No one is more conventional than a wild-eyed rock star smashing his guitar on stage. Nothing is more old-fashioned than taking hallucinogens, unless it’s infanticide. No one is more puritan than a vegan, although you’re getting close with affluent middle-class families intent on consuming only organic, fair-trade food and giving the children memorable learning experiences rather than toys. 

And nothing is more ritualised than the weekly discussion programme. Before an attentive audience, over a panel representing a range of opinion, the presenter presides with thoughtful neutrality. Ready to consider each view, while remaining detached from them all, the presenter is the priest, in sponsored vestments, leading the worship of a pluralist, open society. The best programmes attract millions of viewers. 

It’s important to remember all this, given the way the discussion of plummeting Sunday Mass attendance is going. Blame is being cast on conventionality, old-fashioned ways, puritanism and ritualism. Yet none of these things, in themselves, have lost their power to attract, fascinate and guide tastes and behaviour. If there’s something wrong with these in the Maltese Church, the explanation has to be more concrete. 

Where the Maltese Church is treading now, of course, other European churches have gone before it. So explanations don’t have to be exclusively centred on Malta. But it does mean that certain explanations and, not least, proposed solutions, can be tested against experience elsewhere. 

Future generations of Christians will judge how the Church steered through this crisis in part by how it avoided three traps. It’s early days but so far it’s not going well. 

The first trap consists of thinking that you’re explaining falling numbers by pointing out what’s wrong.

For example, village and town feasts – their ‘paganism’ – are a favourite bête noire of the middle classes. But whether they’re pagan or not is neither here nor there. We’re discussing decline in numbers, not moral decline. The feasts pull in a lot more people to church, way above the average.

Another example: if you think the pastoral outreach should be more like Germany’s, that’s a perfectly legitimate way of saying pastoral action in Malta should change. But if you suggest the Maltese Church should become more like Germany’s in order to become ‘relevant’, and thus stop numbers falling further, then you’re engaging in wishful thinking. 

Germany’s church attendance is down to 10 per cent, under a third of Malta’s historic low of 36 per cent. There may be perfect reasons for adapting a German pastoral approach, but halting decline in attendance isn’t one of them. 

The second trap consists of assuming that widespread, self-described ‘spirituality’ points to considerable overlap with the Catholic Church’s understanding of spirituality. Sometimes, perhaps. But it can also disguise radical disagreement. 

In the Christian tradition, spirituality is always built on community and social responsibility. There’s a realism about spiritual fantasies and illusions, not least about depression disguised as spiritual detachment. Above all, however, the most contemplative of lives are always linked to community obligations. 

Church and State are separate not least in their understanding of poverty. The Church would be making itself irrelevant if it adopted that of the State

That’s obviously not the only kind of spirituality on offer. One dominant contemporary image is of someone meditating, alone, in isolation, on a mountain peak. Ideals of contemporary luxury architecture and design reflect a similar idea. It’s as though the soul inhabits a kind of spiritual penthouse, open-plan and soaring above the din of the world far below, all glass and minimalist decoration, with uncluttered views of blue skies. 

Its spirituality conceived as a retreat from community and society. It’s a stripping away of material concerns and entangled social ties to find the radically authentic individual within. There are good reasons why it’s a compelling image and very popular. But it’s a world away from Christian spirituality. 

In some ways the two are antitheses. For so many people to say they are spiritual but not churchgoers is a statement of just how radically different their ideas are from those of Christianity. To think otherwise is to set yourself up for dialogue that gets lost in translation.

The third trap concerns relevance, particularly with respect to the margins of society. Church and State are separate not least in their understanding of poverty. The Church would be making itself irrelevant if it adopted that of the State. 

For the State, poverty is about what you have. For the Church, it’s about something more radical: what you are. 

For good reasons, the State measures poverty in relation to access to the market. It inevitably measures poverty in terms of possessions people lack. 

But the Church challenges how we should think about possession. Possession is rooted not in owning but in sharing. Everything we have, from life to property, is a gift ultimately from God. 

That’s why poverty isn’t just about what you have. If you’re not able to receive and give gifts, then you are poor in meaningful, enduring relationships. You’re like the billionaire who never receives flowers or birthday cards, and who cannot buy them for him or herself because it’s not the same thing. You can’t have it all without sharing.

The State’s understanding of poverty is secular, the Church’s is theological. You don’t have to subscribe to the theology to see that if the Church secularises its understanding of poverty and property, it’s the surest road to irrelevance – just another charitable NGO.

Yet the pressures on the Church to become ‘relevant’ in just this way are great. As more property belonging to the Church and ageing religious orders needs to be used in new ways, that pressure is increased. We can already see it in the bright suggestions to convert convents into old people’s homes. That’s a useful but secularised use of property.

It’s clear that if the Church wants to be relevant, it has to be faithful to its peculiar sense of realism. In an era of plundered public goods, its properties need to be reconceptualised as spaces of shared cultural gifts. In an age where solidarity is becoming more difficult even to imagine, and where liberty is imagined almost exclusively as being free of others, its spaces need to become areas where freedom is discovered in community. 

It doesn’t mean that people will return in droves to the Church. But at least they’ll know what it stands for.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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