Thursday, 3 September 2009

Times: This is not a theocracy
Thursday, 3rd September 2009 by Martin Scicluna

Thank God! Malta is not a theocracy. It is a pluralist, secular, liberal, parliamentary democracy. Yet, some of the exchanges that have arisen as a result of the publication of The Today Public Policy Institute's report, For Worse, For Better: Re-marriage After Legal Separation, of which I am the lead author, specifically the public spat between one wise and enlightened monsignor in the Church - with a record in marriage-building and counselling unequalled by anybody in Malta - and another monsignor, the Pro Vicar General, with an utterly closed mind on this issue and a record of wilful resistance to any need for change in marriage legislation, might lead one to believe that the Maltese Church was indeed harbouring within it some who wish we were a theocracy.

This would be a pity as the Archbishop himself made it clear well over a year ago that, while he considered the Catholic Church in Malta had a valid contribution to make to the debate on divorce, the Church would not seek to interfere - as opposed to participate - in this process. The Church, as much as any other group in our society, has the right to hold and express its own views about social questions and, in particular, about the best form for the law of marriage.

What is so remarkable, however, about the two distinguished monsignors' positions is that, on the one hand, we have the Pro Vicar General attempting to dress up his doctrinal adherence to the indissolubility of marriage as an objective and reasonable secular case to prevent re-marriage after legal separation while, on the other, Mgr Charles Vella and other eminent priests in the Church, for he is not alone, are prepared to examine realistically, with wisdom and, above all, humanity, the consequences of the gaping hole in Malta's legislation and the urgent need to rectify it for the greater good of society.

Mgr Vella rightly says this is a matter essentially for our law-makers in Malta - "The state has to come to grips with the problem of divorce. It has a duty to do it" - whereas the Pro Vicar General, while hiding behind a rickety structure of arguments based on false foundations ("once divorce legislation is introduced, couples would take their marriage preparation more lightly"; "divorce causes marriage breakdowns") is determinedly unwavering on this issue despite the accelerating number of broken marriages in Malta.

The respected Institute for Research on the Signs of the Times, Discern, estimates that by 2015 there will be some 35,000 individuals in broken marriages in Malta. Placed shoulder to shoulder, the line of people would stretch from the Curia in Floriana to the furthest shores of Comino.

The fundamental issue is that it is the state, through its legislators in Parliament, which must decide what is best for the whole of society not the Church. "It is high time for the roles of the Church and state to be clarified," Mgr Vella said, adding: "There should not be any 'twinning' between the two - and there still is".

It is the duty of the state to strike the proper balance between the human rights and natural aspirations of individuals and the interests of the community and society as a whole. Mgr Vella has grasped this central issue because he clearly understands that when the facts change it is utterly foolish not to change your mind. Mgr Anton Gouder has not. A period of silence on his part would now be welcome.

Our law-makers have a duty to try to give citizens all freedom that is consistent with the rights of others, as well as arbitrating in the name of the common good of society between various interest groups. A secular, democratic state, bound to pluralism and committed to the protection of the civil rights of each individual, must do justice by and on behalf of all its citizens, thereby strengthening the bonds of society as a whole.

Respected though the Maltese Church is, a purely doctrinal view (which I recognise is its religious and honestly-held view-point) is simply not enough on this vital social issue. Malta is not a theocracy. If Mgr Vella's timely intervention has taught us anything, it is that the supremacy of our law-makers in Parliament should now prevail.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]

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