For God and country: is religion still a factor in Maltese politics?

Malta’s liberal turn since the divorce referendum has dead-legged what was once believed to be an influential Catholic vote. MaltaToday speaks to those who claim the religious voice has to be better marshalled in Maltese politics

The Catholic voice: a pro family demonstration outside the House of Representatives protests IVF legislation that would legalise embryo freezing, led by pro life group Life Network
The Catholic voice: a pro family demonstration outside the House of Representatives protests IVF legislation that would legalise embryo freezing, led by pro life group Life Network

It was truly an earthquake that shook Malta in 2011 when a divorce referendum, borne of the revolt of a Nationalist MP, triggered the start of a civil liberties wave. Since then, the country once deemed a ‘bulwark of Catholicism’ has given way to laws allowing gay marriage, gay adoption, reversed its anachronistic IVF legislation, introduced far-reaching rights on gender identity and trans people, and has even spoken freely about abortion and euthanasia.

But beneath the general consensus on Malta’s liberal turn, an opposition remains vocal and hopeful that those so called “values” of the Malta they once knew, remain a constant in the political agenda. One such person is Edwin Vassallo, a Nationalist MP who was a former minister in the Fenech Adami administrations, but recently made his name for his opposition to the PN’s own tentative at loosening its conservative shackles.

“The Nationalist Party under the leadership of Adrian Delia is once again turning to its roots and core Catholic values, and this will only make the party stronger at a time when unbridled liberalism was leading the country into moral decay and social apathy,” he claims, in an interview that predates allegations of domestic violence against Delia by his estranged wife, in a bitter marital separation case.

Edwin Vassallo, now making his mark as an outspoken critic of “pseudo-liberal” policies which he says “diminish man’s dignity”, told MaltaToday that for many years, even under former PN leaders Simon Busuttil and Lawrence Gonzi, the PN had let itself be guided away from its principles in an effort to appease a broader electoral spectrum.

“It is only since Delia took the reigns that the party has once again started to safeguard its identity,” he said. “I strongly believe that the more the PN sticks to identity and core values, the better it will fare. It is imperative that the party revert to its roots – and stick to them – come what may.”

Vassallo may be a voice in the wilderness of the PN’s backbench, but he is not alone in the number of politicians and critics outside the political arena, who have taken up Christian values in the fight against what they perceive is the ‘moral decay’ of liberal thinking brought on by the current administration.

Former PN minister and spokesperson for Catholic Voices Malta, Tonio Fenech: “Any politician or movement that tries to steer Malta away from our fundamental religious values will not last long”
Former PN minister and spokesperson for Catholic Voices Malta, Tonio Fenech: “Any politician or movement that tries to steer Malta away from our fundamental religious values will not last long”

The first signs of the movement were actually seen in the campaign on divorce – fringe Catholic nostalgics from the Maltese Catholic Church’s own branches, Catholic fraternities and prayer groups sounding out their warnings; but this rumble of religious opposition picked up some form of momentum with the broadening of gender rights, gay marriage and IVF under the current regime – most notably with pro-life organisation Life Network protesting outside the House of Representatives together with evangelical preacher Gordon John Manché, the layman’s organisation Catholic Voices Network, and other fringe groups.

In his first ever speech after becoming leader of the Nationalist Party in September 2017, Adrian Delia made an impassioned call to arms to Catholics, harping on the party’s anachronistic anthem that calls upon God’s protection in the fight towards victory for ‘Catholics and Latins’.

Tonio Fenech, a former Nationalist minister and now one of the founders of Catholic Voices, left politics quietly but not without sending Simon Busuttil a missive taking him to task for selling out on the Christian vote. “I assure you that the less colourful silent ‘Catholic/Christian’ vote is far more influential voting wise the any other lobby, the only difference is that to date is not yet been mobilized effectively as happens in other countries, because to date these people did not feel the need for such a mobilization as they found a home in the PN.  This is where I would like these people to remain,” he had told Busuttil in 2017.

Today, Fenech, insists that people are yearning for a religious message and that they are flocking to those who demonstrate Christian values in their beliefs.

“Politics can never be disconnected from its own society and this is why the country is witnessing a resurgence of religion and Christian values in local politics. Malta wants to remain a society that embraces core values, despite attempts by some to guide it down another path. Any politician or movement that tries to steer Malta away from our fundamental religious values will not last long.”

Fenech insists that this was already happening, as more and more people realise that they are worse off once they shed themselves of any values. “The Maltese remain a Catholic people and will never turn their back on the values and teachings that have moulded Maltese society over centuries.”

Vassallo too has his take on what is driving people to seek Catholic values in a political arena bereft of any consideration to basic social principles. “We have reached a point where people think that determining what is right or wrong should be based on ‘popularity’ and the widespread appeal of the subject matter,” he said. “But this system does not respect man’s dignity and that is what is ultimately at stake in this country.”

Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo says the PN was seduced by a liberal wave under its past two leaders, and says that Adrian Delia can take the party back to its roots but that he is being undermined by internal critics
Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo says the PN was seduced by a liberal wave under its past two leaders, and says that Adrian Delia can take the party back to its roots but that he is being undermined by internal critics

Vassallo insists that it is wrong for people to argue that subjects such as abortion and euthanasia – subjects that were once considering off-limits for politicians – are sentimental issues. Fenech says that ignoring Malta’s moral and religious values, will turn it into a cruel society. “As we are already witnessing, it will be a cruel society that ignores the plight of the poor for momentary financial gain,” he said. “This is what has happened in Malta already with the rise in property prices and rents.”

Fenech says a section of society has already turned its back on core moral values and chosen “profit over solidarity” (interestingly, the former finance minister turned corporate services advisor is joined in Catholic Voices Network by other members of Malta’s finance world, such as former stock exchange chairman Arthur Galea Salomone and former FIAU director Manfred Galdes).

“And a society that loses its morality becomes a savage and wild society,” Fenech warn, arguing that liberalism can “only be taken so far before it starts leading more and more people into poverty and depravity.”

Vassallo agrees. The problem, he says, is that liberalism in Malta is loosely interpreted according to whoever practices it. “These so-called Maltese liberals don’t even have the basic decency to respect their opponents and any conflicting ideologies,” he says, citing as an example the authors of the unending attacks on Adrian Delia – which actually include a host of Nationalist MPs –  which he claims are due to the PN leader’s stance on Catholic values and his obvious desire to take the party back to its founding roots.

“These accusations and articles against Delia, taking them to the extremes that we have witnessed in the past few days, are nothing but an attempt to shut down someone who does not share the pseudo-liberal beliefs of the misguided and who therefore poses a threat to the status quo established in this liberal atmosphere,” he said. “But it is not just a romantic few elderly die-hards who yearn for a return to a society based on sound values.”

The Catholic voice: a pro family demonstration outside the House of Representatives protests IVF legislation that would legalise embryo freezing, led by pro life group Life Network
The Catholic voice: a pro family demonstration outside the House of Representatives protests IVF legislation that would legalise embryo freezing, led by pro life group Life Network

As to the belief that today’s youth are not interested in the message being put forward by Catholic Voices and other movements and individuals, Fenech laughed it off as a complete myth.

“Many of those who have approached us and attended our activities are in fact youths and teens,” he said.

“Youths have an innate desire to question everything, even in ultra-liberal societies. That need to question what goes on around them is what makes youths a fundamental and receptive audience when morals and values are at play.

“Our basic beliefs centre around a number of questions that help guide each and every one of us: Where did I come from? What am I doing with my life? What is there after life?” he said.

Fenech believes that money, power and wealth tend to drive people to ignore these fundamental questions. But once that momentary wealth disappears, people will naturally gravitate towards religion for answers that really matter and last.

As for 2019, Vassallo foresees further descent into what he calls “moral anarchy”, as people insist on identifying values with power and wealth. “I can see the country’s moral deficit increasing this year, even as others continue to harp about surpluses and economic booms,” he said. “The worst thing that can happen is for liberal partisanship to become this country’s religion and for religion to be relegated to mere culture.”

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