We're a soft target

Publicly, racism was kickstarted by someone who we initially treated as a joke.

Publicly, racism was kickstarted by someone who we initially treated as a joke.

Mgr Anton Gouder talks about divorce, racism, and the Pope's recent comment on condoms.

Some would describe your style as ultra-conservative.

I ignore labels. If you call me conservative, then what do I conserve? Do I conserve what should really be conserved? If that is the case, then I should feel proud of conserving values, life and family. If I conserve things which aren't important I would be a traitor as a priest. I've realised that when people label you it's because they often don't have sound arguments.

After two years in office, a lot of people would like to see more of the Archbishop. Instead, on certain important television programmes we see Mgr Gouder relaying the Church's message.

It's a mistaken impression. We've never had an archbishop with so much media exposure. We can't keep up with the invitations. We're going to get criticised whatever we do.

The Church was recently criticised because of the bishops' statement urging the police to take action against those dressing inappropriately during the Nadur carnival? Can't it do likewise when someone is blaspheming right under a religious statue during feasts?

What did the bishops' statement say?

It alerted the police about the country's laws.

The way the bishops were misquoted was an injustice. They also spoke about the sexual obscenities; they spoke about the way somebody poked fun at the figure of Christ. Those arraigned were only those who had dressed up in religious vestments.

A number of people were arraigned, and a man was handed a suspended sentence. Do you agree with this sentence?

I can't really comment on the sentence. I believe that it is according to the law.

But a sentence was handed down.

I can say I met the man in question, as did the Archbishop, and he expressed regret at his action. But if you speak to people in Nadur they say the situation is getting worse every year. There is even a Facebook page threatening to do even worse next year - I think this is kids' stuff.

Shouldn't the Church have merely chastised those dressing up that way, instead of calling on the police to take action...

Can you tell me who is responsible for public order and public morality? The Church called on those responsible to take action and the police said they already were. What's wrong with that? Whenever it suits them, people call upon the Church to make its voice heard with the civil authorities about the environment, hunting, gambling and so on... and we are now being criticised for calling on the police to take action.

So you're saying that the Church is always on the receiving end.

I'm saying the Church is a soft target for different individuals.

The Vatican is criticising the media for comments the Pope made about condoms.

On the contrary, it's the media misquoting the Pope. The Pope was misquoted on homosexuals but international news agencies decided to claim that the Pope compared homosexual persons to forests.

The Pope said in Italian: Se non c'è l'anima, se gli Africani non si aiutano, non si può risolvere il flagello con la distribuzione di preservativi: al contrario, il rischio è di aumentare il problema. The Pope is making it clear that there is a risk of making the HIV problem worse.

What is the Pope talking about? Was the Pope referring to the individual act of a man using a condom?

He spoke about the problem.

He spoke about distribution. It is a sin to have sexual relations outside of marriage and not simply to use a condom in this regard. The Pope is talking about education. And he is not alone. To mention one example, a UN expert, in his testimony before the US Congress, said the same thing. He said there is no causal reason between the use of the condom and HIV. We're not referring to an individual act. There is substantial research which shows that sexual education on the use of condoms led to more abuse. It provides false security.

Quentin Sattentau, professor of immunology at Oxford, said: "There is a large body of published evidence demonstrating that condom use reduces the risk of acquiring HIV infection, but does not lead to increased sexual activity."

I can quote you studies from the British Medical Journal and the Lancet to prove my point. There is research which reaches different conclusions. Even those in favour of condom distribution in Malta tell us they meet a lot of people who take risks and don't use a condom. Is it because of the Pope?

If they use a condom, what is the Church going to make of them?

If they have sex with a woman - it's morally wrong in the first place. Youngsters are being confronted with a defeatist attitude because they are being told they are incapable of controlling themselves and that everybody does it.

The Vatican said the Church teaches that sex within heterosexual marriage and abstinence are the best ways to stop Aids. But either way, the reality is an African continent where HIV has reached epidemic proportions; and for better or worse, most youths have sex.

How do you know?

Statistics show it.

Show me.

I can get you statistics to prove that youths are having sex before marriage.

We can't say everybody is doing it. That's the damage we're doing.

We're denying reality.

Do you know what reality is?

Many young people are having sex before marriage.

With this approach, we are telling the young and not so young, who are making an effort to behave properly, that they are the ones who are not normal, instead of helping them feel proud of their behaviour. It's a disservice to education.

What's your position on sex education in Malta? The government is not going to ban condoms. University students last week even had an entire discussion over whether to install a condom machine.

Is University the place to use condoms?

But students are having sex.

We're talking about casual sex here, people having sex with whoever comes their way. You cited Africa - a document I have here warns that men don't care about women. Around 500,000 women are raped annually. Are you going to educate a rapist to use a condom?

Of course not. But you're talking about rape. Cases of HIV infection after casual sex might be reduced if more people were educated to use condoms.

Research carried out in Malta by those in favour of condoms actually shows that many of those who have casual sex don't use condoms. Psychological research explains this by saying that if you're irresponsible and have casual partners you cannot at the same time be responsible.

Statistics show that sales of contraceptives in Europe are up every year.

How do you know it's not married people who use them? We're talking about moral and social education. A Health Department publication itself says that condoms do not offer 100 per cent protection.

The risk when using condoms is minimal.

Yes, but research also shows that when you feel safe, you take more risks - and that safety diminishes. Studies also show that some drive faster when wearing a seat belt because they feel safer.

Catholic bishops in France, Portugal, and South Africa have made statements contrary to the Pope on the use of condoms as a means of halting the spread of HIV/Aids. Do you believe the Pope is infallible?

The Pope spoke about 17 subjects on his aircraft but the media picked on this one topic. Let's not forget that the Church worldwide provides healthcare and helps a quarter of those people suffering from HIV and Aids. But this doesn't make the headlines. I suspect these bishops didn't notice the word 'distribution'. He was talking about spreading condoms at will as a solution.

Portuguese bishop Ilidio Leandro said people with Aids were "morally obliged" to use condoms if they had sex.

I'm assuming this bishop was referring to couples. Would you risk having sex with a condom knowing the person is infected with HIV?

Do you think the Pope's statements on condoms could prompt people to reflect before having sex?

If his comments weren't poisoned.

Was this the right time for the Pope to speak about this subject?

The Pope was asked about it. But in reality - is there a time when you should avoid telling the truth? The Church is often alone in telling the truth. Should we say things just to be popular? Couldn't Christ simply have performed miracles and been popular? Whoever is concerned about his popularity at the expense of truth is a mercenary.

Church attendance in Malta is down, with a Discern study showing just over 50 per cent go to Mass. Are you worried?

Discern issued a snapshot of the day in question. But a census is not the only instrument to know the truth. Surveys show Church attendance is over 70 per cent, which still means there are a lot of people who don't attend.

What do you make of the rate of separations in Malta?

The government census shows there are 195,000 married and 13,000 separated people.

You might have thousands of others who are still living together but are unofficially separated.

Don't you think we should give credit to such couples who even in rough times do not call it a day? There are couples who are suffering. My experience as a priest teaches me that few people walk out for petty reasons.

Do you believe in giving people a second chance? What if they are abused in their marriage and find an alternative partner willing to make them happy?

You're asking me whether people should go back on their word - ignoring the marriage vow 'till death do us part'. Otherwise, one would have to change the wedding vow to 'I will take you as my wife/husband until you start bothering me.' Who is prepared to give such a vow?

The government appears reluctant to open the divorce subject. Is the Church applying pressure in any way behind the scenes?

The divorce debate has been going for more than a decade. As a journalist you should know that the Archbishop has quoted the Pope, who states that social decisions are the responsibility of the State. I am not aware of any pressure applied by the Church. We have a duty to speak...

I'm not saying you don't have a duty...

But some people don't even want us to speak out.

What do you make of Labour leader Joseph Muscat's suggestion to give a free vote in Parliament on divorce?

I'm always confused whenever they speak of a free vote on any subject. I can't imagine a responsible person voting against his conscience because his party directs otherwise. I think that every vote should be according to your conscience. If your party dictates otherwise, you should consider resigning.

You said on Xarabank that MPs would be committing a sin if they vote in favour of legislation of divorce, even if they reach their decision as a matter of conscience...

No. I was asked if MPs would be committing a sin if they vote in favour of divorce. I wanted to qualify it. If they are Catholic MPs and are interested in promoting the common good you can't give your conscience a holiday.

On the issue of whether it's a sin, individuals like Fr Peter Serracino Inglott and Fr Joe Borg think exactly the opposite and say your views are not reflected in theological teachings.

I replied - and I said that they are reflected.

So there are two arguments - but who is right?

I won't say things which I don't believe are right.

So were you reflecting the opinion of the Archbishop?

I wouldn't go that far. But in that programme I quoted a phrase used by the Archbishop during an interview.

Is this 'sin' opinion the same as the Archbishop's?

If I don't believe it to be so I wouldn't have said it.

Why are couples breaking up in Malta? Some say it's because more women are choosing to work.

Research shows that when both partners work there are a lot of stresses. Just 11 per cent of Maltese men help their full-time working wives at home. What time do they have for relationships, intimacies? Quality time comes out of quantity time.

But we always seem to concentrate on working women. Why don't we emphasise the need for men to give a helping hand?

We do as well. With regard to causes of marriage breakdown, research also shows that those who regularly have sex before marriage will have a weaker marriage and a higher level of unfaithfulness. But nobody likes mentioning these things, because it's not according to the trend. The family is an institution.

It's no secret that the island has been swept by a wave of racism brought about by illegal immigration. Last week, the Gozo bishop spoke about the issue of criminalising immigrants because of our detention policy. Many criticise the Church for remaining too quiet on this subject...

Who is saying so?

When did the Church speak openly on racism?

Who is doing more than the Church on this issue? A lot of work is being done by the Secretariat of Emigration and Tourism, the Jesuit Refugee Service, Suret il-Bniedem, the Good Shepherd nuns...

What about the Curia?

The Curia is just a collection of offices. Former Archbishop (Joseph) Mercieca spoke twice or three times...

Just two or three times in all those years...

...officially. Mgr Cremona has spoken about the subject and visited both detention and open centres - and he was attacked together with Mgr Calleja and the Jesuits.

Are you concerned about the wave of racism in this country?

Of course I'm worried. I'm concerned that we're attacking the victims, not the problem. I don't think these people are coming here to carry out a siege. We need to work to stop them leaving their country, but we have to keep in mind that most of the countries they come from were once exploited by Western countries. And more importantly, we can't ignore the fact that they are living in inhumane conditions in our centres.

The Gozo bishop is the first to openly stick his neck out. Why wasn't the Archbishop the one to speak in this way about it - and not just on two occasions. Why isn't this issue tackled in sermons?

Several statements have been issued on this hatred. The Gozo bishop did the right thing. Of course, the number of immigrants reaching us is a big problem. Our bishops wrote to the European bishops to put pressure on their own government to help our government.

This is a country which talks about solidarity, and we pride ourselves on the way we welcome people.

I have a theory about this problem, but I might be wrong. Publicly, it was kick-started by someone who we initially treated as a joke - some used to poke fun at him when he spoke about this problem in an aggressive manner. Then we realised he was fanning the flames. The media didn't realise how serious it was when it gave publicity to this person.

You're referring to Norman Lowell.

For example.

Was the Church careful to put out the flames before it got out of control?

Mgr Philip Calleja and the Emigrants Commission spoke several times. JRS, the good Shepherd nuns, Caritas - these are all part of the Church - and then you ask me what the is Church doing?

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