Dimech in Europe and empire

Dimech in Europe and empire

In his article insolently entitled Henry’s Europe And Empire (June 20), Fr Mark Montebello tried to absolve a fellow Dominican from the hypothesis that he would have exerted any influence on Governor Plumer’s stand against Manuel Dimech’s repatriation in 1921.

Picking on one out of 22 chapters in Europe And Empire – not surprisingly the Dimech one – he quotes partially and rather misleadingly from it to contend that “‘a very real possibility’ can never count as historical proof”. Excuse me, a very real possibility means what it says, unless there is historical proof to the contrary. No such proof was forthcoming.

If Fr Montebello read the book, he knows that what I actually said is this (pp. 118-119 “From internal evidence of the documentation I have found, however, it would be unreasonable to discount the very real possibility that, in his persistent refusals and extraordinary fears, Plumer was being egged on by another ‘pillar of state’, on whose presumed beneplacito his own governorship tacitly rested, or so he thought, in such a strategic outpost of empire – not long after the Sette Giugno.”

Given repeated, well-known skirmishes with the Curia and the episcopacy, Fr Montebello will be the first to acknowledge that ecclesiastical influence on the government was more likely to be exerted by inference, intimation and lobbying rather than by any formal exchange of correspondence.

In this case, the Curia’s chief factotum was Mgr Angelo Portelli OP (1852-1927). What I say and show is that it would be unreasonable to discount that, as explicitly held by R. Mifsud Bonnici (1961), Portelli was actively involved in fighting and destroying Dimech “with his school of new light”. His Curia had excommunicated Dimech in 1911, to be followed by expulsion from Malta without charge in 1914.

The late Fr Andrew Vella OP, author of Il-Parroċċa tal-Portu Salvu u San Duminku 1571-1971 (1971), who supervised my Dimech thesis and chaired the examining board in 1970, was decidedly of the same view.

That was 34 years before Fr Montebello’s first and main book about Dimech appeared – one of which, incidentally, I spoke quite positively about (p. 151, ftn. 94) and did not try to denigrate it (in spite of certain historiographical, bibliographical and stylistic reservations). And that was, by his own account, “after some four years of research” (in his article on The Times he now says 20 “or so”).

What is most telling, however, is the fact that, in spite of repeated instructions to the contrary from the highest political authorities in London and Cairo – Churchill, Milner, Allenby and others – Plumer kept insisting that he absolutely could not budge from his position against repatriation.

It is odd of Fr Montebello to ignore the documentary evidence which I cite and indeed reproduce tale quale to this effect (for example Plumer’s letter of March 29, 1921, on p. 135), wherein he is unequivocal as to the reason why, clearly being under pressure from another source cutting close to the bone, he could not obey superior orders from London.

“Rightly or wrongly,” Plumer wrote, “Dimech is regarded in Malta as a dangerous enemy of the Roman Catholic Church.” If Dimech were re-admitted to Malta, he added, it would be interpreted as “an attempt to subvert the religion of the country”. Having been to Malta in 1907, Churchill took special note of this Roman Catholic Church concern (p. 138).

By whom, if not, first of all, by the Curia itself, would Dimech have been so regarded and who primarily would have seen his repatriation as subverting the island’s Roman Catholicism?

Who was the Curia strongman at the time? No doubt, it was Portelli, Vicar-General and Auxiliary Bishop, who had long served as the right-hand man of the old and ailing Bishop Pietro Pace, born in 1831. When Pace died in 1914, Portelli was nominated apostolic administrator.

Pace’s eventual successor, Maurus Caruana, a moderate anglophile, was new to the Malta scene, freshly arrived from Scotland. It was Portelli who had been on the spot when Dimech was excommunicated in 1911; who had calmed down the crowds during the Sette Giugno events in 1919; and who, moreover, was actively engaged in an institutional anti-modernist crusade - against, that is, “freeing reason from authority” (p. 137).

The Church and the political parties would have much preferred to have Roman Catholicism as the established religion in the new “self-government” Constitution of 1921 but that was no justification for slandering a sick old man by referring to him as a dangerous criminal, anticlerical and revolutionary. Only somebody caught in a pre-war time-warp could have repeated such allegations, which Plumer endorsed – “rightly or wrongly”, as he put it. Thus, Dimech was still “id-Demoniu” (the devil), as Rev. P.P. Galea had called him in 1912. I shall put down Fr Montebello’s nit-picking on turns of phrase or alleged imprecisions in details of no historical consequence to an attempted exercise in “one-upmanship”. Questionable minor points of detail or writing style dent neither my narrative nor my analysis, in particular my thesis that policy could be influenced as much by the periphery as by the metropolis.

Whatever he says, this is a first attempt comprehensively to deal with the repatriation aspect from original sources. I was particularly glad that some parts of the study had impressed him when that first appeared in 2001, because, in his book published three years later, he does not even credit them in the bibliography (p.565).

Without wishing to stretch the pedantry, I mention four not six of Dimech’s children because, as the reverend gentleman well knows, one was stillborn and the other died in infancy.

As to whether Dimech’s teaching classes “suffered” or “stopped” (at the flick of a finger!) after his excommunication; or whether the Xirka’s membership “dwindled” or immediately disappeared “altogether”; or whether Dimech left for Tunis “trying his luck” or “was forced to leave”; or that no working or lower middle class children attended Dimech’s private lessons because his rates were too high… oh well, adult students also attended; or the extent to which Juan Mamo had access to the Sidi-Bishr camp (see the self-explanatory photograph on p.112), I prefer to focus on the gist of my study, which is: Why was Dimech not repatriated like everyone else after the war had ended? That is the question and Fr Montebello certainly has not answered it for us at all.

Some of the points Fr Montebello presumes to take issue with are staggering beyond belief.

He dismisses Maxime Rodinson’s analysis of Dimech’s posture, in line with Karl Mannheim’s Ideology And Utopia, as “a belief in the perfectibility of man, the need for certain ethical standards, consciousness of the ‘here and now’, critic rather than creative destroyer” (p. 103). “Contrary to this,” Fr Montebello pontificates, Dimech believed in “empowerment”. Eureka!

Where is the contradiction? Empowerment without “a consciousness of the here and now”? As Fr Montebello is not alone to know, since 1970 I have published numerous appeals by Dimech addressed to workers, to women, to citizens, to students… “awake!”, “arise!” (see Europe And Empire, p.106).

Referring to Dimech’s ab jura, whereby Dimech “begged the bishop’s pardon”, Fr Montebello again dogmatises dismissively, in typical drastic and draconian fashion. “Dimech never did such a thing,” he retorts. Didn’t he? Well, let me just quote chapter and verse and let the readers themselves decide what this harangue is about. In Europe And Empire I wrote thus (p. 102

Devastated, Dimech was led to beg the bishop’s pardon: in August 1912, he renounced all writings leading to his excommunication and pledged he would never write things inimical to the teachings of “Our Holy Mother the Catholic Church”.

In a pastoral letter dated November 26, 1912, Pace absolved him.

I even reproduced his apology and promise textually in Maltese: “Nistqarr li niċħad dak kollu li deher fil-gazzetta bil-Malti Il-Bandiera tal-Maltin immexxija minni… nistqarr ukoll li jiena mgħolli ghal dawn il-ġrajja, inwiegħed li ma nagħmel xejn u ma nikteb qatt ħwejjeġ li jistgħu jiġu kundannati mit-Tagħlim ta’ Ommna l-Knisja Mqaddsa Kattolika, għax nemmen b’fidi sħiħa kull ma tgħallem u nwiegħed li għandi dejjem nimxi magħha” (I state that I deny everything that appeared in the newspaper in Maltese Il-Bandiera tal-Maltin led by myself… I also state that I am very sorry for these things, I promise never to do anything or write anything that may be condemned by the Teachings of Our Holy Mother the Catholic Church, because I believe with full faith everything that it teaches and I promise that I should always follow it.)

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