There's fire in the portly Charles Scicluna, the auxiliary bishop whose diminutive stature belies not just his independence of mind, but the fact that he had been the Vatican's chief prosecutor on the sexual abuse cases that rocked the Catholic Church ever since 2002. For years he stood by the side of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, when the latter headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the successor to the Roman and Universal Inquisition - and in its modern incarnation, Scicluna served as a latter-day Bernardo Gui, an enforcer for the Roman pontiff and a hunter of sinners.
When Benedict XVI announced Scicluna's appointment to auxiliary bishop, it was believed that a man who had done his job well on the Vatican's hard-line stance against sex abuse was being punished through a "face-saving promote and remove" tactic. But as Scicluna himself said before leaving Rome, "if you want to silence someone, you don't make him a bishop". And silenced, he won't be, having blogged and tweeted his views on, most recently, gay marriage and the sale of citizenship. "Why are you so vocal - why are you entering the fray in this manner?" I tell him as we end our interview at the Curia in Floriana. "Because Charles Scicluna's in town, and that's who I am," he responds, very matter-of-factly.
Canadian-born, the 54-year-old had to relinquish his citizenship under a Labour government in the late 1970s because Malta did not yet accept dual nationality. You can understand why the sale of citizenship under the IIP, approved in the House yesterday by a new Labour government, is a sore point for Scicluna. "Apart from the fact that a Bishop will always remain a citizen and will always enjoy the right to express himself as a normal citizen, given that he has also a say in democratic society, the Church cannot shy away from giving input with respect on issues that concern the common good. I have a great respect for citizenship, which is my bond to my homeland and to my country, and I feel that when you put a price on such a bond you are not necessarily doing citizenship and what it means the best of services."
This kind of forthrightness, his belief that the Maltese archdiocese's leaders should not shy away from public affairs, is perhaps the cleric's most refreshing of qualities. He struck a sharp contrast with what sounded like a muted response from Archbishop Paul Cremona and Gozo bishop Mario Grech (a man whose evangelical zeal is more pronounced than most) to the legislative conundrum on gay unions: remarkably visited upon MPs without a whimper of opposition, Scicluna decided to step in and represent the Catholic electorate with a more vocal stance.
"It's my duty, personally, to at least explain [the Church's teaching]. In our first statement we said the Church's teaching was clear. The problem is whether it is known: that's where my initiative comes from. Now it is a mission of the Bishop to make what is clear, known. I find I need to pass on the message: it has to be true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it has to be clear, and we need to pass on the message."
Scicluna says the Bill will always be deceptive in that it employs the term 'civil unions' when the draft law itself states that its object is equate unions and marriage. "If the government wants gay marriage, it should say so. I understand the party in government did not promise gay marriage, so it doesn't feel it has this mandate. But that is something that should be discussed in parliament: why is government introducing gay marriage under a convenient label?"
But nobody else seems to be willing to stir up this debate in the aftermath of an election where 'liberal' issues proved to be the PN's Achilles' heel. He concedes that after the bitter divorce campaign of 2011, there is a numbness in Maltese society. Now soul-searching, opposing civil unions for gay couples is also the last battle the Opposition would want to enter into. But Scicluna says that, some hate-mail apart, he will keep making his point no matter how uncomfortable his presence may be. "I cannot simply shut up."
He says that a little ferment of opposition to civil unions has started trickling into the newspapers' letters pages, even through the eerie silence worries him. "Helena Dalli promised a White Paper1 and instead chose to bring forward a draft law hatched by LGBT people in a closed shop, the consultative council. And they decided to open the unions to heterosexual couples, and proposed to legislate for gay couples, which also affects children, without consulting the Commissioner for Children. This took people by surprise and it is not what the government promised. It is something else by a different name."
Scicluna points to the UK's law on same-sex marriage, whose Fourth Schedule specifically points out that the meaning of "sex" in a gay marriage cannot be compared to the act itself in a heterosexual marriage. And this meant also changing obligations pertaining to the consummation of marriage or adultery. Scicluna reverses the spirit of this law by way of attacking the equation of marriage and gay unions in the Maltese law: "I hope the Maltese bill will be changed at committee stage so that the law does not impose upon gay couples the impediment of impotence, not to impose the consummation of the civil union within three months of celebrating it... because how do you consummate the marriage of a woman with a woman?"
And here I am dumbstruck for a few seconds, asking him why the act of sex in the marriage would be of concern. "The defining element of marriage as a union between a man and a woman is in a simple word, sex," he says. "The sexual aspect of a marriage union expresses the bond of true love, which according to Thomas Aquinas is a love of friendship. But marriage is not only about friendship and love. It is about love that expresses itself in the oneness of flesh, as Scripture expresses it, 'they will become one flesh'. This is the way Scripture talks about sexual intercourse, and sexual intercourse with openness to the gift of parenthood is essential to the definition of marriage. One understands that when we talk about consummation of a same sex marriage, the idea does not make sense because two people of the same sex cannot become one flesh in a union that is open to parenthood."
Critics would argue that there is a social element in the creation of the family that is not just defined by the function for procreation. But Scicluna's line of reasoning takes him straight to where he wants to arrive at: if gay couples can get married to form a family, it stands to reason that they will also adopt children. "And the Maltese politicians know that the majority of people are against adoption."
But isn't gay adoption a better alternative to fostering inside orphanages - themselves places that do not necessarily guarantee a strong emotional formation for children (I also suggest that it was Catholic orphanages like the MSSP's St Joseph Home that, years later, produced harrowing stories of sustained child sex abuse). So shouldn't orphans be brought up in households that can offer better emotion and material security?
"I would agree fully with your last statement. In fact, the attitude and policy of the Roman Catholic Church has always been to decrease the number of orphanages, not to increase them. We have persons, young adults or young people who cannot be housed in a normal household because they are not accepted or because these are not available at the present time, we do not leave them on the streets."
But Scicluna still insists that it is a "normal household with a man and a woman, a father and a mother, or adoptive parents that substitute the natural parents" that offers the best environment for bringing up children. "This is something that we cannot change, this is how we are made, this is how we grow up, and this is how we come to be. We have a mother and a father and the ideal situation is that we are brought up in an environment which as much as possible recreates the natural environment."
He says the talk of adoption and the question of natural environment reminds him of the saga of the 72 eggs laid by the tortoise on Gnejna beach, and he offers an example which merely illustrates his own characterisation of gay families: "The tortoise came to the place where she was born and she laid 72 eggs. She made her own natural nest. Now we decided to create another nest for them. It did not tally with the natural nest of the mother. The result was that the 72 eggs did not hatch because the creatures did not have enough air. I think this is a parable of what happens when we do not follow the pattern of nature and we try to create nests that are not what nature intends."
Earlier on in the interview, we had been discussing the effects of Pope Francis's interview to La Civiltà Cattolica, in which the new pontiff opined that the Church's customary fixation on sexual morality had clouded its mission. Scicluna says he agrees with Francis. "We have a duty to present the Gospel in its fullness and richness. And the Gospel is not simply about morals and values, but also about the son of God becoming man for our wellbeing and redemption. Fundamentally, it's a message of mercy and compassion. And I think the Pope's ministry is putting that [message] forward in a very beautiful and impressive way."
"In talking about the balance between the moral code - which comes from the Gospel - and the Gospel of mercy, I do agree we must find an equilibrium and balance when it comes to the way we preach the Gospel, and that we cannot discount the moral imperatives of the way we preach the Gospel of mercy and compassion. They go hand in hand."
He describes Francis as an intelligent communicator, and that the difference with his predecessor is a question of style rather than substance. "Benedict is a timid personality and a great thinker, and a great theologian. Francis dedicated much of his pastoral ministry in a diocese as a bishop, and he had had to work with daily challenges and respond to the daily problems people face. And that gives him a street wisdom that contributes greatly to the freshness of style that he has brought to the papacy."
Scicluna had suggested, in previous reports carried by the Italian Corriere della Sera that Benedict had carried out his own coup d'etat by decapitating the papacy in a bid to pave the way for a successor that could handle some of the Vatican's inside detractors and 'third parties' implicated in the Vatileaks scandal and blackmail of high-profile bishops.
While Benedict preoccupied himself with the moral relativism of European society, Scicluna says a challenge for the Church remains the fact that postmodern society finds it difficult to accept moral, absolute values. "If any individual is the criterion of what is good or bad, then we cannot agree on what is a way forward as a society... Jesus says 'I am the way, the truth and the life'. No Pope is going to discount these words. No statement can be more absolute than that."
"In his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), Benedict says being a Christian is not about a strict code of ethics or conducts, but about meeting Jesus Christ as a person. You listen to him, hear him tell you 'follow me', and he will test you at the end of time when he will ask you whether you gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, cloth the naked, visited the sick and prisoners - very concrete things, very basic things - it's actually a law that teaches you mercy and compassion in a very concrete, daily way. That is the criterion of how we will be judged. Christ does not do away with judgement, but speaks of mercy."
As Scicluna shows, this is a church that can neither be monolithic nor withstand the various strands of thought cohabiting inside it: Dominican friar Mark Montebello, for example, who last week said the Church was moving towards its own extinction, saying that after "shooting itself in the foot" with its immersion into the divorce opposition movement, it is now repeating the same mistake on civil unions. So is it possible keep the Sciclunas and Montebellos of the Catholic world in the same church? Is this faith's church a closed club or a fluid movement?
"There's a very beautiful image in the Gospel of Peter pulling a net full of different fish onto the shore and the other Apostles help him bring home this catch of fish," Scicluan says. "The number indicated in the Gospel corresponds to all the different species of fish known 2,000 years ago. That's a sign of the universality of the Church. The Church is universal but united in one faith. It's not uniform, it's Catholic because it is a home where everybody has his own views and has his own way of life that is called to one faith, one baptism, and also one hope, which is Jesus Christ. That is the most important focus in being a Christian."
A spokesperson for Minister Helena Dalli says: Mgr Scicluna says "Helena Dalli promised a White Paper and instead chose to bring forward a draft law". Minister Dalli never said that the government will publish a white paper on civil unions. She always spoke of a Bill. It will be appreciated if we all stick to facts.