Our Lady smiles, not weeps

During the divorce campaign, I maintained that divorce in Malta was a move in favour of altruism and against egoism

Once upon a time, not so long ago, when I was at the forefront of the campaign for divorce in Malta, we were labelled as ‘heretics’
Once upon a time, not so long ago, when I was at the forefront of the campaign for divorce in Malta, we were labelled as ‘heretics’

A momentous development this past week has seemingly gone unnoticed, or almost. A communiqué issued by the Maltese Bishops, provides guidelines for priests to understand better those separated and divorced Catholics and virtually allowing their participation in the sacraments.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, when I was at the forefront of the campaign for divorce in Malta, we were labelled as ‘heretics’ and warned that we would burn in hell forever. A senior Curia official had said: “Whoever cooperates in any way in the introduction of divorce, even those who apply the law, would be breaking God’s law and so would be committing a grave sin”; whilst a bishop denounced those in favour of divorce, saying that they did not deserve to receive Holy Communion. 

Tonio Fenech, Finance Minister at the time, wrote that “Our Lady is very sorrowful that Malta is considering divorce”. President Emeritus and former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami had declared that the introduction of divorce in Malta would go against the teachings of Jesus Christ. “We upheld our Catholic traditions for more than two millennia, but perhaps we are now starting to distance ourselves from some of these traditions,” he said.

The church’s major change of attitude came about following the release of a post-synodal apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (the Joy of Love). This document focuses on several of the issues of contemporary morality and church practice regarding issues such as divorce and sexual mores as well as access to sacraments and pastoral practice. 

Maltese Bishops made a number of recommendations and state that “Priests should take into consideration the different situation of each couple, as not every family situation is the same”. This new approach did not go down well with all priests, besides a number of conservative cardinals who claim that the document, Amoris Laetitia, causes confusion.

However, the stand taken by the Pope and quoted extensively by the Maltese Bishops offers divorced Catholics hope. Pope Francis says that divorced and remarried people are “not excommunicated” and should not feel “discriminated against”. The Pope adds: “I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.

“No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel,” he writes. “Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”

What surprises me however, is the lack of response from local circles. Whereas the Bishops of Malta and Gozo have clearly pronounced themselves in favour of the Pope’s exhortation, many others, who had taken a very active and vociferous part in the anti-divorce campaign, seem to have buried themselves deep down into the woodwork. Could they now be against the teachings of the Pope or are they aligning themselves with the four conservative cardinals who are resisting reform? Or further still, have they decided to refrain from commenting, to appease certain people? Their silence is deafening.

During the campaign I maintained that divorce in Malta was a move in favour of altruism and against egoism. The referendum ensured that Maltese society was more compassionate and the discussion was important. Even those who initially opposed the introduction of divorce played a vital role, since the negative aspects of divorce they had highlighted helped make the law even more realistic. I have been in many homes and nobody has ever told me that the introduction of divorce had in actual fact damaged their family, contrary to what was advised by certain individuals prior to its introduction.

I have always crusaded in favour of civil rights and liberties. There are many other issues on which I have campaigned and I am proud of my government’s actions towards a more inclusive approach to society today.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister of Education and Employment.

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