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Lessons for Maltese Church

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini was a man who was more open, more ecumenical, more tolerant than any other of our top Church leaders. He inspired those who sought change. And he was a visionary. He had a clear vision for the future of the Church – a Church that was not backward-looking.

He was bold in speaking out on controversial questions but a great leader encouraging and inspiring Christians to live in the bible’s light. He would go where others hesitated to tread.

His coat of arms as Cardinal Archbishop of Milan said it all: “For the sake of truth, dare to confront difficulties.” In my language: speak truth to power. In his last interview before his death, he called for “a radical transformation” of the Church “beginning with the Pope and his bishops”. I must confess, as a layman living in Malta and as an independent commentator on the local scene, that all that Cardinal Martini said had the loudest resonance. But most especially in the context of Malta and the Maltese Church.

Every plea he made was utterly relevant. None of it was new. Many, probably a majority, of the educated Catholic faithful here have been saying it - perhaps not as vocally as one would wish, for this, after all, is Malta, where people are reluctant to put their heads above the parapet - for the last few decades.

In fairness to the Maltese Church, the problems and doctrinal issues which have been highlighted in the debate following the death of Cardinal Martini are neither new nor in any way unique to it. On the contrary, in these respects, the Maltese Archdiocese is locked into the same problems as the Universal Church.

Its dogma is set and makes the Church what it is. Its doctrinal rules and principles of discipline are no more outdated in Malta than in other parts of the Church. This is the nub of the problem.

That said, is the Maltese Church qua Maltese Church behind the times? Yes, most undoubtedly. In its style of leadership, in its structures and, most of all, in its outdated way of communicating its message. In the way it sanctions and even bullies and tries to control its parishioners. One Gozitan monsignor even accused me when I spoke of my intention to speak truth to power of being “a missile against the magisterium of the Catholic Church”.

The Maltese Church comes across as authoritarian, lacking in compassion. If it is to speak to young people and the educated, it must adopt a more intelligent, more rational, less dogmatic tone of voice.

Let priests read the mood and appear tolerant, understanding and thoughtful, rather than authoritarian. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be at a wedding, as I was a year ago, when in his homily addressing the newly-weds the priest says – looking straight at the bride - “and if you practise birth control, you will be no better than a prostitute”. (It sounds even cruder in Maltese.)

We notice the problem of the Church’s unwillingness to embrace change more vividly because Maltese society has changed so fast in the last 20 or 30 years and the Maltese Church has failed to adapt with it.

The Church’s doctrine is what it is. The Maltese Church cannot change that. That is a matter for the theologians. It is not for me to argue doctrine, though I can’t help feeling, as Cardinal Martini indicated, that the Church can change the emphasis and the way its doctrine is interpreted.

To my mind, Cardinal Martini’s words, both in his last interview and before, have exposed the rigidity and outdated doctrines of the Church in so many fields. Can any thinking person doubt – that much-needed reform of the Church’s institutions and teachings is needed to make it more relevant to our times? The recent Bishops’ Synod in Rome, and the recognition by many bishops of the need for change, is a cause for hope. But they need to get their skates on if the rush to the exit doors by the faithful is to be halted.

In Malta, the voices of dissent have been growing. Attendance at Sunday Mass is down from over 80 per cent 50 years ago to under 50 per cent today.

The statistics are no longer kept by the Maltese Church (why not?) It is thought that Church-going in Malta is declining at a rate of over one per cent a year.

The heartfelt appeal from all quarters of the Maltese priesthood and the laity for the resurgence of a relevant Church – a Church that makes a difference to the everyday lives of people – has found an echo in what Cardinal Martini has said in his deathbed interview.

The key lesson for the Maltese Church is that it needs to take a hard look at itself and to heed the warning signs of decay so graphically described by Cardinal Martini.

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