When it was reported that a circular had been sent to health centres instructing them to remove all religious symbols and pictures – as “the clinic is a health entity and we consider ourselves to be a multicultural society” – many were shocked and showed their disapproval. This was a direct attack on our identity as Maltese Catholics. 

The directive was subsequently revoked since, as Minister Chris Fearne stated, “the Constitution allows people to express their religious beliefs in open spaces”.

We are all for a multicultural society. But does such a society imply that we lose our identity as Catholics?

Jennifer L. Eagan, one of the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, when commenting about multiculturalism, states: “It is both a response to the fact of cultural pluralism in modern democracies and a way of compensating cultural groups for past exclusion, discrimination and oppression”.

She goes on to clarify that “multiculturalism seeks the inclusion of the views and contributions of diverse members of society while maintaining respect for their differences and withholding the demand for their assimilation into the dominant culture”.

We need to accentuate a very important trait of a multicultural society. In no way does including and tolerating different cultures imply that autonomous members of various cultures lose their own identity. It is precisely because different groups are accepted as they are, that they form part of a multicultural society.

In no way does including and tolerating different cultures imply that autonomous members of various cultures lose their own identity

A pluralistic society is one where citizens of different cultures and religions are integrated and enjoy the same benefits of all other citizens. The reasoning that be­cause we are a multicultural society we must give up our traditional customs and beliefs, goes against the very nature of a multicultural society. As Eagan asserts: “Being an integral and recognisable part of the whole, diverse members of society can maintain their particular identities while residing in the collective”.

Some also seem to claim that a multicultural society is de facto a secular society.  We are, no doubt, a secular State where the powers of the Church and those of the State are separate but this in no way means that we are a secular society, for in a secular society, religion has no relevance to the way one lives, and very often it is curtailed and not allowed to be practised in public. 

Globalisation and migration are transforming many western societies, including ours. The influx of foreigners who, the government insists, are necessary for the growth of our economy, is, no doubt, making a great impact on the composition of our society. Malta, with its geographic position being what it is, has always been open to other cultures and religions. Though many foreigners feel at home and we are considered to be a hospitable people, such influx should not impinge on our identity as Maltese who, in their absolute majority (92 per cent) profess to be Catholics.

One of the basic values of a pluralistic society is freedom of religion. We are all aware that whatever our belief, religion is a fundamental aspect of being human. Being able to practise one’s religion, therefore, is a basic principle of any pluralistic democracy.

Separation of Church and State in no way restricts citizens from practising their beliefs. As Pope Benedict XVI emphasised in his address to US bishops (2012): “The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in delivering the values which will shape the future of the nation”.

When referring to religious freedom, Benedict stated that religious freedom cannot be reduced simply to freedom of worship “without guarantee of respect for freedom of conscience”.

In his essay, ‘Theology and the Church’s Political Stance’, Pope Benedict stated: “Where the Church itself becomes the State, freedom becomes lost. But also when the Church is done away with as a public and publicly relevant authority, then too, freedom is extinguished, because there the State once again claims completely for itself the justification of morality”. 

Although we, as Catholics, accept living in a multicultural society, for we believe that all human beings are equal whatever their culture, race or religion, we should not allow our society to become secularised to such an extent that we lose our identity and are no longer able to practise freely and publicly our religion.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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