One thing that emerged clearly from the events pertaining to the divorce referendum last year is that Maltese society has changed and so has the role of the Catholic Church within it.
This change did not happen overnight but has been taking place since the 1960s and may be attributed to a number of factors, not least the politico-religious strife at the time, Malta’s journey from an island colony to independent state and member of the European Union but also the media, the changing role of women, the development of the welfare state, the spread of education and our consumerist culture.
As Malta moved forward in its journey towards a modern, democratic and pluralistic state, the Church’s role as the main moral arbiter of society started being questioned as has its role in the political arena.
During the unfolding of last year’s events, it was clear that both the Church and the state found it difficult to delineate their boundaries as representatives of a religious community and of citizens respectively.
The Church was for many years a central political force on the islands not only because of the rights granted to it by the Constitution but also because of the support it has traditionally enjoyed by the populace. The Church has for centuries had the privilege of setting the standards of morality for society and expected the state to observe and respect these standards. The government’s procrastination in debating the cohabitation Bill, the divorce saga, the lack of any form of legal recognition of gay couples are only a few examples of this influence.
However, the relationship between Church and state in Malta has historically fluctuated depending on which party was in government as well as on the approach taken by the incumbent Archbishop towards civil and political matters.
The Malta Labour Party’s history of discord with the Church contrasts with the more appeasing and accommodating stance often taken by the Nationalist Party whose Christian Democratic roots tend to give rise to a closer affinity with the Church. For example, it was a Nationalist government that gave the Church precedence over the civil courts in annulment cases with the signing of the marriage concordat between the Maltese state and the Holy See in the 1990s.
The Catholic Church has traditionally also been an important source and symbol of national identity for the Maltese. It continues to be an essential agent of welfare and support services for victims of domestic violence, gambling and substance abuse, persons with disability, refugees and asylum seekers, children, unwed mothers and elderly persons, filling an important lacuna left by the state.
We respect this very important contribution of the Church to vulnerable groups in Maltese society. As a Green party we also support the Church in its calls for more sustainable environmental policies that respect future generations.
However, today Malta is no longer the Catholic monolith it may once have been. While the Church is still an important political force in contemporary society, we believe that politics should be based on universal, ethical principles of human rights, social justice and equality rather than on the moral principles dictated by one religious authority.
While the Roman Catholic Church remains an important spiritual and social force in our contemporary, diverse and pluralistic society, social policy and civil law should not be designed according to the dictates of Canon law or the laws of any other religious creed.
We would like to see a revision of the Church-state agreement mentioned earlier as it is unacceptable for the ecclesiastical tribunal to have such civil repercussions.
The teaching of ethics grounded in universal values should form part of the national curriculum in our schools. Students should be offered courses in different religious traditions apart from Roman Catholicism and should no longer be examined in religious knowledge pertaining only to one religion. The Faculty of Theology at the University should only be subject to the direction of University authorities. The Church should no longer have the privilege of appointing a representative on the council. No other religion has that right. State ceremonies, such as the opening of the academic year at the University, should be civil affairs devoid of religious celebrations.
The state should offer secular alternatives for non believers in important rituals like funerals and burials. Public officials should be aware that Maltese law provides the option of a solemn declaration as an alternative to taking an oath on a religious symbol.
A truly democratic society is based on principles of pluralism and multiculturalism. While our rich Catholic tradition should be given due recognition by the Constitution, no particular creed should be given exclusive status.
Article 2 of the Constitution should be amended to reflect contemporary Maltese society where different religious traditions coexist side by side.
At the same time, it is appreciated that, in Malta, individuals are free to believe and practise what they please and that the Maltese state places no restrictions on minority religions.
We believe that every religion, which is compatible with the values of a democratic society and human rights, has a place in Maltese society.
The author, a sociologist, is spokesman for social policy of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.