Church at Crossroads

Church at Crossroads - Fr Alfred Micallef SJ

An abridged version of this feature was published in the Sunday Times on July 24th 2011

In the aftermath of the divorce referendum the local Church is embarking on an exercise of soul-searching.  The first bitter truth that comes out loud and clear from the referendum result is that the Church’s word is no longer heeded.  Then there was also the perception that the Church was trying to impose her morality onto a secular society not respecting the separation between Church and state.  I speak of this issue as “perception” because I do not believe this was the case.  However, in the minds of people “perceptions” become facts.  Another important issue was that of “tolerance”.  This carried a lot of weight because few could understand why society should deny divorce to those who wanted it as long as it was not imposed on all.

The Church ended up a loser after this referendum and this was due to various causes, some resulting from the direction that Maltese society is taking and some coming from the Church herself.  It is important to learn a few lessons and this can happen only if we sidestep blaming a blooming antireligious secularist society over which the Church has no control and honestly seek what’s wrong with the Church and her communication.  In this article I intend to try to point out a few errors that I believe were made and suggest an analysis at a deeper level.

The Context

We seem to have forgotten that all communication takes place in a context.  The conflict of the sixties may have happened a long time ago but it is by no means forgotten.  As often happens with human beings, the events themselves may be forgotten – and to some are even unknown because they happened before they were born – but not the accompanying feelings of resentment towards the Church, feelings which were surely passed on.  Archbishop Cremona was very aware of this and from the beginning he stated that the Church did not intend to make crusades.  He kept his word as can be seen from the pastoral letter immediately before the referendum and from his contribution to the “Talking Point” in The Times of the Thursday before the referendum.  Unfortunately, not everybody followed suit.

Others spoke less softly possibly forgetting the context referred to above and believing that in Malta the Catholic Church coincides with the whole population. Addressing the Church community one might refer to the word of God and the teaching of the Church.  This too needs to be done without being too dogmatic and categorical because we do not have the whole truth.  Addressing the “world,” that is, those who are not members of the Church, the message of the Church needs to be prophetic, not dogmatic, in nature.

Then, the communication of the Church lacked a thoughtful, calm and clear explanation of why divorce was considered harmful to the community by the Church.  Many have the impression that the morality of the Church is arbitrary, that the Church decides that something is wrong and it becomes wrong rather than the other way round.  As a consequence the Church was not seen as seeking the best for society but as being intolerant – and inconsiderate – towards a few who “needed” divorce because of their particular situation.

Moreover, religious vocabulary is not always understood.  What do people understand by “sin”?  Is it something like swearing where you confess your swearing before receiving Holy Communion and then swear again and go to confession again in an unending cycle?  In my opinion the word “sin” should not have been mentioned at all.  There are many ways of communicating the same truth.  For instance, we could have said that it is the duty of every Christian to choose what is good for society and to avoid all that which is harmful and that doing otherwise one would be distancing oneself from the faith of the believing community.  After all “sin” implies personal guilt while the Church can only say that a particular action is not congruent with genuine human values.

Going Deeper

However, I believe that if we want to grow as Church as a result of this experience, our soul-searching should be much deeper.  It should reach the very depths of our lives as Church.  As Avery Dulles taught us there are many models of Church.  We seem to be stuck in the model of the Church as a hierarchical institution forgetting that Vatican II has proposed the model of the Church as a community in pilgrimage.  “Being in pilgrimage” means that we are not there yet!  This should make us very humble because it implies, among other things, that we cannot say the last word on anything.

Secondly, our ministry tends to be too sacramental and devotional.  There is satisfaction when people come to Mass and the tendency to measure success or failure by Mass attendance.  Great importance is also given to devotions and to external manifestations of the faith.  Without condemning any of this we have to be careful not to allow it to alienate us from the gospel and its demands.

Excessive importance is also given to morality.  This is not new in the Church.  Freud himself equated Religion with Morality because of what he used to see in his time.  In the desert, the Israelites first had a profound experience of God and only then they were given the commandments.  We seem to tend to emphasize morality without giving much importance to the experience.  Only knowledge of God can lead to knowledge of our duties.

One last thing to which I had already referred in a previous article and which ties up with the preferred model of Church, that of a hierarchical institution, is clericalism.  Clericalism is a mentality, an attitude, possibly unconscious, that seeks power and that pretends to have privileges by right.  This statement may sound too bold and probably it is but some priests do have the tendency to seek special treatment and believe that their word should be given special consideration because priests are saying it.  Add to this a predilection of some for ceremony, lace and expensive liturgical vestments and you get the impression that the values are not right.  Priests are there to serve and for no other reason: “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet.  I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).

By Fr Alfred Micallef SJ

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