4.5.2011 by Martin Scicluna
The first real clash occurred in the 1920s, following Malta’s first truly self-governing Constitution of 1921. This brought together a potent and combustible mix of Maltese Church, in the shape of the Archbishop and clergy, the British colonial authorities of the Governor and the Colonial Office in London, the Vatican under Pope Pius XI, and the rising forces of Fascism in Italy under Mussolini
It led to a hectic fight throughout the late 1920s, involving the clergy and the Maltese government, centred chiefly around the so-called language question (English versus Italian) in education, with Lord Strickland being painted by the pro-Italian clergy as being anti-Church (for being pro-English).
This culminated in May 1930 with a Pastoral Letter by Archbishop Pace stating, “You may not vote for Lord Strickland or his candidates without committing a grave sin,” together with a number of other ecclesiastical strictures. This was an Exocet – the first use of the Maltese Church’s nuclear weapon. Others were to follow, as we shall see.
This quickly led to the suspension of the Constitution in 1932, as the looming war in Europe, which would involve Fascist Italy under Mussolini, began to take shape. The first Italian bombs to be dropped on Malta put paid once and for all to the ‘Language Question’. And post-war the British authorities continued with their policy of trying to please and placate the Church.
But soon the arrival of Mr Mintoff in the 1950s – another strong and charismatic figure, like Strickland before him – and his policy of ‘integration,’ led to another clash with the Church, now under Archbishop Gonzi, which saw integration, and the Church’s atavistic fear of Protestantism which it engendered, as a direct threat to its power and authority.
The Maltese Church demanded safeguards and guarantees for its hitherto unassailable position as guardians of Maltese morality and the Roman Catholic faith. “New legislation should stipulate,” the Church said, that “nothing should be done to diminish or detract from the Church’s prerogatives as now enjoyed by it, in particular as regards the marriage laws and the law relating to family life and education.” Plus ça change.
The integration referendum was lost by Mintoff in 1958. But a few years later, in 1961, the Archbishop used the sanction of interdiction (a form of excommunication) against the Labour Party’s newspapers and hierarchy since he feared that the election of Mintoff would lead to the introduction of communism to Malta. This was the second use of the nuclear option by the Church in the space of less than 30 years.
What the interdict said was: “This means no one, without committing a mortal sin, can print, write, sell, buy, and distribute these newspapers.” Parish priests separated so-called ‘true Catholics’ from obstinate Labour Party supporters. They refused them absolution in confession. They could not receive Holy Communion or be buried in hallowed ground. The social stigma for believers was enormous. The pain is felt by families to this day.
The 1962 election was won by the Nationalist Party. And the position of the Church became a crucial issue in the independence negotiations which now lay on the immediate horizon.
Meanwhile, however, unbeknown to the Maltese Church, the ground was shifting under its feet. This was caused by external events over which it had no control. These were, first, the Vatican II Council which, with John XXIII’s arrival, led to the winds of change blowing through St Peter’s, carrying away with them the dust of Church prejudice and bigotry, especially in its teachings about socialism. It led to recognition in Malta that people could vote Labour without it carrying any stigma.
And, secondly, Malta’s sovereign independence itself in 1964, and hence the Church’s loss of the protective guardianship of the British authorities. This led to a seismic shift. The British handed over Malta’s sovereignty to a newly independent Malta with the Maltese Church triumphant, and as nearly medieval as never before.
Henceforth, however, the Church would have to deal with Maltese governments, Maltese legislators – who rightly had their own views about what the Maltese people wanted – and Maltese social development.
Subsequently, in 1968, the Archbishop removed all remaining religious restrictions from Labour Party members and said he would work with all his might towards an agreement with Mintoff. This was encouraged by the Vatican, which it is thought had put pressure on Archbishop Gonzi to do so.
And in 1969, a formal agreement was reached in which Archbishop Gonzi acknowledged that “In a modern society it is necessary that distinction be made between the political community and the Church. The very nature of the Church demands she does not interfere in politics. The Church authority has the duty and the right to safeguard her spiritual and temporal interests and, whenever need arises, to teach which principles are correct and which are wrong. The Church does not impose mortal sin as a censure.” The Exocet carrying the nuclear warhead appeared to have been disarmed at last.
Mintoff was re-elected in 1971, followed almost immediately, in 1972, by the reform of the homosexuality and adultery laws (until then criminal offences liable to imprisonment). The declaration of a Republic in 1974 and reform of the Marriage Act in 1975 quickly followed. But nonetheless still leading up, in the 1980s, to the Church-State clash over Church and private schools.
In brief, what our history to date has shown is that those serious conflicts – 1920s / 1930s, 1950s / 1960s and 1980s – in which the Maltese Church has been involved over the last 100 years were not with their Protestant, colonial masters or, even before them, the autocratic Knights, but with the elected representatives of the Catholic Maltese people. This may be a consequence of the fact that the British never directly attacked the Church, though its policies gradually weakened its power and increased that of the Maltese State (as it should in a pluralistic, liberal democracy) with each successive Constitution.
When the State came into Maltese hands on Independence, it was inevitable that conflicts would arise because our politicians more easily “trespassed” on the domain of the Church, as the Church saw it. And moreover, because, as Catholics themselves, the politicians were – indeed still are – more subject to the influence and sanction of the Church through the exercise of spiritual coercion.
The battle between Strickland and Archbishop Caruana of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as that between Mintoff and Archbishop Gonzi in the 1950s and 1960s and between Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici / Mintoff and Archbishop Mercieca in the 1980s were battles for only one prize: Power. Dallas has had nothing on it.
This is not to say that all the contestants did not consider their struggle as being for the good of Malta. They did. But the arguments each side used in defence of its case demonstrate that the respective ideologies involved served as a convenient frame of reference in the battle for power over the Maltese people.
In conclusion, for long periods over the last 500 years, Malta retained the characteristics of a medieval theocracy. Only recently – in the last 40 years – has the Church begun to relinquish some of its hold on power. The question we need to ask ourselves now is whether we are entering a new final phase in the battle for power over the Maltese State and its people by the Church with the issue of divorce being the catalyst for this conflict.
The answer will depend on how the Maltese Church decides to conduct itself in the three weeks ahead.
The first part of this article was carried last Sunday
Martin Scicluna is a member of the IVA Campaign and the lead author of the Report ‘For Worse, For Better: Remarriage After Legal Separation’