Echoes of a political crisis

The ongoing discussion on same-sex unions, and in particular on the adoption of children by same-sex couples, seems to be taking an inauspicious turn.

Cartoon by Marck Scicluna
Cartoon by Marck Scicluna

The ongoing discussion on same-sex unions, and in particular on the adoption of children by same-sex couples, seems to be taking an inauspicious turn.

Ahead of the last election, the Labour Party had proposed a law to regulate civil unions, and included this promise in its manifesto. The implications were clear enough at the time: the proposed bill would grant same-sex couples "the same rights, duties and privileges" of married couples. No exceptions were cited; and as these rights, duties and privileges also cater for the adoption of children, it was understood that the new law would permit adoption by same-sex couples.

The Labour Party went on to emphatically win that election, and as a consequence enjoys a clear electoral mandate to pass the promised civil unions bill, in the form in which it was approved by the electorate. But there are indications that the government may find obstacles in its path.

This was implicit in an interview given by Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna to a foreign newspaper, in which he described support for the bill as constituting a "grave immoral act".

"The Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against the bill," he said. There were also unmistakable political overtones in Mgr Scicluna's message: "In a frantic rush to grab votes, all political parties have promised to facilitate the claims of the gay lobby and promised legislation in favour of civil unions. After the elections of March 2013, Labour, led by Dr Joseph Muscat, won and the government has moved to honour its commitment to the gay lobby."

As has been variously pointed out, the Bishop is free to express his own views. But as a foremost representative of a very influential institution - which has in the past exerted its influence in a direct bid to shape the outcome of elections, among other political matters - his words automatically raise important questions.

Some of these involve an apparent difference in opinion among representatives of the same Catholic Church. Mgr Scicluna had already raised eyebrows with his comment that Pope Francis had been 'shocked' to learn of Malta's civil unions bill last December. The same Pope Francis had earlier made conciliatory gestures towards homosexuals. His reported reaction to an issue of gay rights was interpreted by the international press as contradicting the Pope's global image as a builder of bridges to those who feel alienated or disenfranchised from the Church.

In the local context, people are also rightly asking whose authority really guides the Catholic Church in Malta. Is the authority of Bishops Paul Cremona and Mario Grech... whose past contributions on the subject of civil unions seemed to echo Pope Francis' expressions of conciliation? Or is it the authority of the Auxiliary Bishop, who has issued a very categorical instruction to 'Catholic MPs' to vote against a bill which (on paper) enjoys cross-party support?

It is in the Church's own interest to clarify this ambiguity, as it is plainly causing confusion among the faithful, and arguably undermining the institution's credibility as a whole.

But perhaps inevitably, with his foray into partisan politics - even singling out the Labour prime minister as the prime mover of a "gravely immoral act" - Mgr Scicluna's interview has also triggered memories of the notorious 'interdett' era of the 1960s: when voting Labour was likely deemed a "gravely immoral act" and subjected to ecclesiastical sanctions.

This could prove counterproductive to Scicluna's own aims. On the issue of same-sex adoption his concerns may well be shared by the wider electorate, including staunch Labour supporters. But this reminder of a time when Labourites were actively discriminated against on religious grounds may also serve to galvanise grassroots support for the measure, regardless of any private misgivings.

If nothing else, Scicluna's comments have served to keep alive memories of a crisis which had (and to some extent still does) divided the nation. One must ask if this is in keeping with the Church's renewed spirit of conciliation, as embodied by Pope Francis.

Nor are such concerns limited only to the party in government. The Nationalist Party has recently found itself divided on another issue that also reflected the same Church-State tensions of yesteryear. In 2011 the PN had opposed a divorce law that was subsequently approved by referendum. The entire saga can be seen to have hurt the PN's electoral chances, and the last thing its new leader should want at this stage is yet another moral dilemma that will further divide his party.

Given the historical ties (and animosities) that exist between both parties and the Church, Scicluna's clear instruction to vote against the civil unions bill may induce a crisis of conscience among MPs when it comes to deciding on what is a purely civil matter. In this sense, we are looking at a possible repeat of the divorce experience, which also proved bruising for the Catholic Church.

No good can come out of such overt intrusion by the Church in matters of State. It is in the interest of all sides to avoid any unnecessary conflict and tension, and to allow the state to legislate on civil issues without
interference.

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