In the aftermath of the divorce referendum the local Church is embarking on a soul-searching exercise. The first bitter truth that comes out loud and clear from the referendum result is that the Church’s word is no longer heeded.
Then there was also the perception that the Church was trying to impose her morality onto a secular society, not respecting the separation between Church and state. I say ‘perception’ because I do not believe this was the case. However, in the minds of people ‘perceptions’ become facts.
Another important issue was ‘tolerance’. This carried a lot of weight because few could understand why society should deny divorce to those who wanted it as long as it was not imposed on all.
The Church ended up a loser after this referendum for a number of reasons, some resulting from the direction that Maltese society is taking and others coming from the Church herself. It is important to learn a few lessons and this can happen only if we sidestep blaming a blooming anti-religious secularist society over which the Church has no control and honestly seek what is wrong with the Church and her communication.
We seem to have forgotten that all communication takes place in a context. The conflict of the 1960s may have happened a long time ago but it is by no means forgotten.
Archbishop Paul Cremona was very aware of this, and at the outset stated that the Church did not intend to conduct crusades. He kept his word. Unfortunately, not everybody followed suit.
Others spoke less softly, possibly forgetting the referred to context and believing the Catholic Church represents the whole population.
Addressing the Church community one might refer to the Word of God and the teaching of the Church. This too needs to be done without being too dogmatic and categorical because we do not have the whole truth. Addressing the world, that is, those who are not members of the Church, the message of the Church needs to be prophetic, not dogmatic, in nature.
Then, the communication of the Church lacked a thoughtful, calm and clear explanation of why divorce was considered harmful to the community. Many are under the impression that the morality of the Church is arbitrary, that she decides something is wrong and it becomes wrong, rather than the other way round. Consequently the Church was not seen as seeking the best for society but as being intolerant – and inconsiderate – towards a few who ‘needed’ divorce due to their particular situation.
Moreover, religious vocabulary is not always understood. What do people understand by ‘sin’?
The word should not have been mentioned at all. We could have said it is the duty of every Christian to choose what is good for society and to avoid all that is harmful, and that doing otherwise one would be distancing oneself from the faith of the believing community.
‘Sin’ implies personal guilt, while the Church can only say that a particular action is not congruent with genuine human values.
However, I believe that if we want to grow as a Church in the light of this experience, our soul-searching should be much deeper. We seem to be stuck in the model of the Church as a hierarchical institution, forgetting that Vatican II proposed the model of the Church as a community in pilgrimage. ‘Being in pilgrimage’ means we are not there yet.
This should make us very humble, because it implies, among other things, that we cannot say the last word on anything.
Secondly, our ministry tends to be too sacramental and devotional.
There is satisfaction when people come to Mass, and the tendency is to measure success or failure by Mass attendance. Great importance is also given to devotions and to external manifestations of the faith.
Without condemning any of this, we have to be careful not to allow it to alienate us from the Gospel and its demands.
We also seem to tend to emphasise morality without giving much importance to experience.
One last thing to which I had already referred in a previous article and which ties in with the preferred model of Church, that of a hierarchical institution, is clericalism – a mentality, an attitude, possibly unconscious, that seeks power and that expects to have privileges.
Some priests have a tendency to seek special treatment and believe that their word should be given special consideration because they are priests. Add to this a predilection of some for ceremony, lace and expensive liturgical vestments and you get the impression that the values are not right.
Priests are there to serve and for no other reason.
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