Monday, 13 January 2014, 12:00
Photograph Jonathan Borg
Dominican priest, lecturer and author Mark Montebello talks to John Cordina on the Catholic Church in Malta which, he believes, betrays an identity crisis as it resists the introduction of civil unions for same-sex couples.
The Church in Malta has proven to be unable to learn any lessons from its unsuccessful campaigning against divorce, opting instead to entrench itself, according to outspoken priest Mark Montebello.
The church is back in the headlines in recent weeks over its strong opposition to a bill that would allow same-sex couples to enter civil unions – and, particularly, over the provisions enabling such couples to adopt children.
The Malta Archdiocese’s first reaction to the bill had actually been quite subdued: a joint statement by Malta Archbishop Paul Cremona, Gozo Bishop Mario Grech and Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna actually stopped short of condemning the proposed law, even though they emphasised the need for deep reflection.
But this approach proved to be very much short-lived – Mgr Scicluna used Twitter to lament that Malta’s politicians wanted to “equate civil unions between gays to marriage, discarding tradition for a brave new world” just hours after this statement was published – and since then, the Church in Malta has been vocal in its opposition to the law.
Inevitably, such opposition recalls the Church’s prominent role in the run-up to the 2011 referendum on divorce legislation, in which it contributed €180,000 to the unsuccessful anti-divorce campaign.
Fr Montebello had been strongly critical of that campaign, writing that he was mortified by the actions of a church that was “not the Catholic Church I believe in and love.”
Almost three years on, however, it seems little has changed, and the Dominican priest rejects suggestions that the Malta Archdiocese had learnt anything from its controversial and arguably counterproductive posturing back then.
“No lessons could be learnt,” Fr Montebello insists, “for ‘trench politics’ allows no listening; it only calls for very sad ‘I-am-right-you-are-wrong’ impertinence, which not even a government with a strong mandate can afford nowadays.”
“Let alone a minority group with delusions of grandeur,” he adds.
Asked to state his personal opinion on the issue, Fr Montebello insists that he had no problem with the proposed law.
“The state is obliged to protect same-sex couples who enter civil unions in the same way that it is obliged to protect couples who enter any other type of marriage which it recognizes. The former is just a logical extension of the latter,” he explains.
As for adoption, he points out that same-sex couples in a civil union would not be granted an automatic right to adopt children, but would be subject to the same laws and regulations currently in force to assess the eligibility and suitability of prospective adoptive persons.
“Government needs only to uphold the rule of law, which it already does in any case. I personally see no problem in any of this,” Fr Montebello maintains.
A Church struggling with its own identity
Despite his criticism of the Malta Archdiocese’s stances on issues such as the proposed civil unions bill, Fr Montebello makes it clear that he believes that the church has an active political role to play. In certain cases, he points out, the Church is even duty-bound to urge politicians or the general public to vote in a certain manner.
“For instance, in the case of unjust taxation, designed discrimination, institutional oppression, state aggression and many other evils,” he explains.
“The problem is not with this principle. The problem is one of attitude; whether the Church sees itself as an instrument of universal peace and justice, or whether it sees itself as a protector of group privileges and predominant classes.”
Fr Montebello is adamant that the problem is not simply the issues the Church chooses to focus on, “for any institution, the Church included, should give attention to all issues which somehow bear on its remit.”
“The problem is more fundamental than that. It has to do with self-identity; with how it sees itself in the world. The problem is what we would call ecclesiological,” he maintains, adding that this had an effect on the organisation of its internal structures and on its actions.
The way forward, according to Fr Montebello, is for the Church to synchronise itself with the Gospels. Once this takes place, he adds, “issues such as social justice will come to the fore, and moralising will lose the prominence it is presently being given.”
He insists that the Gospels provide the blueprint for a Church seeking to keep up with the times: in this case, he said, it meant “renewing the Gospel message of universal fraternity, equality and freedom to new historical and material circumstances.
This process may involve redefining Church doctrines – although Fr Montebello insists that this did not mean changing them fundamentally – as well as a shift in emphases.
Doing so, he insists, would ensure that the Church reverses the present trend which, he maintained in a recent interview, may lead it to extinction in Malta.
The Catholic Church faces similar prospects in much of Europe, he explains, but stresses that the reality is very different in other parts of the world.
“Where the Church was incapable of rethinking itself, reorganising its structure, and renewing its image and actions, its ‘extinction course’ has been irreversible. Where this has been done, the Church thrives,” Fr Montebello points out.
Of course, the Catholic Church itself has witnessed a significant change last year, with the appointment of Pope Francis as the successor of Pope Benedict XVI, who was the first pope to resign his position in centuries.
But while the new pope has de-emphasised moralising in favour of speaking up on issues such as social and economic inequality, Fr Montebello – who had been critical of Pope Benedict’s appointment, to the point of earning a ban from speaking in public by then-Archbishop Joseph Mercieca for describing the election as a “sick joke” – insisted that a change in pope alone would not suffice.
“However extraordinary his personal qualities and manner of leadership, the Pope is not the Church. Much less is the Vatican,” he maintains.
“Jesus is. Only loyalty to him, and him alone, can the Church keep attuned to its divine remit, and serve all men and women with compassion and love.”
· A Sliema native, Fr Montebello joined the Order of Preachers – the Dominicans – at the age of 16 in 1980, and was ordained a priest nine years later.
· He obtained a Ph.D in Philosophy and a Masters degree in Criminal Justice, and is a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta.
· A self-declared social democrat, Fr Montebello is a great admirer of political activist Manwel Dimech, who he has researched extensively and published a number of books about.
· His own activism has included founding humanitarian NGO Daritama in Cospicua, and serving as director for prisoners’ rights advocacy group Mid-Dlam għad-Dawl.
· Fr Montebello is no stranger to controversy within the church. His criticism of the appointment of Pope Benedict XVI earned him a six-monh ban from speaking on church issues in 2005, and further controversial comments led him to be transferred to Mexico for three months in 2010.