The Catholic Church seems to be going through tough times. Still bruised from last year's divorce referendum, the Bishops recently came in for some scathing criticism over their approach to another delicate issue: IVF. In particular, many Catholics were surprised - in some cases upset - by the tone and substance of their recent pastoral letter on the subject: a letter that has also caused a very public rift within the Church.
Meanwhile, internal matters that would normally be cloaked in secrecy have somehow spilt out into the open. Archbishop Paul Cremona's prolonged absence from public life did not go unnoticed; rumours about the state of his health followed as a matter of course. There was even a suggestion that 'elements' within the Church had exploited this situation in order to stage a 'coup d'etat'... culminating in an article in last Sunday's MaltaToday, in which Labour MP Evarist Bartolo publicly pointed fingers at Gozo Bishop Mario Grech and former Archbishop Joseph Mercieca... hinting that they were the 'real' authors of the pastoral letter, and not Cremona at all.
It was partly in response to this suggestion that the Curia finally broke its media silence on the matter: acknowledging that Cremona had been advised to rest because of exhaustion, but flatly denying that his authority had in any way been eroded as a consequence.
Even without the notion of a power struggle currently taking place in the corridors of the Archbishop's Curia, there are other indications of a Church gripped by internal dissent - including Fr Rene Camilleri himself, who added to this perception by refusing (along with other priests) to read out the pastoral letter on IVF during Mass.
Hence my first question for him when we meet for this interview: is there a rift currently opening up within the Church?
"There is," he answers matter-of-factly. "And I am not surprised. As I see it, what is happening is that we have a traditionally monolithic Church being confronted with a fast-changing society. It is quite natural for there to be internal dissent under these circumstances. Hopefully, we will mature as a result."
As priests go, Fr Rene is uncharacteristically outspoken in this respect. He has in fact been harping on the need for some kind of renewal within the Church for years, if not decades.
"One of the worst things about the Church in Malta is that there has been no real regeneration of ideas," he tells me. "Or even of people. The only such regeneration occurs in the village festas. We are so happy because we have young people involved in the organization of the festa: the marches, the street decorations, and so on. And yet these same young people are not present anywhere else in the Church..."
The very fact that the Church contents itself with so little, he goes on, is evidence that it is "still living in the past." And this is partly why the existence of an apparent rift does not unduly concern him.
"You should have internal dissent; it is not something to be afraid of. It is in fact healthy; apart from being in the nature of the Church as an institution. Many might not be aware of this, but without internal dissent there would be no Church at all. It would be dead. There was dissent among the original 12, who were chosen directly by Christ Himself. Look at the history of the Church, with its heresies and its persecutions... what was this, if not dissent?"
At the same time, however, some of Fr Rene's critics have complained that - as a priest - he is also bound by a vow of obedience. Doesn't his refusal to read the pastoral letter (to name but one example) fly in the face of that vow?
"Obedience is still a virtue," he acknowledges. "But when obedience amounts to shunning personal responsibility, then it is no longer a virtue at all. I am a priest. I know I have a vow of obedience. But it does not mean we are puppets. Many people believe we should keep our mouths shut at all times. But that is not obedience..."
Once again he turns to Church history for examples. "The irony is that the Church herself celebrates so many people who were disobedient..."
People like Jesus Christ himself, I tentatively suggest? He nods. "Christ was the first to be disobedient: he openly challenged the religious authorities of his time..."
Coming back to the issues behind the so-called internal dissent: is there any truth to the rumours that the Curia has been (for want of a better word) hijacked?
"I have that sensation, yes," Fr Rene replies; but at the same time he rejects the rather simplistic view of an outright 'coup d'etat'. "The pastoral letter was signed by the Bishops. I for one do not believe that it could have been written by others. If so, it would be immensely serious. But I don't believe it myself."
Still, matters were not helped by the aura of secrecy surrounding the Archbishop's retreat from public life. And I can't help but get the impression that this a cultural trait of Malta as a whole - recently both the Commissioner of Police and a former Justice Minister similarly absented themselves from public office for months on end ... and yet there was never any public acknowledgement, still less explanation, of the state of affairs...
Fr Rene agrees that this leaves much to be desired. "It shouldn't be that way. There should be transparency in such matters. Our institution does not have the expertise to be transparent... we still have very far to go in that respect. But what concerns me most is: who is governing the Church? It boils down to that..."
Here I point out that he is not the only one asking that question. Paradoxically, it has been asked also by people who think that Fr Rene himself was wrong to defy the Church... who interpret his action as part of the problem, not the solution.
"At the end of the day the letter was signed by the two bishops, and I did consider that, because it was signed by the bishops, perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut. But the fact that the Church is not democratic does not mean it should be dictatorial. Vatican Council Two makes it clear that even bishops should listen..."
Moving on from his own issues with Church authority... how does he account for the apparent unrest within the institution? And why precisely now?
"At the risk of being simplistic: the Church is very uneasy with a fast-changing society. We are not comfortable with a secular, pluralist society..."
Many would agree, and some might point towards last year's divorce debacle as a prime example. Is Fr Rene concerned that the Church is about to make the same mistake with IVF?
"My concern is not so much with IVF, divorce, abortion or any of that. It's with how the Church can be present in a secular society. The Church still has value for our society - I don't doubt that - but we mustn't pontificate. We still think we can deal with issues through doctrine... for instance, by quoting Church documents, which are doctrinal in nature. Those days are over now; it's time we woke up to that reality."
Fr Rene seems to be advocating a more rational and less dogmatic approach to social issues. "Even the fact that we still think we can teach doctrine means that we are not being reasonable. It means we still have to come to terms with reason and faith.... Let alone with science and faith."
Again he returns to the IVF pastoral letter as an example. "So many were hurt by that pastoral letter; and yet the problem was not with what it actually said. I know what the Church's message on IVF is. I accept that message. But what is the vision of the Church when it comes to how to get that message across? We can't expect to do that only through doctrine..."
Here he gives vent to an evident frustration at the way public discussion has so far developed. "Is there anyone out there who seriously believes Malta is the only country in the world to have ever discussed IVF? Italy discussed it years ago. Why don't we look at what emerged from that discussion? Why do we always have to be more Catholic than the Pope?"
At this point I venture a question regarding the Church's position on IVF. Naively, I used to think that its objection stemmed from a concern with wasted or discarded embryos. I have since read Dignitatis Personae, and discovered that I was wrong: the Church seems to oppose IVF on principle... mainly because it "substitutes the conjugal act".
I have to admit that, while the embryo concern is entirely comprehensible (whether one agrees or not is of course another matter), I have difficulties understanding this point myself. Why is it morally wrong to have children through other means than sex?
Fr Rene admits that he is not very keen on this approach either. "The fact that science is mediating to assist couples in procreation... crude as it may sound... should not be seen as 'substituting the conjugal act'. I am not comfortable with the argument myself. To be frank, I think the problem is that we are still afraid of science. We have yet to come to terms with what science teaches... we are still far away. I think we need to celebrate science more..."
Here Fr Rene seems to be echoing the views of many non-religious people, some of whom view the Church's attitude towards science as an issue which directly affects its credibility as an institution. Not only does it portray the Church as being archaic, mediaeval and ultimately ill-informed... but it also makes it harder for the Church to communicate with people who have a genuine interest in science.
Fr Rene adds another dimension to this view. "The Church is ultimately concerned with religion, with matters of faith and belief. These are very intimate in nature... very deeply personal. Yet somehow we managed to transform all that into something very formal, doctrinal: almost mechanical, in fact. We've changed religion into something of the mind. In the process, we have lost touch with people's hearts..."
Now, he adds, people are growing up. "And look at us: we are afraid that people are going to go their own way - to make up their minds based on other influences. Are we afraid of seeing people grow up? We shouldn't be. I, for one, am happy to see the faithful being rational and intelligent about their belief. I want an intelligent faith. But we continue to demand of people a faith that is submissive."
This fact alone, he suggests, is crucial to understanding the internal issues facing the Church at present. Fr Rene explains how the Church's apparent obscurantism (my word, not his) is serving to alienate intelligent people: the category that the Church has in the past always appealed to the most.
"That is partly why there is confusion among Catholics. Some are confused because they cannot take what is happening in their Church at the moment. They were brought up in a monolithic Church and they expect it to remain that way. But there are other Catholics who are confused for a different reason: because they are intelligent and rational enough to make up their own minds. These people find it hard to identify with the Church. They genuinely want to be Catholic, but they are put off. They would like to see a different Church..."
Isn't it ironic, therefore, that there are people who now accuse Fr Rene of alienating such people from the Church himself? Of adding to their confusion, by publicly defying Church authority?
"People should consider also that for every time I speak out, there will be another nine occasions where I have kept silent. I keep silent on so many issues... but it almost hurts to see a Church which, on one hand, can mobilize so many people and be so vocal on issues such as IVF and divorce... and yet remains so very silent on the political issues facing the country."
But in a secular state (provided we qualify as one)... should the Church meddle with political matters?
"I think the Church should have spoken out, yes. It shouldn't have kept silent for so long. How can we be so estranged from what is happening in society? It is paradoxical... that the Church can be so very present and yet so absent at the same time."
Here he surprises me by pointing towards secularism - the same secularism so often vilified by the Church - as a beacon of hope: for all the world as if greater separation from the State will serve to strengthen, rather than weaken, the Church.
"The Church need not be afraid of secularism," he asserts. "Secularism can help us to come to terms with who we are... what we exist for..."
To expand on this point he invites to consider a time - not that long ago - when the notion of a secular state was utterly alien to this country. The Church was all-pervasive and all-powerful at that time... and this, Fr Rene argues, also made her complacent.
"Let's face it: it was all very comfortable for the Church before. There was almost no need to even preach. And we are suffering partly for this reason - we did not feel the need to reach out to people before. In fact our problem today is that there is no outreach.
It is secularism that forces us to rise to the occasion; to understand our mission according to the Gospel..."
At this point I ask a question I perhaps should have asked earlier. What is this mission, anyway? What does Fr Rene himself actually want from the Church? How would he like it to be?
He smiles wryly. "I've been struggling for over 30 years now to have a different Church. I still believe it will happen one day... though it's not around the corner."
The bedrock of this Church, he adds, are those who believe "in spite of everything".
"Fortunately there are still people who retain their faith in spite of the Church, rather than because of her. I rejoice for these people. They are the Church's hope."