Punishing Montebello is not what the Church needs

The question many others will be asking is whether Montebello should abide by the rules of his club or leave it. But is his voice stronger within the institution? Does the ‘heresy’ exist outside the ‘truth’ it wants to feed off?

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

News that Archbishop Charles Scicluna has offered to mediate in what seems to be a rift between the Dominican Order and their subject, the philosopher-friar Mark Montebello, has been a welcome development.

There was never any doubt that Charles Scicluna was a man fit to take the helm of the Maltese archdiocese at a time when the Church’s voice had been silenced by the secularist change enveloping Malta.

In times of radical change, all forces in society should have access to the debating table, and freedom to challenge ideas democratically, and keep power in check. This newspaper may at times be on the opposite side of the divide when it comes to matters in which the Catholic Church holds sway, but it recognises the need to have a Church whose voice is clearly enunciated.

As we write in this edition’s analysis of the Montebello impasse, the twisted logic of Maltese partisanship only wants priests praised for being outspoken whenever what they have to say is music to partisan ears.

People like Charles Scicluna, who famously had told MaltaToday that “silence is not an option” for him, are strong independent minds – it would be wrong to have them neutered simply for belonging to the clergy. The same goes for people such as Joe Borg of RTK and Mark Montebello; a long-time prison rights’ activist, public intellectual, and philosopher.

At this point, it is indeed laudable that the Archbishop has not washed his hands off the matter, and is indeed putting up a stand for freedom of speech.

Oftentimes, an outspoken person like Scicluna, who often skirts the margins of political controversy, is taken to task for his undiplomatic clarity. The Church in Malta remains historically an opponent of secularist change, a position that – at this very stage in Maltese political history – would place it at loggerheads with the Labour Party agenda.

But Scicluna is fully entitled to speak his mind, even court this very kind of controversy; his offer as a mediator in this debate between the Order and Montebello will not go unnoticed by those who in the past have been too quick to decry Scicluna’s willingness to wade into political debates.

Indeed, the reactions to the Montebello censorship has exposed partisan fault-lines with some Labour sympathisers rushing to defend Montebello and other Nationalist sympathisers comparing the Church to an exclusive club whose rules Montebello has violated repeatedly. But in the past, Labour supporters have criticised Scicluna for being outspoken because his outspokenness has never been sympathetic towards Labour. And yet, freedom of expression has to be guaranteed, for both progressives as well as conservatives, rebellious monks and establishment ecclesiasts.

For many years Montebello has stood at an uncomfortable juncture between his valuation of reason and the theology he embraces. Unlike diocesan priests, Montebello is a member of the Dominican order, to which he has promised obedience. It has always been unclear whether Montebello’s positioning on matters of religious controversy makes him unsuitable for the role he occupies, and it seems the threat of defrocking Montebello as the price for his freedom of expression seems to be disproportionate. But it
is not for us to focus on what a religious order should do with its members.

Montebello remains an important public intellectual, and silencing him would come at a cost to Maltese society. Voices like his, especially within the religious realm, are few and far in between, and people like him bring intellect to religious debates that can often verge on maudlin. He also offers a critical voice for Catholics whose faith can be often empowered by the challenge of reasoned debate.

The question many others will be asking is whether Montebello should abide by the rules of his club or leave it. But is his voice stronger within the institution? Does the ‘heresy’ exist outside the ‘truth’ it wants to feed off?

There can be no doubt that Montebello is a point of reference for a minority of Catholics but also for non-believers who support his stands and his willingness to stand up for cases. The fact that he gave gay couples his blessing in symbolic unions pays testimony to his role as an intermediary for those emarginated by the official Church.

Indeed, Montebello’s voice inside the Church is a necessary one. The Church would be wrong not to convince the Dominican order to lay down its punishing threat.

A Church that wants to enjoy relevance must be one that is able to tolerate dissent, debate and critical views.

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