Much has been written about the results of the census of people’s attendance at Sunday Mass published recently by Discern (the Maltese Church’s Institute for Research on the Sign of the Times). According to the census, attendance is down to around 37 per cent of the Maltese population.

Though I have not personally been involved in recent research on the subject, I am writing here both as sociologist and a Catholic. This is basically a brief review and a personal commentary on some opinions that have been expressed on the subject and in the press by some influential commentators.

Vestiges of religiosity

Clearly there are those who shed crocodile tears at the results of the census. But even some others who have the good of the Church at heart seem ready to accept the removal of some traditional vestiges of religion from public life in modern Malta. Examples of this are that parents should stop baptising infants, that the ‘religious clause’ should be removed from the Constitution, and that the teaching of ethics should supplant that of religion in schools. Some may argue that such traditional practices are a restriction on human rights.

The implication is that these practices are mere leftovers from mediaeval mythology which drag us back from reaching aspired liberal European benchmarks. It is very strange that for some, the fact that they have been baptised as infants, have their names listed in a parish register and have a non-enforceable religious statement in the Constitution make them feel constrained in any meaningful way from doing whatever they want to do with their lives. Ironically, their insistence reflects a hangover and even betrays a grudging admission of the importance of such religious practices in their own minds. However, these arguments are largely irrelevant to the current issue.

The intention here is not to dispute whether anybody in Malta would still be going to Church by 2050 – on the assumption that the current downward trends will continue. Time will certainly show. Nor is it simply to assert that, in spite of these assumptions, the vast majority of first marriages – where both spouses are Maltese and heterosexuals – still take place in Church. It is simply to state that, prescinding from its spiritual role, the Church is a social institution which still has an important social role in Maltese society.

Religion and Malta’s culture

In contrast with both Marx and the Malta Humanist Association, Mark Anthony Falzon extols the cultural value of religious ritual. He rightly states that “whether we like it or not, our culture is steeped in the words, sounds and images of Christianity and Catholicism”. He is even repelled by priests who blame falling church attendance on traditional ritual. He calls this “philistinism of the worst kind – the same kind that makes people find no value in Catholicism, probably”.

Falzon intentionally bypasses the ‘faith and belief’ issues raised by the reduced Mass attendance as well as the social impact of the lowering status of the Church. What he deplores is that important expressions of our cultural identity are being contemptuously eroded. One may add that for instance, the celebrations of our traditional feasts, brass bands, fireworks, church and street decorations, and particularly religious works of art, also help to reinvigorate our moribund communities.

Religious practice and ritual

Of course, for avowed Catholics there is much more to be said about the results of the Discern census than the general cultural impoverishment which it indicates.

A number of leading priests, many of whom have well-attended Masses, urge a renewal of the Church’s liturgy and ritual in order to bring the people back to the Church . They stress the importance of “offering a sense of community”, and allowing lay people to play an “active part and feel part of the Church”. 

Fr Camilleri states that “as long as religion remains a question of obligation, the decline will be guaranteed…Religion is about the heart, not the mind and doctrines.” There is no doubt that one of the main factors which has traditionally compelled people to attend Sunday Mass is that not doing so capriciously was declared a mortal sin with the sanction of the fires of hell attached to it. Of course, this is the official teaching of the Church as there is both a Church Precept and one of God’s Commandments attached to it. That’s why the dwindling numbers of Church goers for Catholics is a matter of grave concern.

Moral behaviour as a personal domain

The Discern censuses over the years obviously demonstrate that, so far as religious practice is concerned, a radical shift has been taking place in Maltese society. Arguably, this is only the latest indicator of change – the Discern censuses, held since 1967, show a constant downward trend in Sunday Mass attendance. 

One can also argue that the reduced number of infants born in Maltese families ever since the 1960s is a clear indication of the diminishing influence of the official teaching of the Church on such delicate and personal decisions made by most Maltese couples. In recent years, this secularisation process has become evident in many areas and has increased its momentum. As one commentator recently put it succinctly: “Malta’s liberal turn since the divorce referendum has dead-legged what was once believed to be an influential Catholic vote”. 

Another commentator, Andrew Azzopardi, agrees that now “it is no longer acceptable that people’s minds should be dominated by the Church”. He fully endorses Malta’s new “secular morality” where “principles and standards that deal with morality (are) outside of religious traditions”. 

New forms of religious expression are emerging which often bypass the established Church’s hierarchy

However, Azzopardi laments that although people in Malta are now supposedly at liberty to think for themselves, a moral vacuum has actually emerged. He claims that in the absence of the Church’s teaching, nowadays people are being “simply guided by consumerism, capitalism and enterprise”. This argument closely reflects the view held long ago by the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim who claimed that during periods of rapid modernisation – when the traditional principles of social solidarity are discarded – a new normative system needs to be developed in order to prevent the total breakdown of society.

According to Azzopardi, in today’s Malta there is an acute need for “a communal moral language” which stresses the importance of “social values” like “self-giving, inclusion, social justice, respect for the rule of law, tolerance, human rights, and sustainable growth”. He insists that “A community is responsible to provide for a parsing of good versus evil, a society that conceives human flourishing that goes beyond hedonism and debauchery, high-living and self-indulgence”. He concludes that “Without a collective morality we are at risk”.

Self-assessed religiosity

Before endorsing or negating the above analysis, there is another set of figures which ought to be taken into account for an accurate, complete and realistic reading to be made of the ‘signs of the times’. Alongside the Discern census, the Maltese Church commissioned another independent survey, from Misco International, of Malta’s current religious attitudes, which yielded some very significant results. The following are the salient results:

• 95 per cent stated that they believe in God

• 92 per cent describe themselves as Catholic

• 69 per cent would become baptised today

• 61 per cent consider religion as very important

• 64 per cent believe in life after death

• 50 per cent attend Sunday Mass

• 37 per cent state that if one believes in God, one must follow a religion

At first sight, these survey results seem inconsistent and even contradictory when compared with those of the Discern census. Indeed, if one takes a narrow ‘legalistic’ view of the Church’s teachings and the obligations imposed on its avowed members, one is likely to conclude that, at face value, there is a state of utter confusion in people’s thinking on religious matters.

However, here it is argued that a deeper, sociological analysis of the data is required. This may reveal that other reasonable conclusions may be drawn from the two studies. From this perspective, rather than mutually contradictory, the two results may emerge as merely paradoxical. A deeper analysis is therefore required in order to comprehend this fluid situation.

It is beyond any reasonable doubt that Maltese society as a whole and particularly its youth culture is undergoing a period of profound secularisation and has been doing so for some time. As a result, the institutional Church no longer occupies the central place in people’s lives and that of their communities. This change has become evident and has been taking place almost imperceptibly over several decades. No matter what still happens in localities during the festa period, and all the pomp and ceremony which takes place year in year out on such occasions, the authority of the Church’s hierarchy and its hold on people’s beliefs and behaviour has become severely indented.

Secularisation and guilt feelings

One big change which has come about in recent years is the reduced sense of shame and personal feelings of guilt which were formerly experienced by those persons who committed some ‘serious’ infringements of the Church’s teachings.

Public infringements of the Church’s moral code was always a cause of great concern. The public condemnation for such behaviour – particularly in small communities – was enhanced through social sanctions such as gossip, social isolation and public priestly admonitions. As Dom Mintoff once put it: “For most Maltese in the past, the fires of hell somehow felt more real than the pangs of their empty stomachs!” Certainly this is no longer the case.

Such a change in attitude was brought about by a number of factors most of which are well known and it would be out of place to elaborate on them in this context. Suffice it just to mention the political-religious conflict of the 1960s and the decision taken by most couples, also around that period, to ignore the official Church’s ban on ‘artificial’ means of birth control.

Of course in both instances there were influential members of the clergy who openly encouraged the laity to follow their own conscience. But long before the widespread sexual scandals of the clergy became public knowledge, the authority of the Church on the people’s beliefs and moral behaviour had already been seriously indented. As a result, these subjects have come to be generally regarded as matters of personal choice, decision and responsibility.

From this perspective it follows that there is no inherent contradiction or inconsistency between the overwhelming number of Maltese individuals who expressed their belief in God, who claim to be Catholic and consider religion as important and yet may fail to attend Sunday Mass every week regularly – as they are obliged to do by the Church. Their absence may be caused by various factors, including today’s lifestyle and their scale of values.

Evidently, such persons do not feel any social pressures to attend and presumably experience few, if any guilt feelings. The likelihood is that they may only attend occasionally – which is enough for them to still ‘believe they are Catholics’. Clearly further studies are required to confirm this conclusion.

New expressions of spirituality

However, it is commonly known that new forms of religious expression are emerging which often bypass the established Church’s hierarchy. A number of religious groups are being formed spontaneously in a number of localities, beyond the boundaries of the territorial parishes, exhibiting varying forms and degrees of spirituality.

These groups are often composed of young persons on their own initiative. They may indulge in personal, spontaneous and often unorthodox forms of communication with God. They may operate beyond the patronage of the clergy and suggest that a new generation of Catholics is in the offing. Their concerns are usually distant from those of the established hierarchy and tend to be concentrated on environmental issues, on animal rights, on the problems faced by refugees and ‘irregular migrants’ from Africa, or on helping destitute people in Malta and in third world countries.

The philanthropic initiatives promoted by successive Presidents of Malta and the large amounts donated by the people to charity illustrate the new ‘social morality’ which is gaining ground. Whether these acts are also expressions of a new emerging ‘Christianity’ is open to question.  Admittedly, there are some signs that the Church itself is gradually opening its doors to such movements. For example, environmental issues are now widely regarded as moral concerns. Simultaneously, there is less emphasis on the sanctions of ‘mortal sin’ for those missing Sunday Mass and the prohibition from Holy Communion for divorced and cohabiting couples. The need for personal and intimate form of prayer is also manifested in the number of small chapels which have been opened in various localities in parallel with the much larger parish churches.

From a sociological angle, it is difficult to imagine how an elaborate value system – like Christianity – may be sustained for long in the absence of a formal organisation – like the ‘Catholic Church’.

From a religious viewpoint, however, it makes sense to affirm that after all God may be inspiring his Church – with all its shortcomings – to reform, renew and adapt itself to the contemporary ‘signs of the times’.*

* The stated aim of Pope John XXIII when he convened the Second Vatican Council was that of ‘aggiornamento’. According to some theologians, it is only now under Pope Francis, that the Church is seriously implementing the decisions of Vatican II.

Edward Zammit is Professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of Malta where he set up the Centre for Labour Studies, the Department of Public Policy and the Department of Tourism Studies.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece