Talking about his new book on religion and the 1921 Constitution, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna clarifies his position on Roman Catholicism as Malta’s official religion: it’s a question of heritage that cannot be undone. Think well before changing it, he tells politicians.

“If you look at the title, it may cause some apprehension,” was Archbishop Scicluna’s opening salvo.

I add helpfully that the recumbent figure of Malta at the foot of Christ the King – the monument by Antonio Sciortino that graces the cover of the book – might also grate on contemporary sensibilities about the separation of Church and State.

“That is why I suggest that people look at it carefully,” the Archbishop continues earnestly.

In the book, Mgr Scicluna puts in context the incidents from a century ago that led to Act I of 1922, the Religion of Malta Declaration Act.

He also outlines the paradigm shift between the rhetoric that some firebrand ecclesiastics were promoting in 1919-1920, which reflected Church teaching at the time, and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on religious freedom.

When read through this perspective, the Archbishop says, “there is an important shift from saying that the Catholic religion should be recognised as the true religion by the State, to a situation where the local circumstances do justify a special recognition to the Catholic religion but the emphasis now is on the religious freedom for everybody”.

With this book, the Archbishop is thus deftly placing himself squarely in the middle of the debate surrounding the much touted reform of the Constitution.

What happened to the pledge he had made nearly two years ago, reported widely in the press, that the “Church won’t carry out a crusade” should Roman Catholicism be removed from Malta’s Constitution as the official religion of the islands?

That statement had dispirited Catholics and comforted those who think that the Church should be stripped of her status and recognition. What is his position now?

The Archbishop’s tone is still conciliatory but it has acquired a certain resilience. “Before we decide, it is good to know where we came from,” is his quick rejoinder.

“The special recognition for religion – it could be the Roman Catholic Church in Malta or Islam in Algeria – is ultimately something that depends on culture and history. It is also a statement about a special and very important type of heritage which you cannot really wipe away or undo.

“It’s a tribute to history and historical truth to understand that the Maltese were very adamant in requiring this Declaration of the religion of Malta in the Constitution,” adds Scicluna. It was subsequently inserted within the framework of the first Maltese government.

The Archbishop looked pleased to show that he had reproduced not only the first draft of Act 1 of 1922 but also the declaration which was the very first Act of a Maltese Parliament.

Looking thoughtful for a moment, he says: “I would suggest that politicians would think well before changing the Constitution’s Article 2.2, for this European country can still serve as an example to nations on the southern borders of the Mediterranean that are keen to give Islam a special recognition but still need to evolve in the practice of religious freedom.”

Before removing it, we could understand why we should keep it

This, however, needs to be done within the context where “the State recognises a special role because of historical and heritage issues for religion”.

What message are we giving, he mused, that in order to be modern one needs to get rid of recognition for any particular religion, and thus “jeopardise your religious heritage” in the process?

Is the Archbishop worried about the Church’s loss of status then?

“Before removing it [Article 2.2], we could understand why we should keep it,” he answers without hesitation. For the essence of being a Church, he continues, is not about recognition by the State; the Church does not need constitutional status to proclaim the Gospel and to be of service to people in need. In the same manner that Sciortino’s monument of Christ the King in Floriana, although bereft of a crown or robes, Christ’s demeanour is still regardless. Even barefoot, Christ is still the King.

However, the Archbishop continued, the State must still ensure the necessary guarantees to freedom of action and self-management. “That it is something that we could promote for all religions, not only for ourselves. So when I say that I can live without it, it doesn’t mean that I would prefer not to have it.”

Any decisions by our politicians, to give away a century of constitutional history, would certainly not create social peace “but probably create social tension,” he observes.

So is this book a warning to politicians?

The Archbishop does not mince his words. It is his duty and his right, he says, to remind them about the great sense of affirmation of the Maltese a century ago when “they defended as one man the heritage that had been handed down from one generation to the next for 18 centuries”.

Whether this declaration was intended to be informative or declaratory was not decided at the time. Should it inform government policy today?

“That ship has long sailed from Grand Harbour,” Mgr Scicluna quipped in the book with his customary wit. He sounded quite moved when he described how our forefathers understood that “religion was something that managed to unite them, it had the power to remind them of their great heritage, an undeniable part of their DNA, of their identity”.

Wouldn’t the Church be fanning the flames of nationalism by making this argument now, in this febrile atmosphere of unbridled patriotism?

The Maltese were patriots then but they framed their argument within the context of religious freedom for everyone, the Archbishop replies with a tinge of pride in his voice. “It was very progressive for the time.”

One hundred years from the moment he writes about, as a new discussion on our constitutional set-up is opening, the Archbishop warns that “whatever decision we take; we should take it with full knowledge of where we came from”.

That is not a sentiment of someone who would like to remain on the sidelines of the discussion.

On the opposite side of Christ the King monument we find another allegory of Malta, this time on her feet. To Archbishop Scicluna, this figure of an Independent Malta is still the same as the one kneeling at the feet of Christ the King, for “one image does not erase the other”.

Is Malta striding forward into the unknown as she liberates herself from the shackles of the past?

Time will tell.

Signed copies of Religion and the 1921 Malta Constitution: Genesis and Implications are available from www.kitegroup.com.mt and from the Book Festival, which will be held between November 6 and 10.

Alessandra Dee Crespo is Chancellor of the Church Court of Appeal.

Article 2 of the Constitution 

(1) The religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion.

(2) The authorities of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.

(3) Religious teaching of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith shall be provided in all State schools as part of compulsory education.