Michael Falzon | Sunday, 15 March 2009

Things visible and invisible

The recently announced decision about the withdrawal of the project for an underground car-park in St George’s Square, Valletta, because of the ‘discovery’ of tunnels under the square, is a reflection of the amateurism that has taken hold of the present administration. But not just that!
Valletta owes its origin to a decision to build a fortified city in a strategic position between two natural harbours. It was never a settlement that grew and developed into a city. As such it was planned carefully with such plans including a sophisticated and state-of-the-art (for the time) underground sewerage and rainwater collection systems that predated the famous underground Parisian sewer and water supply networks. Incidentally, in Paris the sewers now even have their own museum. Before that, not so long ago, the Paris sewers also carried tourists: initially by carts suspended along the tunnel walls, and even – until the 1970s – in boats.
That there is a whole underground network also including passages and water reservoirs in Valletta was a well-known fact. Or so I thought, until the recently announced ‘discovery’! The mind boggles at the ineptitude. In any case, the idea that ‘underground Valletta’ could become a tourist attraction should not be dismissed without further study – serious studies by professionals not by amateurs who confuse their learning process with ‘discovery’.
With the recent withdrawals of the proposed underground extension of the St John’s Co-Cathedral museum and the underground parking area in St George’s Square, Valletta seems to have become the only city in the world where nothing underground can be proposed! Paris might have its metro and its underground extension of the Louvre, but Valletta wants to guard jealousy whatever there is underneath it. So long as it is left there undisturbed, there is no problem… What cannot be seen is mysterious and should not be touched!
To me there seems to be a parallel between this fascination with what there is under Valletta with the national psyche about the importance of what goes unseen – behind closed doors or even below ground. I find the way every decision is looked upon with suspicion – because ‘there must be something else’ behind it – is as intriguing as the obsession about what there is, or must be, beneath Valletta.
The Maltese are a suspicious lot and nothing is taken at face value. It is not ‘unnatural’ for one to assume that behind every official decision there must be the ‘real’ reason – whether this is the introduction of more speed cameras, or the engagement of a world famous architect, Renzo Piano, to design the City entrance area. Searching for this ‘real’ reason leads to some conspiracy theories, which are so popular in this rumour-infested island.
Of course, conspiracy theories about what cannot be seen but one can only imagine are always saucier than the mundane truth. According to one conspiracy theory of days gone by, there is a secret passage from under Castille that was available for Mintoff, just in case circumstances were such that he had to flee… and that is why, the theory went, he chose Castille as the Prime Minister’s office!
Besides the secret passages, real or imagined, that lie under Valletta, another national obsession is that Malta has plentiful oil reserves under its territory, or at least its territorial waters. As none has been yet found, a conspiracy theory had to be hatched. According to this theory, some people in high places are in the pay of another country that stands to lose if oil is discovered in Maltese territory.
This is, of course, utter balderdash. More so as the mathematics and the geology would not make sense… but the story fits nicely as an explanation why Malta has never struck oil. The visible might be interesting but nothing beats the mysterious invisible!

Perhaps the people running our health services will soon emulate the ‘discovery’ of underground chambers in Valletta by the ‘discovery’ about where babies come from. Will they then withdraw the plans to regulate IVF? Seriously, why is it taking so long for a decision on these regulations and putting them in place?
Last week the dean of the Faculty of Theology, no less, speaking to the Social Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, accused the government of dragging its feet on this issue… and also insisted that Malta should go along with Vatican recommendations on reproductive technology!
But, as Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Mercieca wrote in The Times last Wednesday, IVF is not acceptable to the Church. According to the Archbishop, the human values of sexuality “demand that the procreation of the human being must be realised as the fruit of the specific conjugal union of love between the married couple. It is an act that concerns the totality and the reciprocity of the married. It is in such an interpersonal relationship that the existence of a new life can realise itself in a decent manner.”
I wonder where that puts pregnancies resulting from rape or even from casual sex, to say nothing of arranged marriages that are completely void of love and which the Church abetted – or used to give quite a helping hand – in the past. Would such a new life, realised in an ‘indecent manner’, be less sacred and evoke less human dignity?
The Archbishop’s statement ignores the historical fact that the notion that couples marry ‘for love’ is relatively recent and that even the Church itself predates it.
Moreover, since the Church teaches that the primary aim of marriage is the procreation of children, I have serious misgivings about the perception that couples who seek the help of science and use IVF technology in order to reach the declared aim of their marital union would, in fact, be implicitly breaching the Ten Commandments – otherwise described as falling in sin.
Whatever the answers to these questions, the Church has every right to take a stance and defend it… and couples who cannot otherwise have children have every right to ignore the Church and resort to methods of procreation that have been made possible by science.
What I cannot understand, however, is how the Church expects the state to take its advice on regulating IVF, when it insists that IVF is unacceptable in any case.
It does seem to me that the Church wants to have the cake and eat it.


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