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Plea for sober, civilised debate

The issue of divorce is one that many people feel, understandably, very strongly about, one way or the other. I have my own views about the subject and I feel very strongly about them too. Today's article, however, is not concerned with arguing in favour or against divorce in general. Nor do I intend to argue in more particular terms for or against its introduction in this country in this or the next legislature. Nor am I concerned here with the closely-related question of how, if at all, we should decide this matter, once it will have been decided that we must indeed take a decision.

In other words, I will not discuss whether the decision ought to be taken by the ordinary means provided for by our system of representative democracy - that is by Parliament - or by exceptional recourse (exceptional, by definition, in a parliamentary system) to direct democracy, namely with a referendum.

What I am concerned with today is how the various stakeholders - individual and institutional - intend to behave between now and the democratic resolution of this issue.

Such decisions, whatever their outcome and however they are undertaken, are defining moments of our development as a nation. If we wish to think of ourselves - and if we wish others, not least our children, to think of us - as a society of individuals capable, as individuals, of making responsible, free and reasoned choices, then we have to be concerned with how the various stakeholders will behave in the period that separates us from The Day.

I am reasonably certain - but, admittedly, less than 100 per cent certain - that we are no longer quite the village society trenchantly observed by Jeremy Boissevain, friend and teacher, in the Ph.D. thesis he submitted as a graduate student at the London School of Economics to the University of London 48 years ago, Saints And Fireworks: Religion And Politics In Rural Malta.

If this is the case then today's Maltese (be they ordinary citizens or MPs, young or old, Nationalists, Labourites or none of the two) will not allow anyone to think on their individual behalf. If this is the case, however they will decide, they will do so on the basis of their understanding of the pros and cons of the alternatives put before them. They will consider the facts as dispassionately as is possible and make their own judgements.

I am convinced that if they are allowed to do so, they will. And this is where the institutional stakeholders have a historical responsibility. Let's not beat about the bush: I am referring to the political parties and the Church, centrally as well as locally. If these truly respect the ability of today's Maltese, of the individual stakeholders in this country's future, to discern, to evaluate and to judge, then they will make no attempt to rush, bully, pressgang, scare, awe, mesmerise or otherwise regiment them into deciding one way or the other.

Archbishop Paul Cremona wisely assured the country that the Church "would not be launching any crusade against divorce" (The Times, July 6). The stridently divisive billboard appearing on the parvis of a parish church shortly after contrasted sharply with the spirit of the Archbishop's statement. The person responsible for the billboard is quoted by this newspaper as having paradoxically justified it as "reaction to the divisive debate" (The Times, July 20). Divisiveness as a response to divisiveness or a fulminating statement to foreclose a debate?

Which is not to say that I am denying anybody's right to state a case in favour of this or that position. On the contrary, what I have said implies that nobody, be it individual or institution, has the right to attempt to silence, ridicule or vilify anyone speaking in favour of this or that position.

Archbishop Cremona also said that the Church "intended to take an active part in the debate and that it expected that in a pluralistic, democratic society, its right to take part in such a debate would be respected". Nothing could be fairer.

In an earlier contribution to this column (Forgetting Peppone, March 16, 2009), I criticised a colleague who suggested that this "island of Don Camillo" needed a more resolute Peppone to champion the "secularisation of morals". I argued that old-fashioned Cold War anticlericalism - Camillo and Peppone are the iconic products of the pen of Guareschi, a Cold Warrior per eccellenza - is retrograde. Only Guareschi's Peppone would oppose the Church's participation in the debate. Similarly, the idea of participating in a democratic debate in a pluralistic society with emotionally saturated slogans on a billboard on the zuntier - reminding one of an ancient catapult poised to hurl anathemas at the godless hordes threatening to overrun a militant Church - makes sense only in the context of Guareschi's logic.

All I am saying is that nothing should be undertaken that makes it more difficult for individuals to make up their mind with the serenity that such a difficult decision requires. Emotionally aggressive and invasive crusades of all sorts, in favour or against the introduction of divorce, should therefore be avoided. Wittingly or unwittingly to encourage such crusades is tantamount to disturbing the peace of conscience required for individuals to make a pondered choice. Quietly conducted, sober, civilised debate based on factual information and reciprocal respect, yes. Anathemas and anticlericalism, two sides of the same coin, no.

Dr Vella blogs at watersbroken.wordpress.com.

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