The Church in a changing world

Catholicism is changing, and the good news for the Maltese Church is that is has now both an indication of the pulse of Maltese Catholicism, and also the example of the present pontiff, on which to base its own choice of direction for the institution in future.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

A recent survey conducted by the Church’s Institute for Research on the Signs of the Times (Discern) – part of a wider global effort spearheaded by Pope Francis I – has revealed that the traditional Maltese Catholic family has undergone a significant transformation in recent years.

In a sense, no survey was really required to reveal this fact: recent events such as the 2011 divorce referendum and the civil unions bill have in themselves illustrated how much has changed since former decades when an ecclesiastical directive was considered sufficient to ‘settle’ any issue politically.

Even the Church itself has undergone epochal changes since the advent Pope Francis I in 2013. Under its new shepherd the Church has given significant indications of a subtle change in direction: most notably in its official, non-doctrinal teachings on social justice and the distribution of wealth.

Other changes have likewise been hinted at, but so far only fleetingly. Even the global Church census commissioned by Pope Francis – of which Discern’s was but a local application – is understood to be part of a bottom-up approach to revising Church policy on a number of areas.

From this perspective, it is only to be expected that Maltese Catholics, like their counterparts everywhere else in the world, would have similarly revised their perception and expectations of the Church.

The survey comes in useful to identifying exactly where these changes have occurred. At a glance, the published results indicate shifting perceptions among Maltese Catholics to the Church’s traditional teachings on the family, procreation and birth control: and this is perhaps significant, as these issues are among the very areas where the Church has been most vociferous of late.

Nonetheless, as Discern itself points out, one must be cautious in interpreting the survey on account of a number of flaws: not least, the fact that many Catholics failed to fill in the questionnaire, as they found the language too theoretical, obscure and inaccessible.

In the end, Discern received 7,000 responses – which is large enough to base a survey on, but which (interestingly, given the apparent results) can only be taken as representative of the more committed among Malta’s much larger self-proclaimed Catholic population. This in turn would also suggest that changes have been felt even in the inner circles, so to speak, of practising Catholics.

From the outset, it emerges that people are less attuned with Catholic thinking than is often assumed. The majority of a preliminary sample of 1,590 respondents (72.5%) claimed they are not very familiar with the “teaching on the family in the Bible and by the Church”.

But while 69.7% said they accept and try to follow the Church’s teaching on family life, 44.3% reported finding it a difficult thing to do. Asked specifically what they felt were stumbling blocks for the Church, many homed in individual aspects of its family planning doctrine, namely the Church’s ban on contraception (15.8%); the pressures of contemporary culture (7.9%); and on the lower scale, out-dated teachings (3.1%) and “contradictory” solutions on marital sexual problems (2.5%).

Almost half (44.5%) frankly admitted that they knew nothing about encyclical Humanae Vitae:  a seminal treatise for Catholics on questions of sexual reproduction.

Significantly, echoes of the divorce referendum arguments were also reflected in the result. Respondents believed that divorced and remarried people still wish to receive Holy Communion: 31.9% think that “quite a few” have this desire, while 18.7% think that “many” have this desire, and 14.5% think that “a few” share this sentiment. Besides this, 13.5% think that “many”, 24.8% think that “quite a few”, and 17.2% are of the opinion that “a few” divorced and remarried have concluded that there is nothing wrong with carrying on receiving Holy Communion.

“The ethical problems related to family size are strongly felt,” Discern observes in its analysis of the results. “81.1% of the population thinks that Church should study deeper the issue of responsible birth control.” This view is confirmed by the fact a large majority which believes the Church’s teaching about responsible birth control is not accepted by the faithful in our country.

The percentage of those who say that the Church’s teaching is accepted in the Maltese islands amounts to only 7.9%. The percentage of those who ignored this question was as low as 5.2%: suggesting that where other questions were often disregarded, the Church’s views on sexuality are clearly a matter of much wider interest.

What makes the survey interesting is that it may also reflect expectations among Catholics from Pope Francis, who has individually echoed many of the expressed concerns himself. The Pope’s attitude towards divorcees wishing to receive Communion, or illegitimate children to be baptised, are also broadly reflected in the stated concerns of Maltese Catholics.

Clearly, the picture that emerges from this census is far removed from the traditional image of a homogenous bloc sharing largely the same values and beliefs. Catholicism is changing, and the good news for the Maltese Church is that is has now both an indication of the pulse of Maltese Catholicism, and also the example of the present pontiff, on which to base its own choice of direction for the institution in future.

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