Fifty years ago last Friday, the Maltese bishops imposed an interdiction of the executive members of the Labour Party. Herman Grech and Kurt Sansone report on the politico-religious boiling point.
Writing in The Times last Monday, former Labour minister Lino Spiteri detailed the day 50 years ago when then Archbishop Michael Gonzi sent the letter interdicting members of the Labour Party executive.
“A lump rises in my throat as I write this... Blood was not shed. Yet hatred was sown and took root. That can be worse than spilling of blood.”
Mgr Gonzi had become obsessed with the belief that the Labour Party was inching closer to Communism, the columnist wrote.
Whether it was a figment of Mgr Gonzi’s imagination, or whether Dom Mintoff deliberately gave that impression, it was the climax of the bitter Church-Labour dispute and the beginning of eight years of social banishment of MLP supporters.
The sparks between the Church and Labour were ignited long before the clash of the 1960s, as Mr Mintoff drummed up bold statements challenging ecclesiastic authority, then a major force in Malta.
The two men, both from Cottonera, engaged regularly in tit-for-tat broadsides but a Labour Party policy statement in spring 1961 proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Mgr Gonzi.
Among other things, the party said that in its fight for self-determination for Malta, it would accept help from all quarters, provided it was without strings attached. Mgr Gonzi interpreted the statement as saying that the MLP was veering towards Communism and would accept aid from the Soviet Union.
He wrote to the committee demanding the withdrawal of the policy statement and the Labour Party wrote back saying it would refer the matter to the party general conference, which was to meet in two days’ time.
The Archbishop refused to wait. On April 8, 1961, on the eve of the conference, he interdicted the executive.
This meant that members of the executive could not receive the sacraments with party officials, including Mr Spiteri, forced to marry in a sacristy. Between 1961 and 1963 seven Labour officials died (including former minister and author Guże’ Ellul Mercer) and were buried in the unconsecrated part of the cemetery popularly known by the pejorative term il-miżbla (the dump).
In May 1961, the Church declared reading or selling Socialist newspapers or attending Labour meetings mortal sins, as was the act of voting for the party in the 1962 general election.
Many believe the dispute essentially boiled down to a tug-of-war between two stubborn heavyweights from the same area, but historian Joe Pirotta believes the clash stemmed from something far deeper.
“Much more was at stake than personal prestige, nothing less than either the continuation of the status quo in which the Church’s reaction had to be carefully considered before any new initiative was taken, or a new playing field in which the state enjoyed greater freedom of action while the Church restricted itself to religious matters,” he says.
The crucial factor was a clash of values – the secular versus the spiritual –which made a political-religious struggle inevitable unless one side or the other was prepared to compromise.
“Mr Mintoff’s fiery rhetoric and left-wing views convinced the Archbishop that the young politician with a steadily growing following was at best a Communist fellow-traveller, at worst a dyed-in-the-wool Communist,” Prof. Pirotta says.
Mr Spiteri insists that never was a word breathed to suggest that, during Labour’s confrontation with the British government, it would steer towards Communism, directly or indirectly.
Years earlier, when Mr Mintoff became Prime Minister in 1955 on the platform of integrating Malta with the UK, the Archbishop’s fear had more to do with the realisation that it would establish a Maltese government in total control of all local affairs, rendering the Church defenceless against any attempt to erode its power and influence.
Relations between Church and state deteriorated into a full-blown feud, with mutual accusations of attempts to undermine the other’s authority.
The violent Labour-led disturbances which followed the resignation of Mr Mintoff in 1958 were unsurprisingly condemned by Mgr Gonzi. Mr Mintoff branded the Archbishop an “imperial lackey” and relations between the MLP and the Church took many years to recover.
Later, Mr Mintoff changed tack, insisting that the only solution to the island’s economic ills was independence and insisted Malta had to become a secular state, something which was anathema to the Church.
“Because of genuine fears that independence was not economically viable, Mintoff – who was regarded as a closet Communist – would once elected Prime Minister throw in his lot with the Soviet Union and turn Malta into the Cuba of the Mediterranean,” Prof. Pirotta says.
Mr Mintoff’s Labour Party failed to win two elections in the 1960s, though he built a strong base throughout the decade to win power in 1971.
In the post-Vatican II environment, several attempts were made behind the scenes to end the conflict and eventually the Labour Party and the Vatican entered into direct discussions.
On April 4, 1969, with the help of Mgr Emanuel Gerada, the Church and the MLP reached a formal peace agreement and issued a statement which, although affirming that the Church had the duty and the right to safeguard its spiritual and temporal interests, it should not impose mortal sin as a censure. The agreement also made it clear that in a modern society it is necessary to make a distinction between the political community and the Church.
Writing in the tribute book to Eddie Fenech Adami, Inservi, Prof. Pirotta states: “(Mr) Mintoff had, during the immediate post-war years, understood that values were rapidly changing and that more people were questioning the traditional role occupied by the Church and the privileges it enjoyed.
“On the other hand, Mgr Gonzi does not seem to have realised how established the trend was, or if he did, did not know how to make the Church a contributing participant in the cultural metamorphosis of a new Malta.”
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