The Church is not just its leadership | Victor Asciak

Prof. Victor Asciak, former head of the Church Environment Commission and outspoken lay Catholic, questions the motivation behind recent criticism of Archbishop Paul Cremona

Victor Asicak (Photo: Ray Attard)
Victor Asicak (Photo: Ray Attard)

“You’re not as old as I, so perhaps you don’t remember. But back in the days of Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi, you couldn’t… I just can’t imagine anyone talking about a leadership crisis the way they talk about it today. Even under Bishop Joseph Mercieca, whom I know personally, the time had not yet come when people asked these types of question in public. Well, perhaps it used to happen too, but certainly not with the same insistence…”

We are in Professor Victor Asciak’s office in the University’s Biology Department, and I have just asked the former Church Environment Commissioner – he stepped down last year after occupying the post for a decade – to give his own view of what led to an apparently unprecedented level of criticism directed at the leadership of the Catholic Church… criticism which has come mostly from clergymen.

“Maltese society has changed since the 1960s,” he continues. “It no longer feels such a close connection with the Church. We have reached a situation where people, even if they believe in God, no longer feel duty-bound to also believe their parish priest, or to bow their head to everything he says.

"People now feel they can ask about everything: about how the Church behaves in certain situations, and also about the leadership. If the leadership is now in question, it is partly because people feel comfortable questioning everything. Which is how it should be…”

Nonetheless Asciak himself wrote an article in defence of Archbishop Paul Cremona last Wednesday… suggesting that the local Church leader was being ‘crucified’ for refusing to align the Church with partisan politics. Isn’t there more to this issue than just changing societal trends?

He nods. “That is what I said in that article. The way I see it – and I don’t see everything – the first time someone made a connection between the Church leadership, or lack thereof, and politics, it was the leader of the Nationalist Party. Last April [Simon Busuttil] spoke along the lines of how Joseph Muscat had succeeded in ‘silencing’ the Church over the civil unions issue. So like it or not, there is a connection. When a political party starts talking about the leadership of the Church, how can anyone say there isn’t a link with politics?”

Asciak however contests the validity of Busuttil’s interpretation.

“As I see it, his point was that Joseph Muscat had won such a large victory at the election, that anyone who wanted to criticise him would think twice… as if he had become a demi-god. I don’t agree with this interpretation myself, but anyway. That’s where the political connection began. My question is: these people who are talking about the ‘excessive silence’ of the Church... do they have some other agenda? Or is it because they sincerely believe what they are saying?”

When it comes to the question of who is more authentic – Cremona, or his critics – Asciak leaves little to the imagination.
“I have no doubt that Archbishop Paul Cremona, from the little I know of him, is authentic. I have faith in him. He is straightforward, a person who believes in what he says. If he doesn’t say something, the chances are that it’s because he doesn’t fully believe it. I have had many pleasant experiences with him, and will cherish them as part of my life experience.

"But when someone asks: but why does this man not speak out? Is it because he’s afraid of Joseph Muscat? And then, when other people come out… people like Fr Joe Borg, Dun Charles Vella… you ask yourself: but why are these people saying this? Now let me put it this way: I’m not saying Cremona’s leadership style is necessarily good… as a leadership style. All I’m saying is that the Church leadership does not come only from the Archbishop. It comes from us, too… especially in the way we act, and the way our actions impact the perceptions of the Church.”

Asciak here argues that the very people who criticise the Church leadership are themselves part of the object of their own criticism.
“Each time Fr Joe Borg, or someone like Fr Rene Camilleri, writes an article, unwittingly we associate that with the Church, and unwittingly we build our perception of the Church in part upon those articles. So this perception that the leadership issue is political… it wasn’t my doing. Others dragged politics into it.

"So my conclusion, to a certain extent, is that these people… I won’t say there’s a plan, or anything, but…”
In fact I was going to ask this very question: does Prof. Asciak (like many others) also see this as a ‘conspiracy’ to replace the Archbishop with a more combative figure for political purposes?

“No, I think the word ‘conspiracy’ is too clumsy. But naturally when people like Fr Borg – or myself for that matter – speak out, he will have his own biases, like we all do. But that is also why one must be careful when speaking, so that the perception that emerges would not be exploited by others. I believe that if there is anyone who doesn’t want this to happen – who doesn’t want the Church to be aligned with a political party, I mean – that person is precisely Paul Cremona.”

This is perhaps the crux of the entire issue. Surely it is not in the Church’s own interest to align with a political party: not if it intends to also be a Church for everyone. Otherwise it will be an exclusive and divisive Church, which would defeat its entire purpose…

Asciak nods. “We have to also understand… and to an extent tolerate… that the Church should not be political in that sense. I have no doubt that the Church, back in the 1960s, was politically inclined. Archbishop Gonzi, for instance: I have no doubt that he fully believed in what he was doing; but I also have no doubt that it was wrong. I’m not saying he wasn’t genuine in his intentions; or that he just wanted to lend a helping hand to the Nationalists. If he wanted to do this, it was because he saw Dom Mintoff as a devil.”

Here he breaks into a laugh. “And it was his job to fight the devil! But this doesn’t mean he was right. And this, I think, is where Maltese society has changed. Back then, no one (except for someone like Mintoff) would have even dreamed of challenging Gonzi’s authority... and a lot of people suffered psychologically as a result. People who supported a political party, and were told they would go to hell if they supported it... I am convinced those who suffered because of those perceptions, suffered unjustly…”

The consequences of those distant battles are still with us today, he continues.

“Many people lost their faith in the Church. I won’t say I’m shocked, but it saddens me to hear that some of them never entered a Church again in their life. I know some of these people. They’re not devils who are destined for hell; quite the contrary. They are beacons of Christian charity. But… that was it. That time, the time of the ‘interdett’, scarred a lot of people. And I think that: first of all, we can never go back to that time. Never. Society has changed. But today, there could be elements, especially within the media, that…” He breaks into a mischievous smile. “Well, instead of an ‘interdett’, they might come up with a blog, for example…”

There may however be other reasons for the Church’s reluctance to enter the political fray. The last time it did so overtly was arguably during the divorce referendum campaign of 2011… and we all know how that turned out in the end. Could it be, therefore, that the Church simply took a strategic decision not to comment directly on political issues?

Prof. Asciak makes it clear that he has no direct knowledge of strategic decisions taken by the Curia.

“But I do have an opinion. I think the Church should speak up about everything. It has a right to speak. And it does speak. Why do we only talk about Archbishop Cremona? We are forgetting that there is another bishop, Gozo Bishop Mario Grech. He speaks so much about so many things: about sex, for example… everyday things that affect ordinary people. Isn’t he also part of the Church? Again, I know that man personally, and have the greatest respect for him.

"I sincerely consider him an authentic person. He doesn’t hold back on expressing his views about anything. And I don’t believe that he does this out of some hidden agenda. You can see he is genuine. You can also see that… I’m not sure if I should say this, but I’ll say it anyway… he is living in a minefield. If he managed to survive the minefield that is Gozo, with all its ecclesiastic and social issues… this man has fibre. He knows how to negotiate certain situations. And yet, he does not remain silent. The Church is not just Paul Cremona….”

But the criticism has been levelled specifically at the leadership of the Church, not the Church as a whole…

“Isn’t Mario Grech also part of the Church leadership? He has his own style, and perhaps Cremona has a different style. I don’t want to be apologetic for Cremona, but… I know that it’s not true that the Church leadership is not interested in certain things, and doesn’t talk about social issues. Mario Grech does talk. You might ask: then why doesn’t Cremona do the same? I don’t know. It could be that Cremona feels that silence sometimes speaks louder than words. I am however certain of one thing. I don’t believe that Joseph Muscat, with his electoral victory, has ‘silenced’ others. Silence does not come from Joseph Muscat, but from one’s own fear. If I am afraid of Joseph Muscat, it comes from me, not from him…

He seems to be suggesting that Cremona may be afraid of Joseph Muscat…

“I was referring to what Simon Busuttil said: my point is that the argument doesn’t hold water…”

Meanwhile, there is more to this talk of leadership crisis than mere politics. There are parochial and pastoral issues, too. To cite one recent example: the former parish priest of Mgarr was recently removed under dubious circumstances. To be fair we have only heard his side of the story, but the picture that emerges resembles a revolt by certain parishioners who objected to his attempts to address controversial ‘traditional’ practices… such as the annual auction for the right to carry the statue of Our Lady, for instance.

This exposes a certain contradiction at Church leadership level. On one hand we have Gozo Bishop Mario Grech warning (in a recent sermon) against the threat of excessive traditionalism, and on the other the Church removed a parish priest who was ultimately motivated by the same concerns. Doesn’t this also point towards internal pressures within the Church itself?

“That there are internal pressures I have no doubt. Just as there are pressures within political parties. You have to learn to live with those pressures. And I think Paul Cremona may have yet to grow accustomed to them. I imagine someone like [Auxiliary Bishop] Charles Scicluna – not that I know him much – will know how to live with them. Paul Cremona perhaps less so. I don’t want to judge. But… yes, there are internal pressures…”

Are these pressures perhaps too strong within certain communities for even the Church to control?

“Yes,” he replies without hesitation. “No doubt. And in a way that is also the Church’s fault, at least in the past. The Church has always had such a strong hold on Maltese society... and Maltese society, to this day, still remains so drawn to these elements…”

He trails away as if suddenly conscious that he might be treading on a minefield of his own. “I am from Hamrun, so I’ll only talk about Hamrun. This way, if I offend anyone it will be my own hometown, so it will be OK. What does it mean, that to show devotion to San Gaetano you have to let off bombs? I can’t understand this. And many of them, most likely, will not have a clue who San Gaetano even was, still less what sort of revolution he started within the society of his own day. What do we care? We care about bombs. The Church is partly to blame for this. The Church of the past…”

Yet it is the Church of the present that still takes similar decisions. Asciak gives the impression that he wants to blame everything negative on the Church of yesteryear. It is however still the same Church…

“Let’s be clear: I don’t know exactly why the Mgarr parish priest was removed. I only know what I read in the newspapers. The story could be bigger than that. But if it is true that he was trying to change the local mentality and turn it away from all this paganism…” he lays particular emphasis on that last word… “whoever wanted to remove him was wrong. I was also a little surprised when I read that – and again, I don’t know how much of it is true – when he [the parish priest] met Archbishop Cremona, he was not told to leave… as if Cremona was afraid to tell him. When he came out of that meeting he thought the situation had been sorted out. Then Scicluna sent for him and – always according to what he said afterwards – told him that: listen, Cremona wanted to remove you, but he didn’t have the courage. So I’m going to remove you myself. If this is true, I’ll say it plain: it doesn’t reflect well, either on Archbishop Cremona or on Bishop Scicluna. Even at leadership level. If both are part of a leadership team, and one is hesitant… why reveal to others that he is hesitant?”

But Asciak is also keen to dispel the perception that there are only negative things to say about the Church.

“We have to also understand that there are elements within the Church that are extremely positive...” Here he breaks off for an appreciation of the late Fr Eric Overend, formerly parish priest of Zejtun, who is remembered fondly for the strong relationship he built with the communities he served.

“Isn’t this also authenticity? Fr Overend was an archpriest. Wasn’t he also part of the leadership of the Church? If there were more people like him in the structures of the Church, we wouldn’t even be thinking about things like a leadership crisis. And there are others like him. Nuns who do a lot of work with prostitutes, for instance. Do these people ever get any limelight? No. We only talk about Paul Cremona’s leadership qualities. I personally associate Paul Cremona with this type of person: the authentic ones who work quietly for the good of the Church.”