Love is not a religion | Fr Mark Montebello

As the global Church appears to be shifting direction, Fr Mark Montebello argues in favour of a return to a spirituality that, like Jesus, repudiates limits, frontiers and boundaries

The Church seems to be going through a bit of inner turbulence at the moment. On the international front, conservative theologians appear to be concerned with the possible interpretations of Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Amor Laetitia’ (among other things). 

It has been argued that the more moderate approach taken by Pope Francis to issues such as divorcees receiving sacraments is at variance with past Catholic teaching. ‘Amor Laetitia’ itself has been described as contradicting Pope John Paul’s 1981 encyclical on the same subject, ‘Familiaris Consortio’. 

Pope Francis has also defied the traditional Church establishment in various other ways; he has been sharply critical of the Vatican’s notoriously Byzantine bureaucracy, of its perceived decadence and its arcane financial institutions. For this he has even been labelled (mostly by American critics) as a ‘communist’ Pope.  The contrast can only be heightened by the fact that he was appointed to succeed Pope Benedict, who was widely regarded as an arch-conservative.

Locally, too, the Maltese archdiocese seems to be in the eye of a storm. Archbishop Charles Scicluna may have kicked a hornet’s nest with his views on (among other things) the teaching of Islam in Church schools. Interestingly, Bishops Scicluna and Grech have also weighed in on the broader divisions engulfing the Church as a whole. 

Their recent pastoral letter elaborated on Pope Francis’ Amor Laetitia: concluding that divorcees could, in fact, be administered Holy Communion. 

Apart from seeming to contradict earlier messages from the same Church (especially during the 2011 divorce referendum), the Bishops’ apparently conciliatory tone on this issue has irked the same conservative theologians who took umbrage at Amor Letitiae.

In brief, the Catholic Church seems to be deeply divided on some of its most fundamental theological principles. Fr Mark Montebello is himself no stranger to some of the basic arguments at the heart of this division. He has often been outspoken in his criticism to the Church’s approach to such issues; and where, in former years, his outspokenness earned him stern rebukes from the Curia, the Church authorities today seem to lean more in the direction of his past arguments. 

Does he himself agree with my previous assessment of the Church as a divided institution? If so, to what extent? Could it be (as some have claimed) the beginning of another schism?

 “No, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a schism. What I think is at present causing some turmoil is the changed official political standpoint of the papacy. From a far-right stance taken by the anti-Communist John Paul II and the anti-liberalist Benedict XVI over more than three decades, now, with Pope Francis, we have had four years of a third-positionist Peronista who seeks to mediate tensions caused by conflicting extreme poles. Some ecclesiastics, particularly in conservative areas of Europe and the United States, are never comfortable with shifts, however slight, to the left. That’s what Pope Francis is trying to do in order both to decrease what he calls the Church’s ‘self-referentialism’ – or a Church ‘turned on itself’ - and, in what might be considered to be more or less the equivalent of Peron’s ‘justicialismo’ (justicialism), to draw the Church’s message closer to the concrete situations of suffering people beyond ideological differences. Such shifts are not unheard of in the Church’s history. In a way, Pope Francis is abetting issues of the Second Vatican Council which John Paul and Benedict derailed....”

But isn’t that last point also an indication of unbridgeable differences? Pope John Paul II is held in great reverence throughout the Catholic world – perhaps in Malta more than elsewhere – and if he ‘derailed’ Vatican Council II, it is more than likely that millions of Catholics worldwide agree and applaud that stance. Doesn’t it also mean that the Church itself is divided on its own mission (or, at least, on VC2)?

“Pope John Paul is revered for reasons which probably have nothing to do with the Vatican Council: namely for his media appeal, his ‘messianic’ self-presentation and, in his latter days, for his apparently brave endurance of illnesses. Furthermore, some aspects of his teachings, for instance on the human body and on human rights, deserve respect. Nevertheless, it would hardly be logical to suggest that all of this implicitly signifies an agreement with his overall treatment of Vatican II; or, if we come to that, with other aspects of his pontificate, for instance how he dealt with paedophile priests or with rogue candidates for sainthood. This does not suggest in the least that the Church is somehow divided on its mission... but rather on the means to accomplish it and on what pastoral emphasis is needed at different times and in different places of the world. That is something healthy...”

Perhaps, but Fr Mark also hinted at a political divergence earlier: he described Pope Francis as a Peronist, and that the movement has been to the left.  Given that Pope Francis is also viewed as a ‘liberal’ successor to a much more conservative pope, could it also simply be a power struggle between the two political arms of the Church? Is it a case of the liberal wing of the Church fighting to reclaim power from the conservative wing, after decades in the wilderness?

“I would be cautious to call Pope Francis a liberal. He still seems to be a conservative, but not an extremist. Due to his political stance, as I explained above, extremism is not in his blood. On the contrary, his carriage is to avoid extremism and forge a third position which is beyond excesses. This may appear to be too liberal for conservatives. However, it is really a way of purging the immoderation of far-right policies and redefining them in the light of Vatican II.”

Coming to the local aspect of the same dilemma: How does Fr Mark (who had criticised the Church’s previous position during the divorce referendum) interpret the apparent change in direction on the part of the Maltese bishops?  Does it reflect the movement of the global Church under Pope Francis... or is it part of the aftermath of the divorce referendum itself?

“What some ignore is that, during the pontificate of Paul VI and the early years of John Paul II (say, till 1981), it was the normal pastoral practice to allow divorcees who were properly guided practising Catholics to receive holy communion as long as they did not cause scandal. Steered by Ratzinger, John Paul II then changed this policy and issued a prohibition. Pope Francis not only reinstated the practice but went a step further and even sanctioned it. So the policy is not entirely new. Only the degree of its official endorsement is different. In Malta, this – I  think – has nothing to do with the divorce referendum. It only seems to be in contradiction with the local Church’s referendum position, because that position was itself an ambiguous hullabaloo which had no head or tail.”

At the same time, however, the softened stance on divorcees is not the only indication that the Church may be facing inner turmoil 

Archbishop Scicluna recently said he would not be tweeting on controversial issues in view of the forthcoming election. It will be noted that Scicluna has often been criticised by Labour supporters for his perceived ‘political’ commentary. To what extent is Scicluna (or any other bishop) conditioned by this sort of criticism? Is the perception that the Church is somehow ‘in league with’ the PN having the effect of silencing the Church... or is it more that the Church shouldn’t get involved in political matters anyway?

“It seems to me that Archbishop Scicluna made an apparently minor, though in reality a very significant, improvement in the local Church’s political standing. Without much fanfare he proposed that the Church in Malta is just one voice amongst others. This is unprecedented. Never, to my mind, has the local Church seen itself from this perspective. All prior bishops have claimed some sort of ascendency over other social and political entities. Now, for the first time, it seems, Archbishop Scicluna has introduced a more unpretentious and, possibly, a more realistic stance. Most of the clergy and the laity - the greater part of which, however intelligent, are nescient in matters theological or ecclesiological - did not get this. They probably still think of strength through partisanship. By contrast, Archbishop Scicluna seems to think of strength in terms of a level playing field, which is liable to give the local Church more elbow space and, possibly, more moral power in all public matters, whether political or social.”

Perhaps, but there is a level at which a Catholic would expect his or her Church to speak out, to offer guidance, and so on. Some might interpret Scicluna’s decision as a case of bowing out of the local political scene altogether. If the church falls silent on all political issues, isn’t there a danger that it will increasingly be viewed as irrelevant?

“I hope to have made it clear in what I have just explained that, taking on the new position which Archbishop Scicluna wisely proposes, the local Church would be able to speak on any matter whatsoever. It is obvious that in Malta the Church structures are by far the most developed, widespread and efficient when compared to any other non-governmental entity; and this, in the context of a level playing field, gives its voice a morally loftier degree of weight without, if consistent, acceding to haughtiness or condescension. To my mind this should enhance the Church’s relevance.”

One thing Scicluna’s comment did seem to emphasise was a deep-seated sense of caution in the way the Church approaches party politics. How much of a shadow do the political controversies of yesteryear  - the ‘interdett’ in the 1960s, the church schools issue in the 1980s, divorce in 2011, etc - still cast over the Church today? Is the hangover of these events still being felt today?

“Enormously. The 1960s inderdiction was a most tragic mistake which lacked judgement, foresight and charity; a grievous abuse of power. The 1980s Church schools controversy was unnecessary and futile on the part of the Church. The divorce referendum was a complete fiasco on all fronts. What is most awful and painful, however, in each of these cases – and in others too, such as the crusade against Manuel Dimech – is that the Church still appears to be unrepentant and has not been serious on making amends. The aforementioned new position of Archbishop Scicluna may be an opportunity to do so convincingly.”

Meanwhile, not all the current issues are ‘political’ in the traditional sense. Fr Mark himself recently waded into the ongoing dilemma concerning the teaching of Islam in Church schools. In his blog he wrote that ‘the Church would be doing a service to humanity if it raised good Muslims as well as Christians’. From the perspective of someone outside either belief system, that seems perfectly reasonable. But I can see how some Christians (or Muslims, if the shoe was on the other foot) might be perplexed by the idea of the Catholic Church bringing up children to believe in other religions. Isn’t their confusion partly justified?

“The Church should not teach religion at all, neither her own nor others. It should teach values, and values are universal. Love is not a religion, and never has been. It is a spirituality that, like Jesus, repudiates limits, frontiers, boundaries, restrictions and parameters. In line with Pope Francis’ third-position and justicialism, the Church should see grace in and uphold any belief, whether religious or secular, which is love-oriented.”

Judging by public reactions, this sentiment is not widely shared among Maltese Catholics today. How does Fr Mark interpret the backlash? Is it a case that the Church is trying to become more inclusive, at the risk of alienating its more traditional members?

“To my mind the problem is a PR one. Archbishop Scicluna has not, in my view, expressly stated his new level-playing-field position. He needs, I think, to get up on his soapbox. Left to their own devices, without instruction or guidance, people, both clergy and laity, get confused. In other words, the backlash is all a question of misunderstanding...

Some of the backlash has however been overtly xenophobic in nature. The Church itself may be criticised for a lot of things, but (to the best of my knowledge) racism isn’t usually one of them. Is it a cause for concern that people who are clearly racist/islamophobic identify with a Catholic Church that always takes such a clear anti-racism stance?

“Again I say that, when left to their own devices, without proper instruction or guidance, people’s minds fly in all directions. A thought-out, and well-presented, policy instruction is, I think, much needed...”

Meanwhile, there are some who question the long-term implications of the Church’s seemingly new direction. Though still a small minority by international standards, Islam is growing in Malta; at a time when statistics indicate that Church attendance is dwindling. Also, Malta’s demographic profile is changing at a fast pace: there are more denominations and different religions present on the island than ever before (at least, in living memory). 

As Fr Mark himself pointed out earlier, the Church now considers herself but one of several religious institutions on the island: still the biggest, but no longer enjoying a hegemonic status. Does he see this trend persisting? Will the traditional view of Malta as a Catholic country die out altogether? Or will the church adapt to the new reality and become something different?

“Technically, when we speak of hegemony we are usually referring to a cultural, social or ideological pre-eminence. This, I think, is still largely Catholic in Malta. What I mean is that, though people attend church less, and though new peoples and beliefs are present, the social, cultural and ideological fibre is still of a Catholic mould. Taking on board Pope Francis’ and Archbishop Scicluna’s input, the local Church can still harness a healthy and vigorous moral clout which will surely be of great benefit both socially and politically.”