The timing could hardly have been more appropriate but that is the art of politics.
Health Minister Chris Fearne, a potential successor to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, made an uncharacteristic move from someone ostensibly coming from the Labour Party. Some high official in public healthcare had decided to remove religious symbols from health centres, through a staff circular. Mr Fearne was not informed, he overruled the circular and made his decision public.
He said religious symbols were issues of personal devotion that politicians should stay out of. Mr Fearne argued: “We are not forcing anyone to display religious symbols, however, I believe we should not stop anyone who would want to.”
A pragmatic move, no doubt, maybe popular too, but out of tune with the current Labour rhetoric. Church, religion and politics do not blend well when Labour is in government and there is a long story of dishevelment in recent political history. Mr Fearne knows that and must surely be aware of the potential discomfort of Church faithful within the Labour fold.
The issue of the relationship between Church and State is not new, neither in Malta nor in any country in the world where religious practice is a right. The issue with religious symbols, rather than religion itself, is more complicated as it concerns the individual. It can easily be misconstrued as an issue of personal religious expression that can prove provocative. But does that apply to religious symbols?
Religious symbols are everywhere to be seen, from across the skyline to hidden mementos in stone rubble walls along a country lane. They are an intrinsic part of the country’s culture and history. You cannot wipe that out or ignore it. You can only cater to it, accommodate it and avoid offence to those who do not share the faith.
But for the average Catholic, religious symbols are a part of their cultural identity. They have lived with the symbols since childhood, most are happy to see such symbols all around them and are soothed by their sight, in health centres most especially. They trust their doctors but maybe even more God. Mr Fearne is catering for these people. It is his duty.
The sight of the crucifix on a wall has multiple meanings: it is a religious symbol with political, historical and cultural meaning too. Where the cross hangs, at a health centre or elsewhere in a nominally or functionally secular place, it carries intensely religious meaning in a variety of ways. Because faith and religion are, above all, a very personal matter.
Away from a world overwhelmed by supermarkets, computers, games, music and entertainment, personal faith always seeps through. A society that loses its connection with religious tradition loses the roots of its morality and culture. It loses itself.
It has become an obsession, among some, to do away with religion and its symbols. A German supermarket chain has reportedly been removing the cross sign from a picture of a Greek island used to sell cheese. The company said it was a deliberate policy to remove religious symbols from packaging, in case it was divisive.
But Christianity is not that, nor are its symbols. It is not a label. It feels more like a 2,000-year marriage with Western society, with which one may agree or disagree. You just cannot amputate that.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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