People are divided on the proclamation by Gozo Bishop Mario Grech, who hinted that Catholics promoting divorce legislation are “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

Mgr Grech said those not in line with Church teachings should not expect to receive the Eucharist, a comment which some interpreted as a spiritual threat against those planning to vote yes in the referendum.

But while comments flooded in online to label him “intolerant”, “ridiculous” and “arrogant”, others defended his homily on Sunday as being in line with Church dogma.

Fr Charlo Camilleri, who last August argued that Catholic politicians can, according to their conscience, vote in favour of divorce if research showed it was beneficial for the common good, said the homily had to be taken in its context.

The Bishop, he said, was speaking during the celebration of the sacrament of confirmation, explaining the gospel of the Good Shepherd, where Christ presents himself as the “one door”.

Bishop Grech said: “If we want to find the right door, shortly... and adults, understand what I am trying to say... do not make a mistake, there is only one door.”

“As an adult Christian I fully agree that there is only one door and this is Christ. The Bishop did not limit himself to divorce. Rightly so he stated that our faith should be translated in all spheres of our life. You cannot call yourself a Christian, follower or disciple of Christ and then not follow the Gospel values.”

Fr Camilleri pointed out that the discussion on divorce had degenerated, showing that the issue at stake, “perhaps unconsciously”, was the relationship between Church and state.

He said people in favour of divorce seemed to be very concerned about attacking the teachings of the Church instead of sticking to their arguments. This gave the impression they were acting out of panic and causing confusion by mixing up the sacramental and legal definitions of marriage. On the other hand, the Bishop made a distinction by saying everybody had the civil right to marry but not to receive the sacrament of marriage.

Fr Camilleri said the Church teachings on the issues of divorce and conscience were clear and he referred to the position paper drawn up in October by seven prominent priests. The paper concluded that Catholics must form their conscience by keeping in mind the word of God, the teaching of the Church and the true needs of the common good.

Those who only followed their own “feelings, thoughts and personal advantage” should realise they were not doing their Catholic duty. “One is responsible for such action before God and may possibly be sinning.”

Priest blogger Fr Joe Borg said he had no comment to make on the homily of Bishop Grech.

The Times asked Fr Borg if he agreed with Mgr Grech that the Church was not being forceful enough on divorce. Fr Borg recently criticised the movement Kristu Iva Divorzju Le, saying such an attitude built no bridges with “all those good Catholics who favour divorce”.

Fr Borg said he stood by his comment.

“If you go through you will notice that I have been the target of harsh criticism and personal jibes by the extremists on both sides of the divide. It is incredible how comments one makes are sometimes interpreted, misinterpreted, mangled and jumbled,” he said.

He added there was no need to add or clarify anything regarding the joint declaration of the seven priests, which was also endorsed by Archbishop Paul Cremona who, he pointed out, was also president of the Maltese Episcopal Conference.

Historian Dominic Fenech alluded to a rift between the Church leaders of the two dioceses.

“The Church has been surprisingly circumspect as an institution and has left the talking mostly to lay organisations of people who, although known for their religious fervour, prefer to attack divorce legislation from social, legal or economic angles rather than from a moral spiritual one.

“It seems the ecclesiastical establishment is keeping on a tight leash any priest who appears to condone divorce legislation but not individual priests who campaign against. The Gozo Bishop now seems to have lost his patience with such strategic subtleties.”

Asked if Bishop Grech’s statements could be legitimately perceived as a threat, he said “it is certainly pressure” and based on a wrong premise.

“Voting in favour of introducing divorce legislation for those who want to use it does not deny anyone the choice of not using it if they want to abide by the Church’s doctrine. I hardly think it is a state of sin, even by the Church’s own rules, to favour a model of society which is different from that which the Church wants conserved.”

Bishop Grech will hold a question and answer session on marriage and the family at the Fgura parish centre on Friday.

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