Friday, 9 October 2009

DOI: President's Speech at the Doha Conference organised by the Cana Movement

Department of Information [Malta] DOI – 06.10.2009; No. 1695


Good Morning to you all, participants in this colloquium on the theme of “Why Strengthening Marriage and the Family is important”. Looking at the programme, one may immediately see that the topics under discussion are quite varied and deal with a large number of issues which today affect marriage and the family. This topic is of special interest to Malta in this day and age like the rest of the world.

The task assigned to me is to inaugurate this colloquium with an address in general terms. Before trying to answer this question as to why it is important to strengthen marriage and the family, I believe that one should be clear here and define the exact meaning of the terms we are dealing with. What constitutes marriage? What is a family? This is essential in order to avoid ambiguities and debatable terms so that truth will prevail instead of manipulation.

If one may use the definition in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society” and this is significantly followed by the words “and is entitled to protection by society and the State”. Here, the family is clearly understood as being composed of two married parents, a male and a female, together with their offspring.

A general traditional definition of “marriage” is “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life with an openness to the gift of children”. So marriage does not mean relationships which involve two men or two women or a variety of other possibilities.

The same applies to the traditional family used in the singular to distinguish it from the word “families” in its plural form which embraces all kinds of unions. It is the family based on marriage, the patrimony of humanity. Though the family is composed of individuals, it is bigger than the sum of its parts because the interaction between the individuals is what really produces the effects of being a family – children, mutual material and emotional support, socialisation.

Although I am using here the adjective “traditional family” and “traditional meaning of marriage” thereby denoting the past or a type of family that in many ways no longer exist, in actual fact I am specifically referring to the constitutive element of the family and marriage, a permanent description that is not eroded by the wear and tear of time but also taking account of the past, present and future like every other reality which is living and vital.

But why is it important to strengthen marriage and the family?

The family is a universal and irreplaceable community rooted in human nature that is the basis for all societies at all times. As the cradle of life and love for each new generation, the family is the primary source of personal identity, self-esteem, and support for children. It is also the first and foremost school of life, uniquely suited to teach children integrity, character, morals, responsibility, service, and wisdom. As the UN Programme for the International Year of the Family (1994) states, the family provides:

The natural framework for the emotional, financial, and material support essential to the growth and development of its members, particularly infants and children…. The family remains a vital means of preserving and transmitting cultural values.

These roles of transmitting culture and socialising children make the family indispensable to civil society, as families transform helpless, dependant babies into responsible, independent adults.

Marriage, on the other hand, is the most important social act, one that involves much more than just the married couple. It is through marriage that the community and the nation are renewed. A new home is formed when a couple marries, one open to the creation of new life. The children are the future. Marriage also has beneficial social and health effects for both adults and children, and these gifts benefit the community and the whole society. Conversely, it is through the breakdown of marriage that society is gravely harmed. The future of the nation depends on the creation of good marriages and good homes for children.

Married-parent families have a greater chance to contribute to safer and better communities with less substance abuse and crime among young people, as well as less poverty and welfare dependency. Furthermore, married parents are more likely to produce young adults who view marriage positively and maintain life-long marriages. Marriage brings many health and economic benefits to society and helps citizens to be more involved in communities.

But one may ask “What is the situation in Malta as regards marriage and the family?”

Traditionally, the family in Malta was held to be very united and stable with dedicated parents looking after and rearing the children and often with the support of an extended family which often lived nearby and which could be of assistance in times of need. This is still so to a marked degree even today but, in recent times, single parent households have multiplied considerably and so has the incidence of childbirth outside wedlock. This has sounded alarm bells and today, more than ever, the importance of strengthening marriage and the family is being discussed in the media and other fora more than ever before.

However, contrary to the general perception, the marital bond in Malta is still very strong and we should all feel proud as a nation about this. In fact according to the latest national census carried out in 2005 by the National Statistics Office, only 5.65 per cent of our married couples officially separated. But at the same time the Maltese family is facing one of its greatest tests. It is undergoing rapid social changes, greatly influenced by current Western world lifestyles and the ever increasing secularization of the Maltese society. The Maltese traditional family model is changing. We are witnessing an increase in the number of working mothers which undoubtedly puts new pressures on the family. This raises the question as to whether the strong family values of marriage and fidelity, child-bearing and rearing and the family bond will continue to resist the daunting challenges ahead.

We must work hard to prevent family fragmentation because the consequences for children and society are severe. Studies have constantly shown that children raised outside marriage suffer disproportionately from physical and mental illness; they are more likely to drop out of school; abuse drugs or alcohol and engage in violence or suffer it in their homes and they are less likely to attend higher educational institutions.

Of course, many hard-working single parents do an excellent job in raising children and they need our support too. But when a family with children breaks down, there are always negative outcomes for children, depending on their age. The many and often unavoidable changes that accompany divorce or separation can undermine children’s sense of security and make them fearful of the future. From a child’s perspective, the unimaginable has happened – a parent is no longer at home. Children may be deeply afraid that the other parent is going to “disappear” too and leave them alone in the world. Children of broken families may feel rejected and unloved by the parent who has left.

Children may believe their parents’ separation is their fault, caused by something they said or did, or just the way they are, and feel a deep sense of guilt. Even difficult teens may be afraid that their behaviour has contributed to the break-up and made it easier for a parent to leave. These children may feel a huge sense of loss and sadness, believing that the absent parent has gone forever and that they no longer have a family – a way of life is at an end. Their feelings mirror those of children who really have lost a parent forever because of accident or illness. However, they are often underestimated or overlooked so that children of broken homes do not receive the same kind of support.

These emotional effects of marriage breakdown are felt by the separated spouses too. According to research released last July in the US, the trauma of a split can leave long-lasting effects on mental and physical health that remarriage might not repair.

All this makes it imperative that we need to strengthen marriage and the family. As I have already explained, even under the Declaration of Human Rights itself, the family is entitled to protection and it is primarily the State which has the responsibility to provide this protection through legal measures and appropriate administrative structures. After all the State and society as a whole have a vested interest in the stability of families because they are the cells that build or compose the body of society. In this respect when parents are raising children they are not merely raising children but they are in reality raising a nation.

I do not pretend that I have all the answers as to what can be done to strengthen marriage and the family. But some suggestions may be considered.

The State may set up structures or strengthen existing ones to support marriage and families. In Malta, there is already the National Commission for the Family which has an advisory capacity. This Commission may be strengthened further or be re-established. The creation of a Commissioner for the Family and the setting up of an Inter-Ministerial Committee to plan and execute a holistic strategy in favour of marriage and family have been recently suggested. For this, as for any other measure, the necessary resources – human and financial – would have to be allocated.

Financial assistance is also important. Families with children below a certain income are already entitled to children’s allowance, besides free education for children up to university level as well as stipends for older children. Perhaps more fiscal incentives could be considered according to the means of the State at any given time. Families in financial difficulties may, at times, be victims to emotional pressures that may compound an already stressful situation.

Education is always of paramount importance. Educating students on the importance of family and stable marriage could be part of the national curriculum so that these concepts become inculcated into young citizens’ minds from an early age. Young people may sometimes be imbibed with ideas derived from the media which do not always present the realities of married life in their proper perspective and this may lead to disillusionment when they are themselves married and trying to form a viable family.

The State is not the only structure that can take measures or conduct studies and make recommendations to strengthen marriage and the family. The Catholic Church in Malta has the Diocesan Family Commission and a useful organisation in the Cana Movement, which is a non-governmental organisation which has for decades done a great deal of work to give couples who marry in Church a positive outlook on marriage and the family. The Centre for Family Studies has been opened at the University of Malta not long ago. Civil society and the communications media can also help. One may create a public discourse on the benefits and value of the family and marriage. Married couples with healthy relationship skills may share their experiences with others by using the media. Perhaps volunteers could be organised to speak at secondary schools and colleges about the benefits of marriage.

Presently at Appoġġ, a Government Support Unit, there is also “The Family Therapy Service” where families can seek support but this service is overburdened and needs further investment. Working in favour of strengthening marriage and the family is never enough and all possible contributions should be mobilised towards this vital goal.

Having said this, it is also true that whatever is done, there will still be marriages that fail and there will remain the need to address this problem. What is one to make of such situations in Malta? A number of separated spouses, either separated “de facto” or “de jure”, set up household with other partners and sometimes children are born as a result of these partnerships which may, in some cases, be relatively stable. Some are inclined to call such households composed of a male and female partner and their children born of their union “families in all but in name”. But should the term “family” be solely used in the case where a couple is officially married or are we to consider stable unions also to fall within the definition of a family? Are these unions to be considered merely as social affectionate aggregations giving rise to certain rights and obligations without however being put on the same level to a family? This begs again the original question as to what we understand by the term “family” in the present day context. I believe that an answer to this question has become a political priority in Malta and I do not want to pre-empt the discussion on this topic since my office precludes me at this stage to enter into the political fray.

As the law stands, our Maltese legislator has to some extent responded to new situations and the old distinctions between so-called legitimate and illegitimate children have been removed and today children, whether born in or outside wedlock, enjoy the same rights and this is as it should be. But should our law allow for the recognition of diversity in that unions outside marriage be recognised and that cohabiting partners be given rights akin to marital rights where it concerns maintenance, succession rights and other personal rights? As the position stands today, this is not permissible at law.

Given that it is impossible for such cohabiting couples to marry even had they wanted to, and given that a divorce legitimately obtained abroad is recognised under Maltese Law, such a situation has been discarded by some commentators as unfair. This situation has also been among the arguments in favour of the enactment of a law on divorce and the consequent right to remarry which some argue militates in favour of the family because it decreases cohabitation by giving rise to new families in marriage. On the other hand, those who oppose divorce legislation argue that second or subsequent marriages tend to be even more fragile than the first. This debate is ongoing and opinions sharply divided as evidenced by the recently published report entitled “For Worse, For Better: Re-Marriage after Legal Separation” published by “The Today Public Policy Institute” which is a non-governmental organisation and the critical reading entitled “For Worse not For Better” published under the aegis of the Diocesan Family Commission, Caritas Malta and the Cana Movement.

Be that as it may, it is felt that the time has come to take stock of the situation and to take decisions regarding family law in Malta. I believe that such a sensitive subject should be considered with empathy and a sentiment of compassion. I understand that this colloquium can give a valid contribution in this respect and before ending; I would like to recall what the winner of the Nobel Memorial prize in Economics, Mr Amartya Sen, underlined:

“A country’s development and well-being is not only determined by the Gross Domestic Product, but especially by the quality of life, relations and freedom. So, many sociological surveys demonstrate how families help in producing complete human development”.

Thank you.


1 comment:

  1. I wonder who prepares his speaches!!! seems like a student trying his luck with writing his first essay in "Sociology"!