Scar tissue: The aftermath of the interdett – Part Five

Fifth and final part of a MaltaToday series on the January 1961 Church Interdett, first published in MaltaToday in 2005

Wenzu Mintoff (left), and Jeremy Boissevain (right)
Wenzu Mintoff (left), and Jeremy Boissevain (right)

“THE IMPOSITION of the interdett and the mortal sin in the sixties left a traumatic effect on the life of all of those who experienced it. A great pain that is still felt today,” says Wenzu Mintoff, the Labour politician and Dom Mintoff’s nephew.

He believes that at least another two generations have to pass before the great hurts are not felt anymore. “To show how a hurt like this lasts for long one only has to read the biography of Mabel Strickland who until her death could not find reassurance on whether her father Lord Gerald Strickland, who had also been affected by the imposition of the mortal sin in the 30s with Boffa’s labourites, had been ex-communicated from the church and had managed to save his soul.”

The Unholy War: a five-part series on Malta’s Interdett – Part 1

The people miming Beelzebub: Lino Spiteri remembers the Interdett – Part 2

Across the great divide: Guido de Marco during the interdiction – Part 3

Divide et Impera: Ragonesi recalls PN during the interdiction – Part 4

Scar tissue: The aftermath of the interdett – Part Five

English anthropologist Annabel Hendry was researching her doctorate thesis in the 70s and she remembers that even after the interdett was declared over, “politics seemed to infiltrate everything, even where you chose to buy your loaf of bread. The dark side of this was that the increasing social stratification intensified both political divisions and inter and sometimes intra-family rivalries. The role of the interdett was complex, but very present.”

Wenzu Mintoff is dismayed that the aftermath of the interdett led to a lacunae of values. “The traditional values imposed by the church were not replaced by ethical and civic lay values because in other countries the transition took hundreds of years. This is one of the reasons why in this country there is a vacuum of values, libertinism and a lot of hypocrisy and double standards.”

Hendry says that back in the 70s, she felt that the frequent collective reminiscing over past struggles for those defending the government acted as a kind of group myth to amplify and justify the power of the weak (the Labour Party) and the forces of progress over the powers of reaction which had been ranged against them. Attempts to defend the pastoral role of the Church in the past would be dismissed, with the lack of effective schooling in the village until after World War II cited as an example of the Church’s role in “keeping us ignorant, so we would not know how to fight back.”

There was great and genuine bitterness still there. She remembers that life was fun in the 70s as Malta was undergoing change by the minute – tourism was taking off and the community beginning to open up and see new possibilities, although there was still a whiff of Salem floating on the air in Mellieha 1975.

“Rumours were circulating that I was a prostitute, and most probably a socialist prostitute to boot,” says anthropologist Annabel Hendry, remembering when as a doctorate student conducting her fieldwork in Malta she aroused the police’s suspicions to the extent that they inspected her premises after two male friends known to be far left of centre frequently called round to check how she was settling in. In fact many young children and people ignored the instructions of a very fervent and active priest to stay away from the “dangerous English woman.”

It is probable that her presumed political leanings and the fraternising of a single woman with men led the priest to decry her imputed lack of morals. Labour was in power as MLP politicians were immediately elected as soon as the interdett was declared over. It was around the time that a Labour government had already started implementing every single one of the “six points” which triggered off the interdett – except for divorce which even in present times is not recognised by civil law as a right for Maltese people.

Wenzu Mintoff says “the intervention of Archbishop Gerada who had a direct line with the Vatican led to a truce between Dom Mintoff and Archbishop Michael Gonzi.” Mintoff believes that once the interdett was lifted and there was a dramatic decrease of the Church’s influence, Malta started becoming more secularised. But anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain believes that the reverberation of the interdett can still be observed today as “the anti-MLP press of the 1960s is still anti-MLP.”

When asked whether the Labourites in the 70s had let bygones be bygones, Hendry believes not. “I was impressed by how vivid the period remained in people’s memory, certainly amongst Labour supporters. Many recalled the atmosphere of fear and panic over the fate of the dockyard at the time of the interdett and it was common to remember the local and national heroes of the time, such as those who had been placed in prison for supporting the dockyard strikes.

The two themes, which always recurred, were how barbaric the Church was to withhold the Easter blessing from certain households and the fate of those who ended up being buried at the mizbla.”

She says that many such conversations, often in the Labour Club, ended up in hilarity as those present joined in with ever more gruesome memories of their own experiences and with examples of the avarice and wickedness of the chaplain at that time.

“But these tales communicated a fundamental and serious message, that of the unity and definition of the participants as past victims, essentially opposed to the corrupt and vicious tactics which could be used by the Church and of their collectively standing against the power it represented.”

She explains that unlike in the villages where her tutor Jeremy Boissevain, worked, Labour supporters were very much a minority group in Mellieha at the time of the interdett: “so people had to be extremely brave to defend their allegiance and were literally forced underground and subject to severe stigma.”

Boissevain says that “workers in the harbour had more contact with the outside world and new ideas. Unionisation was strong there and the people supported the party. Dom Mintoff’s own background was there. But support was also very strong in the so called ‘rural’ southern villages, where many residents also worked in the harbour area and in the quarries.”

“Perhaps the church should have been advised to accept the MLP’s slogan ‘with Mintoff always, against the Church never’ on its face value,” Hendry says. To force a whole community of believers into such terrible choices of conscience was no way to gain fans so the questioning, mistrust and bitterness did generate secularisation. But she also says that secularisation is a relative term. “Two weeks ago people were queuing up at 5.45am outside the church in Mellieha, anxious for their early festa mass... now that wouldn’t happen in England.”

Asked to comment on how Malta nowadays compares to back then, she says: “Oddly, increasing wealth and apparent prosperity apart, Malta is not so very different from the 1970s. Politics apart, there is still no place better in the world to take that first slice into a loaf of bread. And those subversive friends of mine? They are pillars of the community now! So things do change.”

The interdett through a foreigner’s eyes

“THE INTERDETT left a lasting scar. The young and older adults who lived through the period have never forgotten it,” Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain says.

Indeed Labour leader Alfred Sant recounts an anecdote regarding an aged woman who “never set foot in church again after being denied absolution by her priest when she was heavily pregnant and had just been told by her doctor that due to serious complications - she and her infant were on the possible brink of death”. This woman, whom Sant met during his routine house visits in ‘Lazy Corner’ Sliema, was still evidently bitter for “having to choose between God and her party,” in such a precarious moment in her life.

Proficient in several languages, the 76-year-old anthropologist who first came to Malta as a chief of mission for the American Care relief organisation CARE, still has close ties with the islands. Two of his children were born in Malta and one of them also lives here. He has been conducting research and studying Malta’s social life for over 40 years. He also published ‘Saints and Fireworks’, which studied the relationship between religion and politics in Maltese village feasts back in the sixties.

Irrespective of having spent the whole morning travelling, he is raring to go, meticulous about every single detail including names, times and places.

During one of his field trips in Qala, the anthropologist bumped into Labour MP Guze Ellul Mercer. Boissevain quotes the prophetic remarks Guze Ellul Mercer had made when they discussed the interdett: “It can only get worse before it gets better. The Bishop is making an anticlerical party out of the Labour Party. An anticlerical party of a group of people who are and who wish to remain practising Catholics”.

As an afterthought Boissevain says that he later heard many others, including priests say the same thing. Boissevain’s accurate memories come from the notes he had made when he was doing comparative research. The excerpt continues: “On 9 April 1961 I was staying in the hotel of il-Gaġġu in Qala. Also staying there was Joe Ellul Mercer, who was in Gozo for a week’s hunting. That Sunday morning, the morning the interdett was read out, he went to early mass and went to go out hunting. The telephone at the hotel’s bar kept ringing for him the whole morning. But he was out. At dinner that night we talked for hours. He spoke a lot about his life, including his loneliness after the death of his wife.”

Boissevain recalls seeing young MLP supporters swaggering into the Naxxar church with copies of the party organ Il-Ħelsien sticking out of their back pockets. “Kalċidon Agius (Labour MP) told me that the circulation in Naxxar of the over the counter copies of Il-Ħelsien rose from a handful to around sixty a week, excluding the subscriptions.”

Boissevain thinks that strangely enough, it also helped promote literacy among the less educated Labour rank and file. “For the first time, they started buying ilHelsien as a badge of loyalty and defiance. Once they bought it, they began to read it. They learned more about the party, and its ideology followed.”

An ideology consisting of Mintoff’s homemade brand of socialism – which in the anthropologist’s view was “certainly light years away from communism and not a direct threat to the church,” further confirming the redundancy of Archbishop Michael Gonzi’s assumed fears. The drastic, needless and very foolish steps of the church simply escalated the confrontation. Mintoff wanted the church to stay out of politics. It did not, only to strengthen the MLP as an institution.

“By anathematising Mintoff, by equating him with the devil in such a simple minded black and white dichotomy – “jew ma’ lIsqof, jew max-xitan (with the Bishop, or with the devil) – the church insulted the idolised leader of the party and the intelligence of his followers,” Boissevain says. Ironically, part of Mintoff’s rhetorical techniques included peppering his speeches with religious undertones that according to Boissevain served “to warm the audience up and to show his defiance.”

Mintoff’s brazen comments also showed the way for others to voice their experiences and share them with each other – he “legitimised speaking out” by giving a voice to the people.

Shortly after the start of the interdett, Boissevain says he had overheard his neighbour, a devout Catholic and a teacher, but also an ardent Labour supporter, “recounting to a number of men in a blacksmiths shop, his grim, joyless experiences as a long time MUSEUM member. Before the interdict such behaviour would have been unthinkable.”

Boissevain says the extreme measure of the interdett alienated people so much that many members of the clergy were openly in extreme difficulty “that it boomeranged. Resulting in the church losing many followers and became willing to reach an agreement with the MLP. Although one should add that throughout this saga the MLP also lost followers.”

Not all the MLP supporters were prepared to risk raising the ire of God and suffer the eternal damnation of hell. So the cleavage between the Church and the MLP grew deeper by first interdicting the leadership and especially then after forbidding people to read the papers. “The church shot itself in the foot. It deprived thousands of devout church attendees from receiving the sacraments, insulting them and of course alienating them.”

Boissevain once again illustrates his argument from his notes: “The new Kappillan of Kirkop, Dun Guzepp Theuma, had invested an enormous amount and devotion in building up the boys’ Catholic Action. In less than a year he increased membership from virtually nothing to over 50. Then, after the pledge of allegiance the Church demanded of all Church organisations, all but 12 members of the village’s Catholic Action dropped out. This upset Dun Theuma greatly.”

The interdett certainly speeded up secularisation, leading to a very steady decline in church attendance: “It did not start with the interdict. But the interdict certainly contributed to it.”

It also led to a more open and much more independent frame of mind regarding the pronouncements of the church on divorce, church attendance, contraception and pre marital sex. “But this is part of the general trend of secularisation, and in this respect it is not much different, though much slower, than the secularisation among Catholics that has taken place in the Netherlands since the 1950s.”