Silence of the media pundits

With few exceptions - amongst them Joe Azzopardi who says he will definitely vote for divorce - Malta's opinionists have no opinion about divorce-related matters.

I absolutely disagree with the Ecclesiastic Tribunal’s decision, so much so that I have signed the petition calling for her reinstatement to the Tribunal. This is a dangerous decision that has the potential to create a precedent in how all those working with or within the Church are treated.”

So said Xarabank presenter Joe (Peppi) Azzopardi when asked to comment directly on the dismissal of Yes campaigner Dr Deborah Schembri from the Ecclesiastical Tribunal.

Azzopardi also points towards the danger in applying the same principle to other areas unrelated to marriage. “One example is those working within Church Schools – are teachers going to be dismissed unless they oppose the introduction of divorce? Are other Church employees going to be silenced in this way? Are separated teachers who are co-habiting with new partners going to be also singled out in this way? It is an unacceptable decision that could create a very dangerous precedent, which is why it should be withdrawn and reversed immediately.”

Joe Azzopardi is equally categorical when it comes to his own voting intentions: “I will vote in favour of the introduction of divorce.”

But this makes him something of an exception, in a traditionally secretive country where people often as not fear political repercussions for outspokenness.

Interestingly, opinion formers and television presenters – with the above exception – are among the most reluctant to comment. Georg Sapiano, a lawyer/talk show host who has made a name for himself as a vociferous commentator on all issues, declined to comment on this one: “It is a sabbatical of sorts,” he replied. “I’ve been airing my views for years now, it is about time I moved aside for others.”

However, few seem inclined to fill the void left by Sapiano’s silence: least of all Lou Bondi, who appears to have unofficially boycotted this newspaper for reasons he prefers to keep to himself: “I have no interest in cooperating with MaltaToday. I shall express my opinion, and I have a strong one on this issue, in a real newspaper.”

Perhaps ironically, some of the stronger opinions on the subject are expressed by persons deeply involved in the Nationalist Party: which has adopted a clear anti-divorce platform.

Cyrus Engerer, PN councillor for Sliema, is clearly unaffected by his party’s declared stand on the issue.

“Firstly, I take a Human Rights view, aimed mostly at the State and not at the Roman Catholic Church.  The decision by Mgr. Said Pullicino on behalf of the Ecclesiastic Tribunal is ridiculous, especially given that Malta has a Church-State agreement enacted in 1993, by which the Ecclesiastic Tribunal’s findings have a weight in state marriages, and not only on Church ones…”

Engerer adds that the decision may be counterproductive, as it “highlights the lack of transparency, democratic values and tolerance in the Roman Catholic Church’s tribunal.

“Hence, a clear divide between Church and State is now, more than ever, needed.”

His vote in the referendum?“Adefinite YES!”

But his enthusiasm is by no means ubiquitous within the PN. Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil, for instance, refused point blank to be drawn into the discussion: claiming only that he “does not want to express his personal opinion on whether divorce should be introduced or not.”

Outside the immediate sphere of politics, opinions become more varied. Prof. Joe Friggieri, Head of Philosophy Department at the University of Malta (and a one-time PN candidate for the European parliament) describes Mgr Said Pullicino’s decision as “rather strange.”

“As far as I can tell, Dr Deborah Schembri is not encouraging people to file for divorce. She is representing clients who are seeking annulment at the Ecclesiastical Tribunal. I think she still has a right to do that.”

Describing the decision as “unwise”, Friggieri thinks it “should be withdrawn.” But the philosophy professor declined to reveal his voting intentions.

“I think there has already been a lot of intrusion into the private life of citizens, so I do not feel that people should be asked that question.”

Elsewhere, university lecturer Mario Azzopardi is among the few to back the Ecclesiastical Tribunal. “I am completely in favour of the introduction of divorce, but I believe the Tribunal has been consistent with its beliefs… though the measure is anti-democratic, the Church is not a democratic institution so one cannot expect it to adopt democratic measures. It abides by hard and fast rules, not a democratic system.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, members of the clergy were among the most reluctant to comment. Tal-Ibragg parish priest Dr Gorg Dalli – so often outspoken in the past – preferred not to comment at all.

“There’s a lot of fuss on the issue of divorce and I have nothing to add to what’s already been said. I prefer to stay quiet,” he told MaltaToday.

Equally outspoken on other issues is Fr Mark Montebello, an activist with prisoners’ rights organisation Mid-Dlam Ghad-Dawl. However, Fr Montebello refused to comment on the Ecclesiastical Tribunal’s decision… though he did say that he has “signed a petition on Facebook to have Deborah Schembri’s license reinstated.”

Others were more forthcoming.  Fr Renè Camilleri, the Curia’s Catechesis Delegate, argues that the issue has been blown out of proportion.

“It would have been extremely unfair if the decision had been taken now that the campaign is intensifying,” he said. “But Dr Schembri has long known about it, so why come with it now?”

Fr Renè said the Ecclesiastical Tribunal has its own regulations and requirements for a lawyer to be able to work within it – “regulations which lawyers know about.”

“In this case, the Tribunal is only applying its requirement,” he said.

“If the Maltese State is happy with the Church-State agreement, then one has no option but to accept it.”

Joseph Sant
I have read the rest of this article in the printed edition of your paper. I have a question for Fr Rene Camilleri, who I totally respect. He stated that Dr Schembri has known of her ban from the Ecclesiastical Tribunal for a long time - so why bring it up now. My question is - did the ban come before or after Dr Schmebri's involvement with the Yes movement? If it came after than sadly his argument falls slam on it's face.
Belinda Huckson
For more information, all Church Schools ,including Catholic or any other Religion, have their own policy and choose their own teachers. Perhaps this would appear strange to Malta as we are too democratic or give too much trust to all, or expect everyone to be Catholic
Ghal l-ewwel darba f'hajti ser ikolli nametti li naqbel mieghek Pep. Bhal knisja l-Gvern ilu snin jinjora lil dawk kollha li ma jhaddnux il politika tieghu. Dejjem jahseb ghal tal qalba biss. Il kaz tal gvernatur tal bank centrali huwa kif jghidu a case in point.
Tghid itina prova li veru jkun ivvota IVA, ghax hemm wahdu jkun? Nispera li zzomm kelmtek,Pep. Wara kollox din mhux xi votazzjoni biex jinbidel il-gvern. Din hi kwistjoni li jkun hemm dritt civili iehor,li jekk trid tista taghmel uzu minnu u jekk ma tridx hadd mhu ser jisfurzak tuzah bilfors.
Hrigt b`wahda tajba fl-ahhar PEP.Il Pm mhux ser jiehu pjacir bik.
al kemm peppi jisimpatizza u jxaqleb mal partit nazzjonalista, illum peppi wera li hu ragel billi se jivotta kontra il possizjoni tal partit tigheu, well done pepp
Well, I don't see much maltese TV, but as a person today , I think he talked in what he believed in, altough It may have some attack to him from behind the scenes politeley, As he is a TV popular programme, .. But at least he spoke in what he I think believes in, not like some others who are being told what to say and what not to say. RESIST OR SERVE!
Luke Camilleri
Another Punch and Judy Show....with the glove puppets well handled and managed by the Professor running the show from behind the scenes! That's Entertainment!