The Church’s position is indefensible

The paper launched by Archbishop Charles Scicluna in person was so illogical and unsound, that its authors felt the need to ‘clarify’ their arguments. 

The Church’s decision to vociferously oppose a bill to criminalise ‘gay conversion therapy’ was – to put it mildly – unwise.

It has become customary to premise such arguments with the proviso that the Church has ‘the right to express its opinion’. This is perfectly true; indeed, it is so self-evident that it no longer needs to be repeated ad nauseam. Nobody contests the Church’s right to speak out; it is (as Fr Rene Camilleri recently told this paper) the ‘wisdom’ of what it says that ultimately matters.

Moreover, the right to speak brings with it responsibilities. As evidenced by the fierce backlash, the Church’s opinion, on this occasion, caused pain and distress to a large number of people. Just as the Church has every right to express itself, people are fully entitled to express their own sentiments in response. Like everyone else, the Church too must be prepared to defend its own positions.

In this case, however, its position is indefensible. The paper launched by Archbishop Charles Scicluna in person (though he would later distance himself from its contents) was so illogical and unsound, that its authors felt the need to ‘clarify’ their arguments. And in so doing, they actually reversed the entire position.

Before turning to this position (before and after the volte-face), one must turn attention to the issue under scrutiny.

The bill currently before the House deals with a phenomenon that is considered ‘new’ for Malta, though it is a long-standing controversy elsewhere: especially in the United States. Gay conversion therapy is associated with US evangelical movements of the kind represented in Malta only by the likes of pastor Gordon Manche. 

The idea behind this ‘therapy’ is that homosexuality is itself a pathological condition along the lines of a ‘disease’ or a ‘disorder’, which can consequently be ‘cured’ by medical treatment. It is on this point that the ‘right to an opinion’ crosses the threshold between ‘wise’ and ‘unwise’.

There is overwhelming consensus in world medical opinion that the above claim is utterly groundless and untrue. Homosexuality is defined as a ‘non-pathological variation’. There is no pathology whatsoever associated with sexual orientation; just as there is no pathology associated with other ‘variations’ such as left-handedness or ambidextrousness. 

What makes gay conversion therapy so reprehensible, however, is not merely the act that it is scientifically wrong; it is that the therapy itself is abhorrent and exceedingly harmful to the ‘patient’.

There are known cases of victims of this malpractice suffering from depression, trauma, and in some cases even committing suicide. Furthermore, the wilful perpetuation of the above misconception makes it much harder for people – especially young teenagers, who are by definition vulnerable – to come to terms with their own sexual identity. This is a known cause of intense social problems involving family prejudice, prejudice at school and prejudice at the place of work.

One can naturally discuss the finer details, but in principle, this bill aims to combat the above prejudices. If the Church is to oppose it, one would expect it to do so on the basis of very solid arguments.

This was not, however, the case… and Archbishop Scicluna himself now seems to acknowledge. This raises the question of why he even felt the need to formulate a position against the criminalisation of such an abhorrent, reprehensible, scientifically flawed and (much more importantly) harmful practice.

More to the point: how can the authors of a paper which opposed the criminalisation of gay conversion therapy, now argue that it was not their intention to depict homosexuality as a ‘disease’? This new position directly contradicts the original paper, which argued that the conversion therapy should not be made illegal. Their earlier position therefore implied very clearly that homosexuality could, in fact, be ‘treated’ through therapy… and can therefore be considered as a pathology.

The authors of that paper – who incidentally include the Dean of the Faculty of Laws at the University of Malta, and a retired European Human Rights judge – also denied making any link between paedophilia and homosexuality. This claim simply does not stand up to the contents of their own paper, which (among other things) states clearly that the bill would “make it a crime to assist paedophiles whose condition is manifested in same sex behaviour”.

The link is explicitly made in that argument alone. 

Now that Archbishop Scicluna has clarified that the therapy itself is a ‘no-go’ area, one must perforce question why he earlier felt the need to ‘go there’ in the first place.

This in turn points to another intrinsic problem with the Church’s position. It was not merely fudged from a scientific/medical/legal perspective… it was also politically unwise.

The Church might have scored brownie points with socially conservative people but in antagonising the supporters of the bill, it has incongruously strengthened the government’s hand in passing the law. 

There is a historical context underpinning this controversy. Scicluna is no doubt aware that relations between the Church and the Labour Party have traditionally been strained. By coming out with an inimical position (that would later be retracted), the Archbishop may well have cemented the popular perception that he views his Church as inherently hostile to the current administration.

This may of course be an unfortunate misunderstanding; but the perception undeniably exists, and it can only have been greatly exacerbated by this faux pas.

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