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Greatest shock since the Reformation - Fr Joe Borg

Last Wednesday was an anniversary that hardly anyone in Malta commemorated or wrote about. The noise created by the publication of just three per cent of Magistrate Bugeja’s report on the Egrant Inquiry, the internal strife close to implosion of the Nationalist Party, and the publication by David Casa of an FIAU report created so much noise that everything else was silenced.

I will concentrate on what has been almost totally ignored; though I do not shy away from the other issues. I concur with the excellent analysis penned by Ranier Fsadni in last Thursday’s The Times of Malta as much as I disagree with the editorial of the Times of Malta of last Monday.

Kudos to David Casa for courageously publishing an FIAU report showing once more the darkest side of some politicians very close to the Prime Minister. The FIAU, which was soundly thrashed by the European Banking Authority, now wants Casa’s pound of flesh. It is amazing that an organisation that abdicated to its backbone now wants to show its teeth, to prevent the outing of truth.

The PN’s internal strife saddens me. A party with such a great past can turn out to be a party with a very uncertain future.

Back to last Wednesday’s 50th anniversary. Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on human life (Humanae Vitae) is mostly (and unfortunately) remembered for affirming the Church ban on artificial contraception. The controversy about this ban eclipsed the many important truths it communicated.

Cardinal DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in a statement published last Wednesday reminded us that Blessed Pope Paul “reaffirmed the beautiful truth that a husband and wife are called to give themselves completely to each other. Marriage reflects the love of God, which is faithful, generous and life-giving. Through their vocation, spouses cooperate with God by being open to new human life.”

The controversy created by the encyclical letter was so massive that Cardinal Heenan, the then Archbishop of Westminster, described it as “the greatest shock since the Reformation”. Last Thursday the Catholic news website Crux described it as “the most contested papal document in modern history”.

Perhaps our politicians can also learn a thing or two from the Church about how to handle diversity and dissent

I clearly remember the controversies that carried on during my first years of studying theology. Besides many theologians, seven different episcopal conferences had produced documents described by some as skirting around the encyclical. The Belgian bishops, for example, wrote that anyone who, with a “well-founded judgement,” comes to a conclusion on contraception different from that presented in the encyclical should not “be regarded as an inferior Catholic”.

The Maltese bishops first published a statement in line with the Canadian and Belgian bishops but later on backtracked. I clearly remember late Mgr. Prof Carmelo Muscat, our professor of moral theology, who was one of the ghost writers of the first statement, expressing his disappointment about the second document.

I remember the eminent moral theologian Bernard Haring during a public conference at the University of Malta recounting an anecdote about his and Zalba’s (a conservative moral theologian) participation in Blessed Pope Paul VI’s commission on contraception. Zalba was in favour of keeping Church teaching on the subject as it was. Haring, like the majority of the commission, wanted to change it.

Haring recounted that during a particularly heated discussion Zalba turned towards him and said: Fr Haring, do you mean to tell me that we sent all those people (who used contraceptives) to hell for nothing? Haring answered: But my dear Fr Zalba do you think that God used to send people to hell just because you decreed that they should go to hell?”

Those were difficult days but the Church managed quite well the dissent or disagreement that was very widespread. Perhaps our politicians can also learn a thing or two from the Church about how to handle diversity and dissent.

Today many studies show that most Catholics polled do not agree with the position of Humanae Vitae on artificial contraception. This quite naturally does not mean that the teaching is mistaken; but it surely means the Church is faced by a serious pastoral challenge.

Mgr Gilfredo Marengo, who co-ordinated a research group examining material in the Vatican secret archives on the encyclical, told The Tablet that there was an urgent need for pastoral work because “objectively” what Humanae Vitae says is “very distant” to many people.

In the same article Marengo stressed that the document needed to be read and understood in light of the Pope’s marriage and family life document, ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (The Joy of Love).

The Tablet editorially described the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis as the reshaping of the entire landscape of Catholic sexual ethics, offering not a new set of rules to replace the old but a vision of married love and family life that was at last recognisable by the People of God as speaking to their own experience and helping to form their consciences.

Perhaps it is still time for the Church in Malta to commemorate this anniversary.

joseph.borg@um.edu.mt

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