The silence of the lambs

Is the Church’s measured response to the introduction of civil unions and gay adoptions a recognition of boundaries between State and Church, or a sign of weakness after the divorce debacle?

The Maltese Catholic archdiocese’s reaction to the introduction of civil unions came in the form of a measured statement just two days after MPs made it gay unions law: Paul Cremona and bishops Mario Grech and Charles Scicluna reiterated their belief in the “natural family” built on the marriage of man and woman, and that children should have the right to be brought up by a father and a mother.

Bar a few incursions from Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna, the church kept a low profile during the debate on civil unions in Malta, a position contrasted by the vocal protests of Catholic lay groups in France earlier this year against the introduction of a gay marriage law.

Symbolically, France went a step further by including same-sex couples in the institution of marriage. But Maltese law effectively institutes full equality between the civil union status and marriage.

Like Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of France said, describing gay marriage as “the ultimate deceit”, in Malta Mgr Charles Scicluna argued that equating same-sex unions with marriage was “illogical” and “deceptive”. Moreover, Scicluna made it clear that he had the full backing of Pope Francis, reminding the international press that Bergoglio, who seemed to have complained about the church’s “obsession” with gays, abortion and birth control, was still in line with church doctrine.

But the religious protest in Malta stayed mute: apart from a few lay protestations, the only protest came from a fringe evangelical group, led by pastor Gordon-John Manché – a sign that Catholic lay groups were either weak and unable to mobilise, or that the Church had taken the decision to keep a low profile.

Indeed, it even publicly disassociated itself from Manché as the TV evangelist planned to collect signatures to call for an abrogative referendum against civil unions.

Historical resistance
The church’s resignation to civil unions evokes contrasts with its ability to mobilise mass movements against reforms that threatened its hegemony.

Historically it never hesitated in defending its turf. The interdiction of Labour voters in the 1960s and the mass movement of parents against Labour plans to make church schools free of charge in the 1980s were examples of the church’s assertive ways. Even a small party like Alternattiva Demokratika, once compared to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah for advocating civil unions by Vicar-General Anton Gouder, did not escape its censure.

Surely enough the church may still be recovering from the divorce debacle after it openly backed and financed the No movement in the referendum. But its subdued reaction to civil unions suggests it is unsure of how to face the new Labour government, on which it can exercise far less leverage than it had on the Nationalist Party.

Its timid reaction is nothing like Gozo bishop Mario Grech’s missives against IVF in 2012, when the PN was still in government.
Unlike its ability to influence PN governments, the church could still be trying to establish a dialogue with the new Labour government on issues of mutual interest like church schools, without having to waste ammo on lost causes. Picking a fight with a charismatic leader like Joseph Muscat, could further erode its influence on Labour voters.

It could also be reflecting Pope Francis’s ‘light-touch moderation’, staying true on message when it comes to gay marriage without obsessing, and instead looking at more social issues than sexuality. Because after all, Francis’s mark on global civil society has been his strong denunciation of the “globalisation of indifference” on migrants and the poor.

Even bishop Grech himself has tackled migration and tax evasion in his homilies, while branches like the Jesuit Refugee Society advocates migrants’ rights, the Church’s environmental commission makes its voice heard on green issues, and Caritas even advocated for a raise in minimum wage.

But as for a coherent and vocal Catholic social movement that can change perceptions on migration? The truth is that a majority of Maltese are clearly at odds with their own Christian beliefs.

New challenges, self-imposed restraint
There is also the problem with Paul Cremona’s uninspiring leadership. Widely admired for his humility, the Archbishop has disappointed the expectation of reform heralded in 2007.

Even more confusing was the break from the conservative evangelism of Pope Benedict XVI after his sudden resignation, paving the way for the Argentinian pope’s election, whose critique of global capitalism had largely escaped the radar of many in the local church.
Add to this lack of clear direction, the tarnishing of the church’s global reputation on the child abuse allegations.

Now it may even face competition from US-style evangelists who could thrive on the crusades the church hierarchy wants to avoid; and on the other hand, the usual ‘pagan’ misappropriation of religious symbols by its unruly feast enthusiasts who openly undermine church authority.

Despite the challenges it faces, the Maltese church may well be passing through a period of self-imposed restraint. But ultimately it is the only institution apart from the two major political parties to command the loyalty and respect of thousands.