The Malta Independent 29 May 2024, Wednesday
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Revision of 1992 Church and State concordat

Martin Scicluna Wednesday, 1 May 2013, 08:32 Last update: about 11 years ago

In its election manifesto, the government stated its intention to revise the 1992 Church-State Concordat which gave the Ecclesiastical Tribunal the final say in marriage cases, leaving the Maltese courts subordinate to its decisions in matters of marriage annulments.

At a meeting soon after the General Election between Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Archbishop Paul Cremona, with Auxiliary Bishop Scicluna in attendance, the Prime Minister declared the government's intention to pursue an amendment to the agreement. He said he would be writing to the Holy See to open discussions on the subject. In July 2011, soon after the Maltese Church's debacle in the national referendum on divorce, a Curia spokesman had said that the Maltese Church would look positively at enhancing specific elements of the current Church-State agreement. This seemed like a step in the right direction, but probably does not go far enough.

The self-inflicted wound by the Maltese Church in the way it conducted itself in the divorce referendum called into question the whole balance of Church-State relations in Malta. While the Church is a force for good in Maltese society – and over the centuries has done outstanding work in the parishes, in schools and many charitable institutions – it is a human institution like any other. It does not hold a monopoly on establishing the moral foundations in society. While its views are to be respected, ultimate responsibility for the kind of society which a secular, liberal, parliamentary democracy like Malta should adopt lies in the hands of our elected representatives in Parliament, representing the sovereign will of the people.

The need for a new, wide-sweeping Concordat between Church and State, covering not only the infamous 1992 accord between the Holy See and the Government of Malta, but also Church-State arrangements in other secular matters, is now overdue. There are apparently over half a dozen so-called Concordats between Church and State in Malta which were signed over the decade 1985 to 1995. These range from the incorporation of the school of theology into the University of Malta, to church schools, “temporal goods” of the Maltese Church and the financing of Catholic schools.

At face value, none of these appear sinister in themselves, but they do open up the inescapable thought that the Catholic Church in Malta, and the Vatican State, hold a privileged position which may no longer be appropriate in twenty-first century Malta. It is instructive that none of these agreements was ratified by Parliament, but were simply “sealed and approved” by the Maltese Foreign Minister on behalf of the government of Malta of the day, and brought into force accordingly.

There is an urgent need for a clear re-calibration of Church-State relations in Malta – a distinct separation of powers between Church and State. Taking as its model and start-point the agreement reached between the then Archbishop of Malta and the then Malta Labour Party leader, which was signed on Good Friday, 4 April 1969, the new Concordat between the Church and the government of Malta should be drafted to cover four key issues: a statement of principles delineating the separation of Church and State; the revocation of the 1992 Concordat on “the recognition of civil effects to canonical marriages and to the decisions of the ecclesiastical authorities and tribunals”; formal acknowledgement of the supremacy of the Maltese courts in cases of clerical sex abuse and other criminal acts; and the incorporation of all previous Concordats, dealing essentially with educational matters, into the one new agreement.

First, as the new government has already promised, without in any way resiling from Article 2 of the Constitution of Malta, and specifically that “the authorities of the Roman Apostolic Church have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong”, the new agreement would make it clear that it is necessary in modern society for a clear distinction to be made between the political community and the Church. The very nature of the Church demands she does not interfere in politics. The Church does not impose threats of mortal sin or other forms of coercion as a censure.

To this end, the agreement would specify that the Church undertakes that, while it may make a contribution to any public debate on any matter on which it holds a valid view, it will not seek to interfere – as opposed to participate – in this process, since it is fundamental to ensuring that legislators in Parliament, and society, are not placed under duress when considering issues of a social, ethical or political nature. 

In this respect the Church would agree not to take upon itself the political battle to bring about the most just society since it cannot and must not replace the State. While the just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics, the government would accept for its part, that the two spheres of Church and State are distinct but inter-related. The government on behalf of the political authorities, would assert their duty to give their citizens all freedom that is consistent with the rights of others, arbitrating in the name of the common good of society, while enacting laws that benefit the well-being of society as a whole.

Secondly, the Church would agree that the Church-State agreement between the Holy See and the Republic of Malta drawn up in 1992, granting supremacy to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal over the Civil Courts in marriage annulment cases, would be revoked.

Thirdly, the Maltese Church would agree that in cases of clerical misdemeanour, such as child sex abuse or any other criminal acts committed by members of the clergy, the requirements of the criminal law in Malta shall prevail at all times over Canon Law. The Church should accept that the mandatory reporting of such crimes to the civil authorities shall invariably be respected and that the withholding of such information will be treated as a crime.

Given the still festering clerical abuse cases at St Joseph’s Home, the Church might also wish to consider including a paragraph, either separately or in the Concordat, recognising that “the Church, in a spirit of reconciliation, makes an unconditional announcement acknowledging its moral responsibility for the harm that was done to the long-suffering victims of clerical abuse in the St Joseph’s Home” and  agreeing to offer financial compensation to the victims for their suffering.

Fourth, the opportunity of a new Concordat should be taken to incorporate the key elements of six previous agreements dealing with university and educational matters and two concerning the “temporal goods” of the Church into a new, up-dated agreement if their terms still hold relevant.

It is necessary to draw up a fresh, single Concordat which reflects the changes in Church-State relations which have occurred over the last three decades. Without the need to amend our Constitution, for the sake of our democracy a clear agreement, up-dating what was previously agreed in 1969 and in the period between 1985 and 1995 to account for modern conditions and the lessons learnt from recent events, should now be put in place.  

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