It turns out there really is a price for everything, including the saving of souls. The Planning Authority’s approval of the 12-story hotel on the grounds of the Augustinians’ St Rita Chapel in Paceville is yet another confirmation that the authority has sold its soul to the speculators’ lobby and could not care less about the quality of life of the families living in the area, whose environment will be permanently blighted by the new development.

So, nothing new. But the real scandal in this story are the actions of the Augustinians. And I use the word ‘scandal’ with responsibility. Let’s be clear: these actions, as they are known to the public, are not criminal or even illegal.  Indeed, 50 years ago what they did would not even have raised an eyebrow. The beautiful valley in Mellieħa which now houses the Santa Maria Estate was once Church property. What today would be considered nothing less than environmental rape was then just good business, with the proceeds doubtless used for the Church’s good works.

But as the inexorable building boom has devoured more and more precious land, national awareness of environmental and wellbeing issues has increased. The Church in Malta is now far more sensitive to its environmental responsibilities, not only in terms of its preaching but, more importantly, in terms of its own actions.

Over 25 years ago it divested itself of a big chunk of its properties in a deal with the government of the day to sustain its schools, on condition that the land would be used for social purposes. In recent years its Environmental Commission has been boldly speaking inconvenient truths to both state and private power. Archbishop Scicluna has set new standards for the sale and use of Church property, especially on ODZ land.

This has been further buttressed by Pope Francis’ great encyclical ‘Laudato Si`’ which in 2015 embedded in the Church’s social teaching a profound understanding of environmental responsibility as social justice.

So, why are the Augustinians’ actions so objectionable? After all, the argument goes, this is not exactly pristine ODZ. Firstly, they knowingly bypassed the Archbishop’s standards by leasing, rather than selling outright, their land, thus making a mockery of the Church’s principled stand on land use.

In a country shorn of ethics, the Augustinians have contributed to the normalisation of what has become our national motto: The End Justifies the Means

Secondly, they completely ignored the Church’s Environmental Commission’s report that condemned the lease in no uncertain terms. The Augustinians could have included conditions in the lease that would have resulted in far less negative impact on the locality, at the cost of a reduced financial return. But they opted for the money.

By doing so, they aided and abetted the environmental degradation that will be visited on their own parishioners. And they aided and abetted the authority’s sudden conversion – including that of the two PN and PL representatives – on the basis of largely cosmetic changes that did not address the core of the issues that had been raised by the Church’s Environmental Commission.

Yet, the Augustinians justified their actions as a way of funding their religious, social and educational programmes. After all, the environment around Paceville is already in a gawd-awful state, so why not make some hay for a good cause, ey?

But how, exactly, will they explain Pope Francis’ ‘Laudato Si`’ to their parishioners in the shadow of the 12-story blank wall they and their children will have to put up with?

How, exactly, will they teach environmental sustainability in their schools they will be funding by the proceeds of this umpteenth priapic pillage?

How, exactly, will they teach that financial gain that undermines the common good does not justify the funding of good works?

Here lies the real scandal. By their Paceville land lease, the Augustinians have deepened the Maltese chasm between personal piety and social justice. In a country shorn of ethics, they have contributed to the normalisation of what has become our national motto: The End Justifies the Means.

Hate speech and the immigrant

During the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats. During the Rwanda genocide of 1994 Hutus called Tutsis cockroaches. Slave owners considered their slaves subhuman animals. Throughout history dehumanization, what the Nazis called ‘life unworthy of life’, has been the first step towards cruelty and genocide.

This is why the Times of Malta’s Hate Speech Campaign is so important. Peppi Azzopardi highlighted how the language being used against migrants is becoming increasingly disturbing. Dehumanisation has four stages: prejudice, which leads to scapegoating, which leads to discrimination and, finally, persecution. The way many Maltese define the immigrant dark-skinned ‘other’ is well on its way to the third phase.

Apart from the crass injustice of it all, my fear is that we shall ultimately reap our own hateful oats. Other European countries have seen how the prejudice, marginalisation and injustices visited on the first generation of immigrants bred bubbling resentment in the second generation. When this was not addressed it exploded, and fed even further the vicious cycle of racial prejudice and distrust.

Malta today is already a socio-ethnic pressure cooker. Comprehensive action is needed now to avert a disaster in our children’s time, if not before.  

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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