a steady flow of articles and letters in newspapers with an obvious hostility towards the local Church hierarchy, and the constant accusation that Church teachings are a threat to one's individual freedom and to progress.

These attitudes have sought and have indeed found support from various European movements. Entry into the European Union has speeded up this painful process, which is at once inevitable and dramatic. It is inevitable because, as already mentioned above, Maltese society is no longer isolated and, for better or for worse, it has to catch up with Europe and with the rest of the world.

On the other hand it is also dramatic because the speed with which these changes are taking place has left no possibility for them to be slowly absorbed within the fabric of Maltese society. The past twenty years have proved to be a classic example of shock therapy. Already Pope John Paul II, in his address to the representatives from the world of culture delivered (27th May, 1990) during his first pastoral visit to Malta, gave this timely warning which has lost none of its freshness: 

The exercise of freedom must be accompanied by a growth in moral and spiritual maturity. Unfortunately Our dominant culture shows signs of a weakening moral commitment and a narrow sense of spiritual inspiration. People are often more sensitive to feelings, emotions and impressions than to thought, reflection and discernment. To act without reason is not worthy of man, whose freedom is based on knowledge of the truth, which enlightens his judgement.”

In the next few years the Church in Malta will have to face the same challenges that European societies have faced for the past fifty years or more: the challenge of divorce (which is now becoming increasingly a question of when rather than if, given the fact that both political parties have agreed to discuss the issue), the challenge of co-habitation, of same-sex marriages, of adoptions by parents of the same sex. The promise given by the European Union on the eve of Malta's entry that legislation on the introduction of divorce and abortion is left to the single member states to decide has proved to be nothing less than an illusion. Pressure is mounting from bodies of the European Union is subtle and in not so subtle ways.

The Church in Malta must likewise face the challenge brought about by advances in the field of biotechnology posed by a new poverty that has become a constant presence in European societies and to which Malta is not an exception. This consists of a haunting emptiness that lies at the heart of modern society where human life is being progressively viewed as a commodity from the moment of conception through the crises of a terminal or irreversible illness, where public opinion is being persuaded that the human being is master of his or her own destiny and that whether one's life should continue or not is a matter that even human relationships suffer.

These present and future challenges lead to a question of vital importance, namely, will the Church still be considered relevant to Maltese society now that our country is a full member of the European Union? This means that the Church must first and foremost face the question of its own identity and role in Maltese society in order to be capable of addressing the challenges posed on our country by a greatly expanded and continuously evolving European Union. 

In order to respond to this daunting task the Church in Malta must draw inspiration from the prophetic words of Pope Paul VI: “The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make”. This implies a complete overhaul of the way this communication is taking place.

Another challenge that needs to be addressed in the context of Malta's membership in the European Union is the one concerning ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. The question of ethnic, cultural and religious diversity that has faced the European continent and, in our particular case, the European Union is also one that needs to be dealt with by Maltese society. Inter-marriage between Maltese and people hailing from other countries, cultures and religions has now become a constant phenomenon in our country. Here again, the Church in Malta is called upon to address the issue with sober realism and with fidelity to its identity and role as a Catholic community.

The Church in Malta today does not and must not which for a return to the ways of the past, but neither is it condemned to remain bogged down in the present. Nostalgia of “better times in the past” does not bode well for a Church that needs to be forward looking and which requires leaders capable of realizing its aspirations and hopes. The Church must never agree to allow itself to be relegated to the sacristy or to have its role restricted to liturgical functions; nor should the Church's pastoral planning reduce itself to a reaction to government agendas and legislation.

A fundamental step forward has already been taken by the convocation of the Diocesan Synod in 1999 (and which was concluded in 2003), which has painstakingly worked on the basic issues facing Maltese society and how the Church is called upon to respond.

As is the case with other European countries, the Church in Malta has much to say to Maltese society in the European Union. The society that is now emerging is becoming increasingly individualistic, pluralistic and secular. It has a word to say to civil society. If it wants to live up to its vocation as Church it must be first and foremost a prophetic community. In a society that is undergoing a crises of values it has a duty to affirm and restore ideals, such as the dignity of the human person, the centrality of reason, social solidarity, and society as community. The project of Malta as a full member of the European Union is not exempt from the temptation of Babel. Europe is not the Promised Land nor is it the heavenly Jerusalem.

Although Malta is one of the smallest countries in the European Union, it has a right to voice its grievances, especially at times when this same Union appears to adopt policies that are suggestive of a super-state rather than a union where unity in diversity is cultivated. The Maltese language and the Catholic religion lie at the very roots of our country's identity. European Union policy makers are called upon to respect Malta's uniqueness as expressed by these tow elements instead of attempting to eradicate them in the name of a false European secularism.This holds true especially as regards divorce, same-sex marriages, euthanasia, abortion, cloning and so forth.

Maltese society should beware of throwing out the baby with the vathwter, of denying its Christian, or in this particular context, its Catholic past, limited it solely to the events of the sixties. By pretending to flee from what some would dub “the tyranny of the past” it would simply be floating aimlessly into the tyranny of the present, without roots, without any fixed goal, precisely as a result of having disowned its identity. Instead of accepting in  humility the past with all its glories and tragedies it would end up taking an attitude of arrogance by creating a collective amnesia, pretending to start anew and ending up living in a historical vacuum. This tragic error has already been committed by those who drafted the so-called European Constitution and who opted to do away with any mention of the Christian roots of Europe.

The Church in Malta needs to be vigilant in order to avoid ambiguities that have, alas, become the hallmark of much of European Union policy. Malta in the European Union needs the Church in order to avoid the extreme pitfalls of losing its identity or of making of its identity an absolute to the detriment of other peoples and falling into the clutches of an extreme nationalism.

On the other hand Maltese civil society s called upon to give serious consideration to what Church authorities have to say. Church leaders, be they bishops, clergy, religious or lay people involved in pastoral work, have a right and a duty to act as the conscience of Maltese society without having to go through the indignity of being stereotyped as fundamentalists, Talibans or latter-day inquisitors. As free and responsible citizens of the Republic of Malta they have a right to voice their concerns on issues that effect the moral standing of the country; as leaders they have a responsibility to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching”. Civil society must listen and evaluate their opinions; it must live up to its name, that of being truly civil.

In the not too distant future Malta will undoubtedly produce its fair share of Theo-Cons or clerical atheists who in their writings and public speeches will strike a chord in Catholics who feel aggrieved by the wave of an already present secular fundamentalism, but who no doubt have its own agendas. The Church in Malta would do well to avoid being associated with such currents of thought.

The role of the Church in Malta should not be reduced to that of a tenacious apologist obsessed with preserving Christianity from extinction. In this environment of spiritual and moral poverty it is called to demonstrate that the human being is not reduced to what he or she shows or produces; that the family is the natural environment in which one learns how to love; that simple gestures are enough to restore hope to those who consider themselves marginalized or, even worse, forgotten.

The role of the Church in helping a more humane Maltese society is to be an attentive listener to the cries of anguish which betray a sense of the meaninglessness that lies at the heart of humanity today, as well as impassioned and coherent witness of a faith that is forever new, dynamic and relevant. Maltese society is also suffering from a deficit of hope, that hope which enables its citizens to give meaning to their lives and history, and to look ahead and continue on their way together.

The Church in Malta has a unique opportunity to live up to and renew its mission of giving a coherent and courageous message of hope in an age of anxiety and uncertainty characterized by the long-term prospects of economic crises and decline leading to unemployment and the rise in property prices that is taking its toll on both established families as well as prospective ones.

The witness of the Church in Malta must therefore be manifested as a life in all its fullness and freedom, a love that does not experience the bonds in terms of dependence and limitation but rather as an opening to the greatness of life. The Church in Malta has a future because it has always risen to the occasion whenever the Maltese population was in dire need of inspiration and hope. Participation in the life of the European Union should not be a cause of fear, but a call to one¹s faith and find in it the realization of human dignity and purpose.

As the Archbishop of Malta and the Bishop of Gozo clearly stated in a jointly written pastoral letter last year: “Our society expects from us, as a Christian community, an answer that is first and foremost one of true and authentic witness. It is our authenticity, which makes our words and our deeds credible, and to be relied upon when we speak about what is the true meaning of life and what is most important in life”.

At this crucial moment in the history of our nation as a member of the European Union the Church in Malta is called upon to respond with courage and determination, with compassion and love, with joy and hope. I is called upon to show the same leadership that has made the population of our islands seek its guidance in times of crisis and danger throughout the centuries. It is this role that has made Church the backbone of Maltese society.


- Rev. Dr. Joseph Ellul O.P. is a Professor in Eastern Christianity and Muslim-Christian Dialogue at the `Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (Rome); Lecturer in Islamic Thought at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (Rome); Lecturer in Muslim - Christian Dialogue at the University of Malta; Archbishop of Malta's delegate for Christian - Muslim Relations; Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

(This is an edited version of the same titled article published as part of the Civil Society Project Report 2009 on Malta in the European Union: Five Years on and Looking to the Future (Edited by Profs. Peter G. Xuereb (Project Co-odinator). The report, published by the European Documentation and Research Centre, Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence, University of Malta, will form the backdrop to a public discussion and debate in a National Confrence organised by the EDRC in May of this year.)

Please note that all rights are reserved by the EDRC and Peter G. Xuereb.

1 comment:

  1. The Catholic church is the largest influential lobbyist after political parties (and maybe some big business). It has it's own radio, and featured regularly in all forms of media.

    Nothing wrong with that. However I find it both hypocritical and arrogant that a person from this organisatin plays the victim. Minorities such as LGBT or people whose marriage has broke down have much less say than the church.

    In my opinion, only one word describes this article - bullying