Friday, February 10, 2017

The Maltese Church once defied secularisation. Now its bishops have surrendered (Comment)

It has been a long time since I last wrote on this site. I am only breaking my silence now because I am so distressed to find the unmistakeable signs that the Church is in the midst of a crisis. 

The crisis is proceeding almost absent-mindedly under its own momentum, but its nature is clear: the secularist ideologisation of the moral sense. 

Even more distressing, it is Malta of all places in the world where its signs are most unignorable – and given my personal history, I can no longer resist the necessity to say something about what is going on.

Last month, the country’s two bishops permitted Communion for the divorced and remarried, without the requirement to live as brother and sister. Archbishop Charles Scicluna has since justified this by saying: “When you find yourself alone with God, you can neither fool yourself nor God.” Meanwhile, many Maltese priests are enduring crises of conscience thanks to a directive so clearly at odds with Church teaching.

I have very strong feelings about the Church in Malta, which over a period of more than thirty-five years I came to know well (my parents having retired there in 1975) and which had a great deal to do with my slow but in the end inevitable conversion to the One Holy Catholic and Roman Church. 

The earliest of those years coincided with the final period of the remarkable reign of the Most Reverend Count Sir Michael Gonzi, KBE, splendiferous and controversial incumbent of the Archdiocese of Malta from 1943 to 1976. The Maltese Church, remarkably, was in those days virtually by law established under the British crown, whose Governors-General simply took over intact the secular governing role of the Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta.

One of the most extraordinary manifestations of the Anglo-Maltese relationship (which if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I would have found difficult to believe) occurred every year in the Co-Cathedral in Valetta, at Candlemas. On either side of the sanctuary were two identical thrones: in one, sat the archbishop; in the other sat the Governor General, who during the Mass was presented with a lighted Candle by every Parish Priest in the diocese as an acknowledgement of the protection the British crown had given the Maltese Church ever since its expulsion of the tyrant Bonaparte.

This included protection from any interference by the secular power. The Maltese Church, at that time, was wholly resistant to the secular and political culture of the Western world of the mid and late twentieth century. I don’t have space to go into it here, but one of its most remarkable manifestations was the bare-knuckle fight between Archbishop Gonzi and the Maltese political left personified by the then Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff.

The issue was secularisation. The Maltese Church was tooth and nail opposed to it. Now, its two bishops have not only surrendered to it, but have declared themselves its willing collaborators. Divorced-and-remarried Catholics who are living as if they were married – who in other words are engaging in what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384) – “cannot”, the Maltese bishops declare, “be precluded from participating in … the Eucharist”. This simply contradicts the unbroken and unanimous teaching barring such Catholics from reception of Holy Communion. The bishops have in effect declared that the Church has all along been wrong and the secular culture right.

The Church is now descending into a state of implicit and sometimes explicit civil war, between bishops who say the Church has been wrong, and bishops who publicly or privately denounce them for saying it.

Against the Maltese bishops, we have – among (no doubt) many others – the bishops of Kazakhstan, who denounce the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia “in some particular Churches … whereby the divorced who have attempted civil marriage with a new partner … are admitted to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist without fulfilling the duty, established by God, of ceasing to violate the bond of their existing sacramental marriage.”

A fortnight ago, a priest in Colombia was suspended, reportedly because he had publicly defended the teaching of the Church on Communion. He has since been reinstated, but the episode shows how serious the civil war may become.

You might ask, what is wrong with the Maltese bishops’ approach? At first glance, it may look very tolerant and moderate. “If,” the bishops say, “as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with ‘humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it’ (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).”

The trouble is that this legitimises of our own perception of how “informed and enlightened” our conscience actually is. Almost none of us believes his or her conscience to be ill-informed or defective; the Church, however, has always understood that to think in this way is frequently to be self-deceived. The easiest thing in the world is to be at peace with God, if we ourselves have generated a notion of God it’s easy to be at peace with. But conscience is not something we get to determine ourselves. It is not our own autonomous moral sense. It is God speaking within us. According to Newman, it is “a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.”

If our own bishops and clergy tell us to just trust ourselves whatever the Church teaches – if they are, in other words, themselves abdicating their own authority and that of the Church, doesn’t that make it all right for the “remarried” to receive the sacraments?

Not so, say the bishops of Kazakhstan (a Muslim country where Catholics must often feel marginalised – unlike Malta, one of the most Catholic nations on earth): “The Church, and specifically the minister of the sacrament of Penance, does not have the faculty to judge on the state of conscience of an individual member of the faithful or on the rectitude of the intention of the conscience … The confessor cannot arrogate to himself the responsibility before God and before the penitent, of implicitly dispensing him from the observance of the Sixth Commandment and of the indissolubility of the matrimonial bond by admitting him to Holy Communion.”

The Maltese bishops’ idea of an “informed and enlightened conscience” is entirely secular, entirely post-Catholic. It’s not a new problem; here’s Newman again: “Now let us see what is the notion of conscience in this day in the popular mind. There, no more than in the intellectual world, does “conscience” retain the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word … Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations … Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit … the right of self-will.”

“The right of self-will”: it is the final triumph of the secular culture. That is what the Maltese bishops are now propagating; that is where with smooth words they are leading their people. Archbishop Gonzi – please excuse the unavoidable cliché – must surely be spinning beneath his beautifully carved gravestone.

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