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Malta: a society with values in turmoil

No tourist visiting Malta would nowadays repeat what a traveller to Malta, quoted by John Wignacourt in his 1914 book The Odd Man in Malta, said in 1914 — ‘Malta would have been a delightful place if every priest were a tree…’! Contemporary Malta is much greener than what it was when the Knights of St John were given the arid island in fief in 1530 AD, even though current debate often focuses on the current government’s alleged lack of concern for the environment in its drive to appease the developers. But also because the number of priests has dwindled significantly over the last half a century, and the cry of ‘Malta Kattoliċissima’ (“Malta the most Catholic”) no longer holds sway.

The majority of the Maltese are indeed baptised Catholics, and though historians tend to disagree, most would claim that Christianity was planted on the island and has persisted without interruptions since when St Paul was shipwrecked on the island on his way to Rome as prisoner, as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. In article 2, the Constitution of Malta states that the religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion, that he authorities of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong, and that religious teaching of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith shall be provided in all State schools as part of compulsory education.

The same Constitution guarantees full freedom of conscience (article 40), and all persons in Malta enjoy the free exercise of their respective mode of religious worship. Tolerance is deep, except that with the arrival of illegal migrants, most of whom are Muslim — there have been vociferous protests that they are taking up jobs intended for the Maltese. Parents can opt out of religious instruction offered by the schools attended by their children. Malta’s State is recognised as a secular one, and does not finance any cultic practices. Attendance in Catholic Church services is currently estimated at around 45 %.

For centuries, Christianity in Malta, and specifically the Catholic brand, actually gave island life and identity a definite character. Together with Maltese, the indigenous language, religion acted as a surrogate for national identity. Physically, Malta’s towns and villages congregate around a multitude of churches and chapels that tower over the cluster of houses, with streets generally radiating from the local church, the collectively owned treasure of the local community. Community and personal life used to be dominated by religious values and religious acts. Deviance from religious adherence, in belief and practice, was considered to be anathema and the cause of stigma and social exclusion.

Socially the Church provided capillary presidency through the local clergy, especially through the kappillan, the local parish priest. It provided assistance to the poor and the needy, administered to the sick and the dying, and above all provided hope that after this ‘valley of tears’, a better life awaited those who followed its teaching. This is not to say that opposition never existed, or that individuals who challenged Church authority were absent, but even so, such feuds generally involved inter-personality differences rather than strict departures from orthodoxy.

With the acquisition of national Independence from Britain in 1964, this was bound to change radically: a process of structural differentiation started to gather momentum and the main sectors of social life — especially the economy, politics and religion — started to move apart. The Church’s presidential role changed as the new nation started to show that despite its miniscule size, it was able to stand on its own two feet, forging an economic and political stability and well-being of which previously only a relatively small number of dreamers had been truly convinced.

In this context, the role of religion and of the Catholic Church changed radically. As an effect of the second Vatican Council, the erstwhile Church’s role of presidency and ‘lordship’ was replaced by more emphasis on the service ethic. New developments in the economy, which now had to start to earn money through the sale of services rather than by depending on the expenditure of military services, resulted in an influx of tourists in search of a good time. They brought with them new mores, new styles of life that were different from those previously prevalent in the smaller village communities. These lifestyles were also much more liberal than the laxer habits disseminated primarily in the inner harbour region by visiting sailors. This was accompanied by a huge expansion in the media, and exacerbated by the new liberal ideas permeated through a more open and expanded educational system. Secularisation started to be very evident in the lives of the Maltese, in thought, attire and behaviour.

The development of the service ethic within the Church was spearheaded by a number of priests who acted as individuals, but who found support by the bishops. Thus, the Emigrants Commission started to give assistance to Maltese migrants to Australia, Canada and the UK and to their families in Malta; the Cana Movement was set up by a young priest specifically to provide information and formation services to engaged and married couples; Children’s Homes started to provide professional assistance to all the ‘institutes’, as they had been previously known, who were looking after ‘destitute’ children and young persons so as to minimise the impact of institutionalisation. Concomitantly with this, the Social Action Movement was established by a priest in order to spread the social teachings of the Church in the wake of Malta’s expanding industrial drive and the increased importance of tourism. 

This ‘intra-church structural differentiation’ process provided Maltese society with a new welfare dimension, developed on a professional basis, at a time when the young Maltese State was not yet able to support a fully fletched welfare system. The gradual passage from almost total presidency to this new welfare orientation coincided with a very heated debate in the late 1950’s until the mid-1960’s, during which the leader of the Malta Labour Party had specifically engaged in a battle for supremacy of the political sphere.

The claim for Integration with Britain (a claim that the Church withstood because of the fear that British ‘Protestant’ legislation on divorce and on other areas would obliterate the prevalent Catholic lifestyle on the island) and its steadfast incorporation in the socialist movements, and specifically in the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO), a front organisation for Communism, were problematic. This very heated debate split Malta practically in half, creating dissent within families and local communities at all levels and on all issues. Thus, secularisation, a process through which religious thinking, action and structures lose social significance, was very strong, even though even the leaders of the labour movement boasted that they were still Christians. The differences between the Labour party and the Church were officially settled prior to the 1971 general elections, thus facilitating the return of the Malta Labour Party to government.

The process of secularisation continued during the 1980’s, except for something which momentarily resulted in the reverse process of de-secularisation, and which could be termed ‘secularised de-secularisation’. It came about when the Labour government wanted Church schools not to charge fees. Parents had been opting for Church schools because these were perceived to be better institutions than State ones. But when the Church insisted that it could not implement what the government wanted, parents rallied around the Church. Because of its having been so deeply rooted in Maltese culture, the Church temporarily re-acquired presidency. De-secularisation was ‘secular’ however, because this was not a return to religion as such, but a re-enforcement of the role of the Church as surrogate of popular feeling when the right to decide which school was suitable for one’s children, a right perceived as fundamental, was in danger of being lost. Religion was clearly being instrumentalised. Indeed, once this particular issue was solved, the process of secularisation described above continued.

Since then, interesting developments continued to take place in Maltese religious life. Within the Church itself, splinter movements that from a sociological point of view have a semblance of sects grew in their appeal: the Neo-catechumenal Movement, the Focolarini Movement and especially the Charismatic Movement grew extensively. These movements developed within the Church, but together with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also started to become popular, they were providing their members with answers they could not get from traditional Church structures. In essence, these were subtle protest movements; they signified a clear departure to a more individualized form of religion among an increasing number of Maltese.

The individualisation of religious decision-making was not limited to these movements. It has since spread extensively into areas such as inter-personal relationships as well as a whole range of ethical issues. Whilst in traditional Maltese society the Church could command quasi if not complete adherence to its teaching, now the Maltese started to follow their conscience. The birth-control debate of the late 1960’s following Humanae Vitae was the starting point, but it has subsequently been crystallised in the 2011 referendum on divorce, and more recently on the lack of opposition to legislation formally legitimising gay unions at par with marriage, as well as on transgender issues. People still get married, and preferably in Church, but it has become quite difficult to know what is the exact status of what is commonly referred to as one’s ‘partner’, despite the smallness of Maltese society in which everyone knows everyone else or can at least locate others within a particular system which is readily understood. The only area in which there is universal consensus is abortion: no party or group have so far expressed an interest in its introduction; hence the Church never needed to express itself.

Despite these very deep changes affecting Maltese society, religious festas and celebrations continue to grow. But it is not the religious factor that distinguishes them. In a pluralistic and micro-structured society, the sense of traditional community, of Gemeinschaft, is fast being lost. The individual, even in Malta, has come to accept that one has to cope with a plethora of numbers which identify one in social life, ranging from Identity Cards to Social Security numbers, from PINs associated with one’s plastic money to, recently, the Tallinja Card, which allows cheaper bus transport! Village festas offer the individual the occasion to meet, to be recognised, to celebrate and enjoy jollification, to recreate Gemeinschaft.

In one particular study conducted by the present author, a number of participants indicated that they would still attend a village festa even if it were to be celebrated without any reference to the parish patron saint! Indeed this has already started to take place, as political parties and commercial entrepreneurs now use the festa idiom to promote their pockets. Even the president of Malta is doing the same to collect money for social ends through the organisation of Festa Palazz, using the same idiom of the village festa without any reference to any saint, and in a completely secularised context.

In summary, what is therefore happening in contemporary Malta? Are the Maltese becoming an a-religious nation? Is the Catholic Church no longer relevant? Generally the Maltese still cherish the Catholic Church, and very few would affirm that they no longer belong to it. But participation in the liturgy and its educational and religious functions has become more of a ‘pick and choose’ habit, rather than a deeply-rooted characteristic. Maltese religion has fast acquired features akin to ‘invisible religion’, with a core of traditional values reflected in still very strong neighbourly care. But the Maltese increasingly seek the answers to problems of ultimate meaning in their private lives, in what they perceive to be their primary group. Institutionalised religious structures do persist, but their influence on decision-making has substantially decreased. It has been replaced by a much more pragmatic, ‘what-serves-me-best’ attitude across most generations, especially among the young.   

Mario Vassallo (University of Malta).

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