Just under a month ago, I participated in a public debate at the InterContinental Hotel in St Julian’s with Monsignor Gouder, the Pro Vicar General, on the theme “Is the Church 200 Years behind the times?” The debate was organised under the auspices and on the initiative of The Times. It was a most civilised and constructive debate, held in front of a packed house of some two hundred people, inspired by the deathbed interview given by the much-revered Cardinal Martini, who had been for several years the Cardinal-Archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Milan, the largest diocese in the world.
Before the debate, The Times had included in its advertising blurb the question: “Did the Maltese Church alienate an increasingly liberal Maltese society with its tough stance on divorce, the traditional family and IVF?” Unfortunately, the question was never broached. This was a pity because it is only when one analyses what has happened in the Maltese Church on issues of such social impact as divorce, IVF and the family, not forgetting the clerical sex abuse scandal, in the last four or five years, that an objective view of its current state – how it conducted itself, with what results, and why – can be gauged: where it might have gone wrong and what needs to be done to improve matters.
Let me state immediately that I accept absolutely the Church’s right to make its voice heard on social issues such as divorce, IVF treatment and the family. It has every right and duty to teach its principles and doctrines as it sees them. But, importantly, the citizen in our country is free in all consciousness to accept or reject these teachings by informing himself and applying his own rational analysis, intelligence and judgment to an issue. And with this freedom comes the right to comment if these teachings infringe any perceived human or civil rights, whether it is the liberty to practice birth control or, for example, to vote for re-marriage after legal separation.
In a well written article in MaltaToday in June 2008, Archbishop Cremona made it clear 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, since it was fundamental to ensure that legislators and society were not placed under duress when considering this issue. A spirit of democratic dialogue stemming from a willingness to be open-minded and open to persuasion should prevail, he said. But by 2011 there seemed to be a complete reversal in this policy. What actually happened was a full-blooded – and extremely costly – crusade.
The Church’s conduct throughout the public debate was heavy-handed, overbearing and threatening, arguing inter alia that to vote for divorce would be to commit a mortal sin; bringing children into the debate; threatening the judiciary with sin if they subsequently implemented divorce legislation. Through its bullying tactics it diminished its own standing and trust with its flock. Worse, despite all the threats, over 122,000 of the faithful voted against what the Church purported to stand for. This was a catastrophe for the Church – a self-inflicted wound – as well as a waste of €189,000 of its very hard-pressed funds.
But the real tragedy was that the Church did not appear to learn lessons from that setback. The recent pastoral letter on the IVF Bill was utterly inept, hurting deeply not only those who have had fertility treatment, but also fair-minded priests and laity throughout the archdiocese. The pastoral letter – almost certainly drafted by the Bishop of Gozo since the Archbishop was then unwell – implied, among other offensive epithets, that children born through IVF treatment were somehow not acceptable in the eyes of God, and that infertile parents used IVF because it was the easy option.
The Church's doctrine on IVF, divorce, same-sex marriage, contraception and so on is what it is. It is not for me to correct it. But it is for me and other lay members, as recipients of that doctrine, not only to question its validity in the modern context, but also the manner in which it is communicated. The Church is the people, not just the Church’s hierarchy or the clergy. And in Malta this invariably tends to be forgotten.
The key lessons to come out of the combined impacts of the botched divorce referendum, the IVF pastoral letter and the clerical sex abuse incidents, as well as discussions about the “traditional” family, are to shine a searchlight on the Maltese Church’s governance – its structure, leadership, organisation and way of communicating. For the first time ever, the Maltese Church has had to deal with the first truly, seriously educated laity in Malta, one which has also manifestly been influenced by Malta's advances in its democracy. Clerical sex abuse and arguments over divorce have highlighted a massive loss of trust in the Church because its judgement has been found wanting and it can no longer use the discipline of obedience to dictate its case.
The Church should learn to collaborate more closely with the laity to find solutions to the problems. The Times debate showed what educated laity would be willing to do to help. The Church must learn how to express itself effectively in a secular world if it is not further to alienate its diminishing flock. It currently comes across as authoritarian and soulless (lacking compassion for those who, in its eyes, stray). As the new Auxiliary Bishop-designate put it “We need to do better... We need to start using language that people can understand... We need to tell people we are not here to impose, but that we are here to propose.”
The Church must adopt a more intelligent, more rational, less dogmatic tone of voice. Let priests read the mood and appear tolerant, understanding and thoughtful, rather than judgmental and authoritarian. Its inability to articulate its doctrines in language which is meaningful and relevant to the faithful, and does not hurt and offend those whose conscience tells them otherwise, has been the hallmark of the last few years.
These recent major public issues, including its handling of the Maltese clerical sex abuse scandal – on which Pope Benedict and Monsignor Charles Scicluna personally had to intervene – have exposed a Church which is monolithic, poorly organised, badly led and divided (as Monsignor Scicluna so perceptively said: “When we are not united under the Archbishop, we will create confusion”).
The heartfelt appeal from all quarters of the priesthood and the laity for the resurgence of a relevant Church – a Church that makes a difference to the everyday lives of people – has found an echo in what Cardinal Martini said in his deathbed interview. The key lesson for the Maltese Church is that it needs to take a hard look at itself and to heed the warning signs of decay and alienation so graphically described by Cardinal Martini.