Observers feel the non-debate on civil unions and gay adoptions is down to an internal schism on how the Church should strategically handle another legal challenge to its Magisterium so soon after the divorce referendum.
Thursday 31 October 2013 - 11:06 by Raphael Vassallo
Fr George Dalli: “Everybody is forgetting that the law as it stands today already allows adoption by single parents.”
A proposed bill on civil unions, which would permit adoption by same-sex couples, appears to be locked on a direct collision course with the authorities of the country's majority religion.
But not all within the Catholic Church are necessarily sorry to see the issue being discussed... even if some fear a repeat performance of the recent divorce referendum, which also served to expose the utmost limits of the institution's millennial hold on public opinion.
Evidence of this danger includes the formal reaction by the Bishops, who earlier this month issued a surprisingly non-confrontational statement in response to the publication of the bill.
Unlike 2008, when Archbishop Paul Cremona talked of 'secularism' as a threat akin to a foreign invasion, and described Jeffery Pullicino Orlando's private members bill on divorce as a 'bolt from the blue', the Bishops adopted a considerably less confrontational tone this time round.
"According to the Bill, the 'partners in a civil union' will be given the right for child adoption," Bishops Paul Cremona and Mario Grech remarked. "We consider such an issue of a very delicate nature similar to every issue that involves children and the child's best interest. Since there are contrasting views on the issue, it seems to us that it will be wise if the legislator takes the necessary time to make the right decisions on this matter. Children should preferably be brought up by their parents, a man and a woman."
Their message to MPs was similarly guarded: "We trust that our Members of Parliament will do their outmost so that while discussing this Bill, they show respect towards all the persons involved and at the same time consider the common good."
It fell to Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna, writing in his personal capacity in a letter to the Sunday Times, to put up a more focused opposition to the proposed law: describing it as 'deceptive' and 'untenable'.
"Children born of the union between a man and a woman are ideally raised in the family which is given social recognition and support through the institute of marriage. In a nutshell, marriage is for the family. It is not simply a socially recognised partnership," he said.
Scicluna added that the proposed Bill intended to put all this behind in the name of the asserted equality of same sex couples to couples of different sex.
"This asserted equality is a no-brainer when we deal with human dignity and the right to freedom from unjust discrimination. It does not stand the test of logic when it comes to the openness to the gift of parenthood," he said.
A church divided?
Observers have discerned in all this the possibility of an internal schism - if not on the issue itself, at least on the question of how to strategically handle another legal challenge to the Church's Magisterium so soon after the divorce referendum.
Blogging about the Church's reaction to the civil unions law, outspoken Dominican Friar Mark Montebello made a direct connection with the divorce referendum, which he described as a 'fiasco' (froga).
"One would expect that, after this fiasco, Church exponents would learn from the experience, if nothing else from the organisation side of things. But this didn't happen... Once again [the Church] may be giving the same impression as before: i.e., of a Church that is insensitive to the human rights of minorities."
Montebello concluded that, while the Church is fully entitled to its view of marriage as an indissoluble bond between a man and a woman, the government has an electoral mandate to regulate civil unions. "Government does not exist just for Catholics; government is for everyone."
Nonetheless not everyone in the Church's so-called liberal wing necessarily shares this critical view of the institution's reaction to the proposed law.
Fr Gorg Dalli, formerly the parish priest of L-Ibrag, sees no problem with the Church speaking in a multiplicity of voices, "No church has a monopoly of the truth," the typically outspoken Dalli told MaltaToday. "Some people think that having different opinions is a sign of weakness; but to me it's the other way round. The strength of the Catholic Church has always been the diversity of its opinions."
Many priests, he added, are scared of allowing different opinions to be heard. "But how can we expect to have a national discussion if we are going to silence opinions?"
Regarding the issue at hand, Dalli defends the position taken so far by the Church.
"The Church agrees, I agree, with civil unions. The question arises with regard to the adoption of children by same sex couples. I agree with Mgr Charles Scicluna on this point. I am all in favour of the majority respecting the minority, but I disagree that we should reach a stage when the minority dictates to the majority. And on this issue I don't believe the majority approves of same-sex adoptions. In a few years' time this may change - everything is possible - but I believe the majority today is against."
Nonetheless, Fr Dalli acknowledges that - as was the case with divorce - people are reacting to a proposal to regulate a phenomenon... but not necessarily to the phenomenon itself, which has existed unnoticed for years.
"Everybody is forgetting that the law as it stands today already allows adoption by single parents," he said, adding that gays can and do adopt children using this loophole.