The Catholic Church in Malta missed the boat. More than once. And it still cannot come to grips with reality. In the recent past―say, a sixty years ago―it failed to gauge correctly the change coming over the Maltese people. This was influenced both by internal factors as well as European factors. Then, in the eighties and nineties, it also failed to relate adequately to new social and economic conditions. Now, though trying to make the best of its dreary situation, it apparently still cannot understand in what ways it inexorably keeps loosing ground.
The factors that shifted the ground upon which the local Catholic Church stood, and sometimes pulled the carpet from under its feet, are many and varied. First of all, since the end of World War II there had been an economic development that changed people’s minds. On the one hand, this gave most Western-modelled people a prosperity that made them delight in their material wealth (and be less religiously-minded). On the other hand, it impoverished other non-European societies in such a way that made stronger claims for justice on the part of major religions.
Simultaneously, there had been also intense ideological challenges. The diffusion of certain theories and political perspectives seriously undermined the Catholic Church’s theoretical (or theological) frame of mind. In particular, I may mention here, in particular, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Marx’s economic and political analysis, Freud’s discovery of the psychic dimension, and Einstein’s new model of the universe.
Locally, Mintoff confronted head-on, and disputed, the Catholic Church’s centuries-old claim to the control over the minds, hearts and lives of people.
Today, generally speaking, the Catholic Church in Malta retains mere folkloristic significance. In former decades, perhaps up till the seventies, it held a powerful cultural hegemony. In other words, it provided the templates and blue-prints for individual identities, family structure, education, sexual behaviour, health matters, national personality, and the like. Its interpretation of human life and relationships was supreme and mostly undisputed.
All of this changed drastically due to the factors mentioned before, and maybe some others still. It is statistically known that less than half the Maltese people today follow the dictates of the Catholic faith, and, those who do, choose what to comply with. Fear of retribution, both in this world or in the next, has dwindled almost to nothing.
All that remains for the majority of the Maltese people is the folkloristic substance of the Catholic Church: its initiation rites, its colourful processions and liturgies, its exuberant religious feasts, and the life. All of these seem to have become mostly unrelated to any act of belief or profession of faith.
Out of touch
The local Catholic Church failed to respond in any adequate way to the radical and sweeping changes that occurred during the latter part of the 20th century and beyond. First of all, when its hand was needed it openly opposed any attempt at developing the country. Secondly, when there was a need for a healthy dialogue with the world and its changing values it continued to preach archaic teachings. Finally, when political impartiality was called for it aligned itself to right-wing, conservative and reactionary policies.
Furthermore, when new visions were needed with regard to the environment, civil and human rights, political action, and the like, the local Catholic Church clinged to its pet subjects (like adherence to religious laws, the traditional position of women in society, life after death, and the like) without adapting itself to the new needs and constraints of the people.
In a society that in most cases saw the downfall of grand narratives, absolutism and authoritarianism, the local Catholic Church, sometimes spurred on by its leadership in Rome, continued to make use of outdated concepts, symbols, language and theology. In other words, it failed to listen to the people in any significant way.
Playing it out
On the other hand, the local Catholic authorities continue to function as if they represent the majority of the Maltese people. Most politicians, at least overtly, also retain such an attitude. Though the Catholic religion enjoys privileged status in the Constitution, in fact it is not the religion of most of the Maltese people. But the high clergy and politicians prefer to bury their head in the sand and call for business as usual.
This only continues to estrange bigger numbers of Maltese from feeling that the Catholic Church represents their spiritual needs. Most people do not relate any more in any personal or intimate way with religion as such. They seems to relate better with spiritualities. This psychological prerequisite today still does not seem to be grasped sufficiently by the local Catholic authorities.
Institutionalised religion is frowned upon today. More people seem to be much more attracted to a spirituality that makes less compromises with the economic and political world, that is more personal and intimate, and that reflects authenticity, honesty and simplicity. These appear to be lacking in most of our local Catholic institutions.
What is perhaps needed
If the Catholic Church in Malta and Gozo must be more listened to, it must listen more. ‘Listen’ here means to be sensitive to, and receptive of, the hearts and minds of the people. At the moment, it seems to be walking its own way, farther apart from that of most people. It appears to have rendered itself irrelevant and, one may add, redundant.
For one, the Catholic Church in Malta and Gozo maybe needs to be more social-minded, and more socially committed in a serious, compromised and intelligent way. It possibly needs to re-organise its parochial structures in order to be less sacramentally-oriented and more adjusted to evangelisation. It also probably needs to come to terms with its recent past and mollify the noxious affects that some of its worse policies had on the hearts and minds of the people.
Finally, perhaps its greatest need is to reorganize and streamline its central operational structure, which is almost certainly antiquated and unproductive.