Dogma and untruths in the name of St Augustine’s despotic God

It is only natural that the head of the Catholic Church in Malta would oppose further progress in our civil liberties which, to his perception, only serve to allow even more immoralities in today’s supposedly degenerate post-modern era.

The Archbishop’s rhetoric is completely in line with Catholic Church theology
The Archbishop’s rhetoric is completely in line with Catholic Church theology

As one of the authors of Bill 113 along with Andrew Sciberras, I obviously expected Archbishop Charles Scicluna to come out in full force against the proposal to decriminalise pornography and remove the article from the criminal code which disallows the “vilification” of religion.

It is only natural that the head of the Catholic Church in Malta would oppose further progress in our civil liberties which, to his perception, only serve to allow even more immoralities in today’s supposedly degenerate post-modern era.

What I didn’t expect was the Archbishop’s divisive rhetoric and his accusations of diabolism, which sound more like a declaration of holy war rather than rational Christian discourse.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The rhetoric of the Archbishop is completely in line with Catholic Church theology which is, in fact, more Augustinian than Christian.

Christianity started as a religion of the disenfranchised: the poor, the lepers, the women, the criminals and the prostitutes. Christ’s teachings, rich in philosophy of social justice and peace, provide a clear formula for a better world: turn the other cheek when struck, love thy neighbour irrespective of class, gender or ethnicity, do charity but not in a patronising and self-serving way, and abandon self-indulgence to instead live a life which contributes, in some way or another, to the development of your community and society.

Christianity stopped being a philosophy of social justice when it became an institutionalised power thanks to Constantine the Great (272-337). Eventually, Christianity’s institutionalisation paved the way for the theology of St Augustine (354-430) to become the predominant theological base for the Church. After the official institutionalisation of Christianity by the Roman Empire, Christianity became everything it stood against when it was still a social movement: pagans were suddenly persecuted, Christianity became a cause for war rather than a cause for peace, and bishops amassed wealth and became more corrupt and power-hungry than previous pagan rulers.  

For St Augustine, there was no need for philosophy, but only dogma in its purest form: the only way to salvation and happiness in life was through God himself, and anyone who believed differently was an idiot. St Augustine lamented about the fact that Roman law allowed the vilification of religion whilst criminalising the vilification of individuals; he scorned the poets who made art for art’s sake, he scorned the pagans for indulging in sexual activity for the sake of pleasure and claimed that God allowed plagues and wars on pagans simply for being disbelievers.

For St Augustine there needed to be no logical debates: God was absolute and predominant simply because he was God. Christianity was the ultimate religion simply because he said so. Later on in history when philosophy had become widespread once again and Mediaeval theology was rejected outrightly, it was Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who came to the rescue of Augustinian theology by claiming that Catholics shouldn’t necessarily find logical conclusions to issues of the Divine because it is faith which should be the main driving force of religion and not reason. 

Of course, the crux of my argument here is not that we are going to experience God’s wrath in the form of plague and war after passing the diabolical Bill 113 through parliament, but that the arguments of the erudite Archbishop follow no logic and are based in no philosophical context because they are simply based on dogma.

If the opposition to Bill 113 is purely dogmatic, we should also not be surprised that the archbishop’s supporters are misinterpreting the bill and spreading various untruths about it. There can be no logical debate if one sticks to dogma. 

The problem the archbishop fails to see is that society is not run on faith, but on logical laws and sophisticated political structures. When during the previous Lawrence Gonzi-led administration, a team of Gozitan inquisitorial police officers turned up to stop a satirical play on the Devil, organised by a troupe of professional artists at Nadur’s carnival, the police didn’t provide logical answers for doing so: the law simply said so.

When an artist was arrested by the police and found guilty of vilifying the religion for satirising the Pope during a late night party to which only adults were admitted, the magistrate didn’t actually bring logical reasons for handing down a suspended prison sentence: the law simply said so. No one could justify this kind of inquisition because it was simply based on dogmatic law.

So, no wonder that even ex-judge Giovanni Bonello is spreading untruths on Bill 113 and is failing in every instance to provide a logical argument against the law. During his recent interview on NET TV in a programme run by Norman Vella, Bonello simply said, quoting verbatim “that one should have the right to offend, and this right is good unless this leads to vilification or the incitement of violence.”

Not only is Bonello’s argument illogical because he fails to define “vilification”, which is in fact an ambiguous and very subjective term, especially when applied to religion; but also because the right to offend and the right to vilify are very similar concepts.

If we are simply told that we can’t offend or vilify religion, simply because vilifying religion is wrong, we face an incomplete argument, and hence an illogical one.

I personally support laws which criminalise the incitement to violence, and in fact Bill 113 goes so far as to strengthen the laws which criminalise the forceful disruption of religious ceremonies. Yes, we want communities to practise their religion freely without being disrupted, we want to protect the right for religious communities to exercise their faith freely, and we also agree that the incitement to violence should remain illegal; however, we also agree that artists and writers have the liberty to satirise, to criticise and to present their artistic work freely and unperturbed even if some sanctimonious individual should deem such art to be offensive, obscene and immoral. 

Another untruth which Bonello asserted was that Bill 113 would decriminalise pornography in public. I am surprised at how Bonello can come to such a conclusion when the Bill strictly and explicitly criminalises the viewing and distribution of pornography in a public place, unless it is done in a controlled manner, such as when viewed in an establishment where only adults are allowed. The creation and distribution of pornography which is currently illegal in any circumstance according to our current laws, will be made legal if it is distributed between consenting adults.

So many other misinterpretations and falsities have been spread about Bill 113 that I hardly know where to begin. What I suggest is for people to actually read the bill itself rather than to jump to conclusions.

Bill 113 is modelled on English and Scottish law and is probably one of the most balanced yet progressive legal models available today which guarantees artistic freedom. And no, this bill was not intended to decriminalise sex shops, it was intended to protect authors and artists from any further inquisition-style prosecutions which took place under the previous Gonzi administration.

Although it is true that Bill 113 would eventually make sex shops legal, I guess it is slightly ridiculous to complain about the irrelevant consequence of sex shops when pornography is already easily available to all with high-speed internet access.