Repeating the mistakes of history | Fr Colin Apap

Fr Colin Apap is a priest and radio personality known for his outspoken and often controversial views. He talks to RAPHAEL VASSALLO about why the anti-divorce campaign reminds him of the 1930s and 1960s.

In June 2010, Archbishop Paul Cremona had assured the public that there would be ‘no crusades’ against divorce. Less than a year later, crusades appear to be the order of the day: with billboards now urging us to choose between Christ and Divorce, and Our Lady of Sorrows herself doubling up as an unofficial mascot for the anti-divorce movement.

Watching all this from the wings, priests like Fr Colin Apap are increasingly concerned with how such initiatives may affect the reputation of the Church as a whole.

“Yes,” Fr Colin begins as I ask him about Bishop Cremona’s earlier promise. “That was the wish and intention of His Grace the Archbishop, as expressed publicly on several occasions. No crusades! But the Catholic Church in Malta is made up of thousands of faithful, parishes, religious organisations, etc. I believe that Archbishop Mgr Cremona himself has kept to this overall principle. But not the others...”

In some cases, Fr Colin admits he was disconcerted by some of the more extreme tactics used by overzealous religious campaigners.

“I find it counter-productive to use the figures of Christ, Our Lady and the Saints in a divisive divorce debate. What happened during the Duluri Procession was nauseating, reminiscent of the crusades of the 1960s.

This sermon, together with the liberal use of Our Lady made by certain self-proclaimed ‘mystics’ and ‘prophets’, is clearly a cause for concern.

“I love Our Lady, the Virgin Mother of God, very much. To have to listen to such crap is revolting. Our Lady is supposed to have predicted a tremor in the harbour area, if the divorce referendum passes. A person, in the presence of priests and nuns, was asked to put a noose around his neck and was supposedly asked by Our Lady if he is ready to kill himself for Her… meaning to submit humbly to Her will. Personal blood (and kitchen oil) has disfigured the face of Our Lady herself. There have been flying hosts and angels appearing… too much, don’t you think?”

Fr Colin invites me to consider how this atmosphere of hysteria jars with the moderate and humble persona of Bishop Cremona himself.

“The image Bishop Cremona projects is of an affable, ready-for-dialogue person, open to change and ready to accept criticism. That’s the image. In reality, however, the Catholic Church in Malta is being tainted by a crusade similar to the 1930s and 1960s. Those far-off days, unfortunately, seem to produce a creeping attitude of triumphalism in some people. It’s time to come out of the complex of the 60s. Those old battles, old attitudes and old ways may have yielded temporary victories in those days. But now the times have changed… though some people do not change and do not learn from history. So they repeat it...”

To do so now, Fr Colin warns, would be a serious mistake. “The rationale of the 1960s doesn’t make sense nowadays. Since then, Vatican Council II has developed its teaching on the nature and role of the Church and the legitimate autonomy of the State…”

He is also concerned at the possible repercussions of what he calls ‘confrontational attitudes’.

“The hatred these attitudes generate is alienating many people of good will – and this is so un-evangelical! I find it difficult to understand how we can defend one value at the expense of all others. When one value becomes absolute, then it becomes slavery. Take truth, for example: it is a very important value. But if I am merely concerned with truth, excluding other values – love, understanding, temperance, empathy – truth becomes enslavement.”

Back to the mechanics of the campaign itself, and it seems that the Church’s main opposition to divorce stems from the well-known teaching of Jesus Christ, as expressed in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark: “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

But like all Biblical quotations this one too is open to interpretation. A few lines further down, Christ goes on to say: ‘Let they accept this who can’: suggesting that his own divorce doctrine should not be forced on those who disagree with it. This in turn is entirely consonant with Christ’s other various statements urging a separation between Church and State: for instance, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”
What is Fr Colin’s interpretation of Christ’s teachings on divorce?

“Christ’s teaching on divorce has been applied differently throughout the ages. Marriage, according to Christ, is a mutual and total commitment of husband and wife. All ends and properties of marriage flow from this notion. Indissolubility is part and parcel of this intimate union between two people. Permanence and exclusivity of marriage is good for the children, the family, society and love. Christ enriched this union and made it a sacrament, a means of salvation, and a sign of the union between Christ and His Church. This union between Christ and His Church can never be severed…”

All well and good in theory: but Fr Colin acknowledges that in practice things don’t always work out this way, and that the Church itself may not have always been consistent in its views.

“Obviously – but it is not obvious to all – whatever arguments can be brought against divorce and remarriage are equally binding against separation and cohabitation. Nobody has ever questioned the right of the Church to grant separation. Why should we doubt that the Church too has the right to grant remarriage after divorce?”

And in fact the Church’s approach has changed over the centuries.

“In the first millennium of the Christian era, there were several examples of divorce and remarriage permitted by the Church. After the Reform of Gregory VII the discipline of the Church became more rigid in respect to the absolute indissolubility of the marriage bond. But between the 12th century up to the present, the Church embraced a more lenient discipline concerning the severance of the bonds of some marriages. The Pauline Privilege and more recently the Petrine Privilege – in view of the three famous Constitutions of Paul III, Pius V, and Gregory VIII – all point to the existence of some extraordinary power in the Church, commonly called the Vicarious Power, in virtue of which the Church can, as God’s representative on earth, and in His name, dissolve some marriage bonds.”

For all this, Fr Colin nonetheless contends that the Church is well within its rights to stick to its fundamental teachings on marriage.

“Marriage and its indissolubility are fundamental values in the teaching of the Catholic Church. To defend these values is paramount. But are we sending the right message? Do crusades help people to accept the Church’s teaching on marriage? Or is the impression being given that we are more concerned with power than with the plight of so many dysfunctional marriages?”

These are not easy questions to answer, and to date there seems to have been internal dissent within the Church itself on the issue. Prominent theologians such as Fr Peter Serracino Inglott and Fr Rene Camilleri have in the past expressed ‘controversial’ opinions on divorce – the latter saying that it is inevitable, in fact – while luminaries such as Mgr Arthur Said Pullicino (Ecclesiastical Tribunal vicar) has cautioned that judges and magistrates may be committing a ‘grave sin’ by granting divorce.

There have even been rumours that the Church has privately ‘had a word’ with some of its more outspoken members to ‘bring them to heel’, as it were.

Fr Colin is however not overly perturbed. “Normally there is freedom of expression in the Maltese Church. It doesn’t mean, however, that the Bishop, as the guardian of orthodoxy, is not allowed to bring to the attention to members of the church something he disagrees with. He does this regularly, and as needed. I do not find this strange. It’s part of the game. It’s part of his duties.”

Fr Colin argues if they want to be Catholics, people are to follow the church’s official teaching on matters of faith and morals.

“Priests in particular have to be witnesses of this teaching. And although every baptized Catholic is free to have his opinion and express it publicly, when representing the church officially it is not his personal opinion he has to give, but that of the church. This is OK for me and for the majority of priests, too”

He also waxes lyrical in praise of the aforementioned theologians. “Fr Peter Serracino Inglott and Fr Rene’ Camilleri are precious jewels in the Maltese church. They have vision. They are responsible for the formation of so many seminarians and lay people as they have track-records of consistent teaching. They are trustworthy people, in love with God and with the Church. They are loyal followers of Christ, helping all those who hear them to make sense of their belief and commit themselves to reality. They have a one love and one passion for one woman – the Catholic Church! For me, they are first human beings, fully human fully alive, full of love and joie de vivre. Like the never ever forgotten Fr Joseph Bernard SJ – the pillar of the Church during the politico-religious conflict who taught us to love the church and to stand up and be counted. Like my mentor Bernard, Fr Peter and Fr Rene’ are at the forefront of the new church that needs to emerge. Obviously, like all pioneers they paid the price – and they still do.”

Defending Fr Rene’s controversial statement, Fr Colin argues that it was a “sociological assumption, not a theological one.”

“What Fr Rene’ said, as so many others have before and after him, is that divorce in Malta is inevitable, it’s a question of time. ‘Tardare si, ma scappare no’ is a well-known expression among people of the Church. It’s a fact derived from social science. God speaks through signs of the times: just look around you, be aware of the whole reality and discover what God is telling us, how to interpret His commands to the evolution of man.”

Nonetheless the various pronouncements by well-known clergymen have caused some confusion regarding the actual position of the Church. Fr Colin acknowledges that outspokenness can sometimes cause problems.

“Obviously people who love the Church – and there are many who do not – sometimes find ourselves in a conundrum: how much can I say in public? To what extent is dissent healthy in a community? How justified am I to rock the boat?”

He turns to personal experience to illustrate the point. “I was in Italy during the divorce referendum (1974). The Magisterium had a different approach to the Catholic base. There was a public confrontational disagreement – and various Church people were alienated and ostracised. Franzoni, Carlo Carretto, etc., had to experience the anger generated by a rigid hierarchy. The reality is that so much hatred was generated by the confrontational attitude that the divorce referendum passed with a higher percentage than expected; and the abortion referendum which followed had even a higher percentage indeed! Confrontations create Pyrrhic victories….you can win the battle but lose the war.

Coming back to Malta in 2011, Fr Colin sees much that is similar. “It’s the hearts and minds of people that are being alienated. In Malta we have two souls: one an uncompromising closed-shelled fortress, and the other open to the world. The task of the priest is to be a bridge-builder between all the People of God of all hues: between those living in the protective shell, and those who live in the real world. It’s not easy!”

In the 1960's when the Church imposed morrtal sin on anything that had to do with Labour, there were 51,000 voters who DEFIED the Church and voted Labour. They increased to more than 61,000 in the following election. They will increase much more and much more harm will be done to the Church with its medieval stance.
@Peter Paul. He just cannot commit himself because he would end up like Father Peter Montebello. He will be sent away from our shores that is. But those priests who abused all those children end up with a transfer say from hamrun to Zebbug.
try to search for the answer yourself (recomended), you will get answers from different people. the truth is always there, in your heart.
Dominic Chircop I'm not Pl supporter,but still,I'm voting ''YES'' what I cannot understand, if a couple take divorce,they are breaking one of the sacrament!, so why is a priest who decided, that he don't want to be priest anymore, for whatever reason, is not breaking the sacrament?? ,Why is it ok ,for the priest & not for the couple, PLEASE can anyone explain??
Joseph Galea
I think Fr Colin is following his own words: "To what extent is dissent healthy in a community? How justified am I to rock the boat?” Throughout the interview he repeated the stand of the Catholic Church on divorce. We have been hearing that ad nauseam. But he shied away from saying whether he is in favour of or against the introduction of divorce in Malta as a civil measure. What is the Church going to gain after winning the referendum? It will give the Righteous Right the satisfaction that they have conserved their temporal power on a small rock in the middle of the Mediterranean, from where they can launch their crusade for the reconquest of Europe. On the other hand, it will alienate further those separated Catholics who will feel, quite rightly, that the Church (or is it Churchmen?) have not only denied them the sacraments but also the 'respectability' of the civil marriage status. In this crucial moment, liberal practising Catholics are yearning to hear the courageous words of just one priest telling the Maltese that they should personally follow the teachings of the Church on divorce but be tolerant enough to accept legislation on divorce to allow others to act according to their civil rights. It would not harm the Church; it would be like a drop of water from Vatican II on the arid desert of the Maltese Catholic scene.
Take away our hearts of stone, and give us a heart of flesh. A Yes Vote to implement a caring, concerned and compassionate response to marital breakdowns. I hope that you will make every effect to give a resounding YES on the 28th of May to civil rights, compassion,generosity and courageous concern
“Till death do us part” (or alcoholism, infidelity, violence, crime or plain bad luck.)
Once you take away the fear of hell from the church you remove their weapon against you. What presumption to say that you are representing God the creator of the universe. God doesn't need man to run the world.
That is why all P L supporters must vote YES !! If they vote NO they will be a slur on the memory of thei freefathers, who were made to suffer so much under the sixties interdett. And how can a member of a "progressive" party vote for the forces of darkness represented by the Bishops and Gonzi ? For, make no mistake, this is a political decision, Once the holier-than-thou Nationalist Party decided to oppose divorce, it was turned into one. This is not a case of being DemoChristian. People who read their history know that the DC was fomed not to be a leccaculo of any Curia, but more as an answer to the fascist/catholic trends prevailing under Mussolini. The No vote may win, but two natural consequences will occur. The local Church will find even more people deserting it. And the PN, the Curia Party, will get the shock of their lives when all liberal supporters refrain from voting for the party. Rather than Demochristians, they are the mock Christians.
Yes repeating the mistakes of the past but this time round I do not think that the Maltese socieity will not be the same again in the afteramath of this referedum. people nowadays are much more informed than in the past and tend to question more what is being fed to them. Personnaly I think that in the long run it will be worse for the Gonzi/PN and the local catholic church if the referendum rejects the divorce legislation proposal. Time will tell.