The Maltese Church needs to re-examine how it deals with change and political challenges

The news that Malta has legalised gay marriage – an event that coincidentally took place while I was visiting the island – has been interpreted by some as a sign of the collapse of Maltese Catholicism. But things are not a simple as that.

It is absolutely true that the Maltese bishops opposed the change; however, not for the first time, the bishops found themselves on the losing side. Back in 2011, they opposed the introduction of divorce, which was passed, though by a relatively narrow margin. But those with longer memories may well remember that the Church also opposed integration with Britain back in 1956, though that passed with a huge majority.

In addition, the Church had fallings out with the then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff as well as an earlier Prime Minister, Lord Strickland. The condemnations from the pulpits of both Strickland and Mintoff were largely counterproductive, and seem almost quaint by today’s standards. While the British colonial authorities treated the Catholic Church with the greatest respect, recognising it as a power in the land that had to be kept onside, this does not mean to say that the Church’s role in politics was ever as decisive as the British, or even perhaps the Church, might have liked to imagine.

Indeed, those who see the Church as a political power, or who see a Catholic country as a political monolith, or simply, as the Independent would have it, “conservative”, are perhaps betraying a lack of understanding of how Catholicism works.

The recent legalisation of gay marriage should be seen in the context of the political duel between the ruling Labour Party and the Nationalist Party opposition. Labour, before the recent election, made a manifesto pledge on gay marriage, and the Nationalists did the same, walking into as trap set for them by Labour. The Nationalists consequently voted for gay marriage in a whipped vote (with one honourable exception) and this may well do the party lasting damage, ensuring a split between its Christian Democrat wing and its libertarian free market wing.

Malta’s Labour Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, has not only survived all the Opposition could throw at him, but come out of last month’s election with an enlarged majority. Now, in the first act of the new legislature, he has effectively destroyed the unity of the opposition.

None of this political manoeuvring can detract, of course, from the fact that the influence of the Church in Malta is in decline. Yet, this too needs to be viewed in a nuanced way.

It is clear that in Malta, as in Ireland and other places, many Catholics simply do not ‘get’ the reason they ought to oppose same sex marriage. The Maltese marriage law ought to enable Catholics to think about this matter more clearly, for it makes some important changes to marriage per se. As the report in the Independent relates:

The law also calls for the removal of the terms “father” and “mother”, to be substituted by “parents”. Lesbian couples who have children via medical interventions are distinguished by the terms “the person who gave birth” and “the other parent”.

Other changes concern heterosexual marriages: Any reference to “maiden name” is replaced with “surname at birth”, while couples can now choose what surname to take after marriage.

I personally do not lament the demise of the term “maiden name” per se, though the new designation is ugly and ponderous, but the determination to abolish the terms “mother” and “father” is both absurd and sinister. The terms mother and father mean something that is beyond any parliament’s ability to change – they signify roles that are structures of reality that cross all cultural boundaries. They tell us something about human nature that cannot be changed. The decision to make the marriage law gender-neutral is a decision in effect to abolish marriage altogether, because marriage is a natural structure that depends on sexual difference. If sexual difference is to be ironed out marriage disappears.

The attempt to change nature through changing the way we speak about nature is sinister because it suggests that those who control language control reality. If we speak about parenting in non-gender specific ways, then perhaps we will all come to believe that parental roles are not gender-specific but interchangeable. But our ability to name things does not mean an ability to change the way things are, though it may change the way we view them.

The perversion of language – so brilliantly analysed by George Orwell in 1984 – represents an attack on human freedom through the undermining of our shared human nature. If we can abolish concepts as basic as motherhood and fatherhood, no concept is safe, including those shared ideas about human rights and dignity that guarantee our freedoms.

But, to move to another question, while the adoption of this law is unquestionably foolish, is it a sign that Catholicism in Malta is in free fall? Certainly, the Maltese Church, as with the Church in other countries, needs to look to the way it communicates and catechises, and its leadership needs to re-examine its strategies when it comes to dealing with change and political challenges. But at grass roots level, Maltese Catholicism seems strong still: there are lots of highly committed priests, religious and laity, and the churches, when you visit them, are full of people praying.

My hope is that the recent law, though a setback, will enable Maltese Catholics to reappraise some of the basics of Catholic teaching: in particular, how natural law, unchangeable and binding on all societies, is the ultimate guarantee of human dignity and liberty.