Good intentions gone bad

It was a curious mistake by the Archbishop. Good intentions are not enough. Timing matters

What could have been an excellent initiative to bridge the gap between different religious denominations, has now backfired. From the start, the Archbishop is on the back foot, trying to convince a hostile audience
What could have been an excellent initiative to bridge the gap between different religious denominations, has now backfired. From the start, the Archbishop is on the back foot, trying to convince a hostile audience

Timing matters, not least in religious affairs. In different circumstances, it would have been a classical example of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. But Archbishop Charles Scicluna is no fool. I have nothing but respect for him. Scicluna is changing the local Catholic Church in a fundamental way. Only recently, and following Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia, he insisted, despite vociferous opposition from the Church’s old guard, that divorced and remarried couples can, and should receive communion again. Like Pope Francis, Malta’s Archbishop has, as Joanna Moorhead [The Guardian Weekly, 3 February 2017] described Francis, “replaced rule-bound, traditional, unbending Catholicism with what we might call instinctive Christianity.”

Wrong place

However, I cannot understand what was going through Mgr Scicluna’s, or that of his media officers, mind when they decided to convey, on primetime TV through a phone interview, the Church’s quick and open approval of Islam being taught to Muslim students even in church schools. 

Mohammed El Sadi, Imam of the Paola Mosque and head of the Mariam Al-Batool school, told his audience on primetime TV that he hoped Muslim religious teaching could be introduced in government schools, as already happens with Christian teaching, following news of the closure of his school’s secondary section. Mr El Sadi would be better off, particularly given recent events worldwide, making his suggestions – meant to enable Muslims in Malta being accepted as an integral part of Maltese society – within the right foras. Last Sunday he himself admitted with MaltaToday that he “never had the opportunity to speak to the archbishop about the need for Islamic education for Muslim students.”

Wrong time

Of course, the Archbishop meant his ‘quick’ acceptance as a gesture of good will. It is a statement of tolerance and inclusivity, but that is not the effect. 

Mgr Scicluna is an intelligent man and, given the circumstances, he should have avoided such a quick reaction on primetime TV. He knows that such sensitive issues need to be introduced carefully. What could have been an excellent initiative to bridge the widening divide between different religious denominations, has now backfired.

It means that, from the start, the Archbishop is on the back foot, trying to convince a hostile audience that his is merely a suggestion that Muslim students, instead of loitering on the school premises whilst their Catholic friends attended their religion class, employ their time better by attending Islamic classes. 

Catholic and State schools

Parents who send their children to Catholic schools presumably do so because they want to give them a Catholic education. Therefore, banning Catholic classes from schools is not an option and should not be entertained; neither is replacing them with ethics classes a solution.

However, one does not exclude the other – ethics classes could be held in parallel with Catholicism classes. Catholic schools are what their name suggests, and their primary focus should be on delivering Catholic-based education to their students. There might, eventually, be the need to teach Islam, to Muslim students, attending Catholic schools but this is not, and should not, be a haphazard decision. In the case of State schools, currently, they do not provide for the teaching of Islam, although the number of Muslim students attending state schools is on the increase. Roman Catholicism is taught in both state and church schools. 

Facts, please

As usually happens, when such important topics are discussed at leisure on entertainment TV shows, the discussion is devoid of facts and figures. For a start, we weren’t told how many Muslim students attend Catholic schools. If it’s only a few students per school, then, resource-wise it would, presumably, be a problem to provide them with an Islamic studies teacher. And then, local teachers qualified to teach Islam are probably hard to find. From leaders, not least religious leaders, we expect more fact-based policy-making. 


Leading academics are now making a pitch for inclusive religious education. But, as often happens, we tend to go from one extreme to another. A handful of them want to replace the current education of Roman Catholicism at schools with a new syllabus that will instead give students knowledge of different religions. I’m all for inclusive religious education, but I cannot understand why this has to happen at the cost of ruling out Roman Catholicism classes within State schools when Roman Catholicism, like it or not, is the religion practised by the majority of Maltese citizens.

In reaction to the religious leaders’ suggestion of introducing Islamic education in State schools, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, emphasised, and rightly so, that should that happen, Islamic religious classes will be held in parallel with other religious classes and that they are taught by qualified teachers, in possession of a teaching warrant and that the syllabus be accredited and recognized by the local education authorities. 

Consult first, decide later

There is place for the teaching of Roman Catholicism, Islam and other religions, as well as ethics classes in our state schools. One doesn’t, and should not exclude the other. But instead of rushing to declare his willingness to introduce Islamic education within Church schools (and state schools – although that’s not within the Church’s remit) Mgr Scicluna should have called for a holistic discussion, led by leading academics and education experts, together with State representatives, as well as representatives of different religious denominations, to explore how the needs of students hailing from different religious faiths should be catered for, in state and church schools respectively. 

Unfortunately, an opportunity has been missed and given the backlash, following the Archbishop’s brash declaration, it would be counter-productive, especially on Muslim students, if Islamic classes are introduced in Catholic, and State schools at this stage.

It was a curious mistake by the Archbishop. He might come to regret his wrongly-timed reaction to the Imam’s well-meaning suggestion, albeit made in the inappropriate forum. Timing matters, and not just in politics but in religious matters too.

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