Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Church divided (Malta)

Something has evidently gone wrong with the way the so-called “divorce debate” has evolved in this country over the past months.

Ever since the Today Public Policy Institute published its study entitled “For Worse, For Better: Remarrying after Legal Separation” – predictably followed by a Church commission’s response: ‘For Worse, Not for Better’, by Progetimpenn – the media have been inundated with opinions and contributions on the subject of divorce.

However, what is currently under discussion has little to do with whether Maltese courts should be empowered to grant a divorce to begin with (instead of merely recognising divorces granted by other jurisdictions, as is the case today); or even what legislative models, if any, may be suitable for application in the local context.

On the contrary, the only point to have so far been debated at any depth is the Catholic Church’s position on the matter – regardless of the fact that the State is in duty-bound to legislate for all members of society: including the majority of Catholics, yes, but also the growing faction of Maltese citizens who do not consider themselves part of the Catholic community.

This situation becomes all the more absurd when one considers that the Church itself is actually divided on the subject. Shortly after Mgr Cremona was presented with a copy of Progettimpenn’s report, Cana movement founder Mgr Charles Vella, in an interview in the press, offered a rare glimpse of the internal dissent faced by the Archbishop over this very issue.

Suddenly, a man associated in the collective subconscious with the official Catholic view of marriage (Vella had opposed civil unions in the 1970s) was seen to emerge as an unlikely champion for the secularist cause: arguing, among other things, that opponents were exaggerating the effects of divorce in other countries; and that in any case, the days of direct Church involvement in political matters were best left behind us.

Nor is Vella the only clergyman to publicly distance himself from the Church’s current leadership on the issue.

Earlier, both Fr Joe Borg (former Media Centre director) and Rev. Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott (Malta’s foremost theologian) had separately expressed their reservations.

However, in part because of his own direct relevance to the subject at hand, and in part also because of the sensitive timing of his contribution, Mgr Vella’s arguments have earned him rebuke and even hostility from his own colleagues in the Curia.

In fact, most Catholic apologists now appear more intent on trying to discredit Mgr Vella himself, than on actually rebutting his arguments.

Be that as it may, ultimately it will be the State, and not the Church, to decide on whether to introduce divorce.

In fact, Vella’s interview has been widely interpreted as part of an ongoing effort to ‘pave the way’ to an eventual government U-turn, as the traditionally anti-divorce Nationalist Party finds it increasingly difficult to justify its position to its own supporters.

As PN leader, Lawrence Gonzi is facing a new and unprecedented challenge – to convince an influential section of his party’s support-base that Malta’s traditionally Catholic identity alone is a good enough argument to resist divorce indefinitely.

But this places the Prime Minister at odds with the daily reality experienced by Maltese people on either side of the political divide.

There is now a gulf between the government’s official position, and the everyday reality of broken marriages, single parents and cohabitating partners – a gulf which has now grown so wide, that it even threatens the credibility of the entire Gonzi administration.

From a political perspective, matters have not been helped by the change of direction ushered into the Labour Party by Joseph Muscat.

Projecting himself as a more “progressive” leader who favours divorce legislation – even through the unwise strategy of subjecting it to a free vote in parliament – Muscat may well make inroads among secular-liberal Nationalists who are tired of their party’s perennial inability to cut its Church apron strings once and for all.

Gonzi himself is even under pressure from some of his most powerful allies in the independent press, who now openly urge the PN leader to change his tune of divorce, or risk losing an invaluable advantage ahead of the 2013 elections.

Evidently, the Nationalist/Church tandem that has worked so well in the past now appears to be teetering.

It remains to be seen how high a price the government will be willing to pay for its increasingly dogged inflexibility on the matter.

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