At first blush, it seems all we get is a silly season special in the now notorious case of Fr David Muscat, the priest who has spoken approvingly of the ‘seed’ planted by the far-right Imperium Europa. The media gets a glass of ice water as it sits out the desert of August news, and Archbishop Charles Scicluna is obliged to dissociate the Church from Fr Muscat’s words.
Except it’s not quite a silly season special. When Mgr Scicluna described Fr Muscat as a “complex character”, I initially thought it was a tactful way of saying “a character with complexes”. On second thoughts, Fr Muscat is a complex character in a straightforward way.
You don’t need to know him to see it. He’s a socially conservative priest who is also anti-clerical. He is for so-called plain speaking (say, when shooting his mouth off about homosexuality as a predatory disorder) but also for plain clothing, scorning those clerics who love ecclesiastical silks, frills and titles.
He’s a stern critic of ecclesiastical and theological accommodation of the liberal consensus – but, unlike other such critics, he holds up Pope Francis as a model not as anti-Christ. He excoriates contemporary society in Biblical terms; but his jeremiads are directed towards modern economic and social policy, not popular religion.
In the apocalyptic landscape that (for him) is today’s Malta, the pagans are the bien pensant middle class, not the revellers at saints’ feasts. He’s a fireworks enthusiast and is caustic about the Church’s directive that no fireworks should be let off Church property. He believes the Church cannot be dull without contradicting its message of salvation.
But the joy of gay pride parades is a different matter. For him that is delirium – as any ‘pride’ must be, given that it is the worst of all vices.
So Fr Muscat does not fit easily into the available boxes. ‘Fascist’ is too simple. As with Joseph Ratzinger, his conservatism traces its roots way beyond the 18th-century roots of modern political conservatism, and so is sometimes critical of the modern right, as well as the left.
To understand what is so tragically wrong (on Fr Muscat’s own terms) about his partial endorsement of Norman Lowell, you need to understand what Fr Muscat gets right. He is raising a fundamental question that any member of the Church should take to heart.
Compromises are inevitable in a pluralist society. But what is an acceptable compromise? And what is a compromise so rotten that to accept it destroys what you stand for?
The Church has long made this distinction. It’s one thing to err in the right direction. Some forms of socialism are unjust, but they move in the right direction when pursuing the values of equality and fraternity. Racism, however, is not just mistaken; it’s based on a principle that denies fraternity. You can’t compromise with it without negating one of Christianity’s founding principles.
A compromise with Lowell is a rotten compromise
Fr Muscat is claiming that any accommodation with modern liberal principles of LGBTQ civil rights (say) is a rotten compromise for the Church. If he stuck to saying that, he wouldn’t be alone. It’s a hot theological and doctrinal issue in the Church today.
He’s also saying that the Church’s modus vivendi with an economy based on financial services and gaming is a rotten compromise, too. Financial services are based on tax avoidance, which he considers immoral, and gaming is simply gambling.
Once more, you don’t have to agree with him to see he’s not going out on a limb. And a prophetic Church needs to decide what it thinks on both issues, not just simply let things drift.
But he’s also saying that partially endorsing Lowell is not a rotten compromise. It’s an acceptable one. He says he disagrees with Lowell’s extreme language but that Lowell is raising issues no one else is.
Put to one side that he’s factually wrong to say that no other politicians are talking about unsustainable labour immigration, unaffordable housing and a growing sense of lack of democratic control.
He’s implying that Lowell’s anti-Semitic language is a ‘bug’ not a feature. That is, you could cut it out and the substance would not change. Really?
On the same occasion when Fr Muscat addressed Imperium Europa, Lowell spoke too. He spoke of Malta’s ‘Zionist media’, as he has on other occasions. Other times, he has described Christianity as having a ‘Semite morality’ not a White one. He has scoffed at priests who want to ‘baptise Blacks’.
He has spoken of interethnic marriage as miscegenation. He has said that immigration around the world is being spurred on by Jews.
Lowell describes himself as a ‘libertarian racialist’. His anti-Semitism and racist language is not ‘merely’ misjudged exaggeration of an otherwise harmless message. It is the message.
So there can be no partial endorsement. There can be no seeing in Imperium Europa a seed that must be tended carefully so that it bears good fruit not rotten ones.
A compromise with Lowell is a rotten compromise. Christianity believes in the unity of humanity. Lowell believes in the nation (or, rather, ‘race’) as an end in itself. Christianity endorses nations only as a stepping stone to a wider recognition of the fraternity of all humanity.
For Lowell, ‘blood’ stands for race and racial pride. For Christianity, ‘blood’ stands for brotherhood in Christ and charity.
No one can avoid misjudgements; and of course a Christian is obliged to follow conscience. Fr Muscat is entitled both to make mistakes and to follow his conscience based on a mistake. But there comes a time when failure to inform your conscience – by seeing what’s easily available in print and on YouTube – becomes culpable.
At that point, it wouldn’t be the Church that dissociates itself from Fr Muscat. It would be Fr Muscat who would have dissociated himself from the Church.
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