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NEWS | Wednesday, 08 April 2009

Signs of the times

Has Malta become more secular in the past two decades? Recent surveys on a wide variety of topics appear to suggest a gradual decline in influence of the once dominant Catholic Church in Malta. But while secular issues such as divorce appear to be gaining ground, more controversial topics such as abortion and euthanasia remain taboo in an island where a wafer-thin majority still attends Sunday mass each week. By James Debono

Dwindling Church attendance
Perhaps the clearest indication of the gradual onset of secularism in Malta is the fact that Sunday mass attendance appears to be in steady decline.
In 2005, the Church’s institute for Research into the Sings of the Times (DISCERN) published the results of a census analysing Church attendance figures over the years. The results showed a considerable drop among in Maltese churchgoers, from 72.7% in 1982, down to 50.7% in 2005. In Gozo attendance is markedly higher, and the corresponding decline less pronounced: from a staggering 97% in 1982, to a respectable 81.3% in 2005.
The only earlier available statistic is for 1967, when the percentage for both Malta and Gozo stood at 81.9%.
On closer inspection, the survey results also indicate that women are likelier to remain faithful to the Church than men: a statistic which corresponds to similar findings in surveys all over Europe.
The survey results caused something a stir when they were first made public in 2005: not so much for the unmistakable drop in attendance figures, but for the rate of decline. In Malta, church attendance appears to be falling at a rate of 10% every 10 years... or 1% a year. It was therefore estimated that at the present rate, Maltese churchgoers may find themselves in a minority by 2015.
One clear indication of a slow movement towards secularisation is that opposition to divorce – whose absence makes Malta a world anomaly along with the Philippines – has progressively dwindled by 8% since 1995. But still, in five out of six surveys carried out in the past 14 years a majority opposed divorce.
The latest MaltaToday survey on this issue (October 2008) revealed a country almost equally split down the middle, with 50.2% opposed to its introduction and 46% supporting it. Yet a survey held by TV programme Xarabank a month later, showed for the very first time a wafer thin majority of 50.4% in favour of divorce.
Surveys show that younger people and males tend to favour divorce more than women and older people.
The MaltaToday survey showed that among 18 to 34-year-olds, 56% agree with divorce. But support for divorce drops to 50% among 34 to 55-year-olds and rises dramatically among those over 55, where only 27% agree with divorce. Significantly, the most vehemently opposed to divorce are women aged over 55. This could be an indication that this category feels that divorce legislation could make them vulnerable and erode their sense of security.
Labour voters are more likely to support the introduction of divorce. While 58% of Labour voters agree with divorce, only 35% of Nationalist voters think likewise. This was also the case in January 2007 before the pro-divorce Joseph Muscat was elected Labour leader.
The growing support for the introduction of divorce reflects concern on the growing number of separations. A MaltaToday survey in January 2007 revealed that two out of every 5 respondents (40 per cent) had a relative who experienced marital separation.

Gay marriages
A survey by MaltaToday on March 2007 survey showed that younger people have a completely different view when it comes to gay marriages. With 54% of respondents aged 34 and under favouring legislating gay marriages, over 82% of those aged over 55 oppose such a measure.
Overall, the MaltaToday survey showed only 29 per cent supporting the introduction of gay marriages, 11% more than a Euro-barometer survey held in 2006 which showed support for gay marriages at just 18%. Labour respondents are more favourable to gay marriages than Nationalist respondents. While 33 per cent of MLP voters favoured gay marriages, only 14% of PN voters have the same opinion. As in the case of divorce, Labour voters showed a more secular attitude.
Significantly 10% of respondents claimed that they have a relative living with a same sex partner.
Yet although the majority oppose gay marriages, a larger number of Maltese favour granting same-sex partners a number of rights normally enjoyed by married couples. For example nearly half favoured granting gay couples the right to inherit each other automatically in case one of them dies without leaving a will.
What surely remains a taboo is adoption by gay couples. Along with Poland, Malta registers the lowest level of support for gay adoptions in Europe. A Eurobarometer study published in September 2007 showed that while 69% of the Dutch agree that gay people should be allowed to adopt, the corresponding statistic for Malta drops to only 7%.

Surveys also reflected the national consensus on the need to honour the Nationalist Party’s decade-old pledge to recognise the rights and obligation of cohabiting couples. A MaltaToday survey held in January 2007 showed that 62% agree that cohabiting partners should inherit from each other automatically if one of them dies, as is the case with married couples.
An overwhelming 75% agree that cohabiting partners should have next-of-kin rights if one of the partners remains comatose following an accident.
The survey also showed that 40% of respondents had an unmarried relative who cohabits with an opposite sex partner.

Church-state distinction
The survey conducted by MaltaToday in October 2008 showed that a majority of Maltese makes a clear distinction between State and church. If a divorce bill were tabled in parliament, an absolute majority expects the vote to be taken according to the national interest, and not according to personal religious beliefs.
Although a wafer thin majority still opposed divorce at the time of the survey, a remarkable 60% also expected divorce to be introduced in the next 10 years.
The survey further revealed the existence of strong minorities, whose views on various moral issues contrast sharply with those of the church. For example, 41% agree with euthanasia in cases of terminally ill patients, while 20% justified abortion in cases of rape. In contrast to Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration that condoms could make the AIDS situation worse, 85% replied ‘yes’ when asked whether “education on the use of condoms and other contraceptives” should be provided in secondary schools. Only 8% opposed it.

Abortion taboo
Abortion remained a “no go area” for the vast majority of respondents in MaltaToday’s October 2008 survey. But a significant minority of respondents justifies abortion in a variety of specific cases. While 62% do not justify abortion under any circumstance, 32% think that abortion can be justified in different circumstances. This means that less than two thirds of the Maltese population supports a blanket ban on abortion. One in four respondents justifies abortion when the mother’s health is at risk, and one in every five justifies abortion when the pregnancy is a result of rape. One in every 10 justifies abortion when the foetus carries a disability and one in 20 favours abortion as a way of terminating an unwanted pregnancy. Surprisingly while 20% agree with abortion in cases of rape, only 18% favour abortion in cases where a woman gets pregnant as a result of incestuous relationships.

Paedophilia and the Church
An issue which has globally eroded public trust in the Roman Catholic Church was the involvement of priests in child abuse scandals.
A survey held by MaltaToday in April 2006 showed that 88% think that the Church should immediately report cases of sexual abuse involving the priesthood to the police. The Church does not report cases of priests investigated by its own response team to the police. Only 8.6% think that the Church should not report these cases to the police.

Gozo: a conservative bulwark
Benedict XVI would feel very much at home in Gozo. Unscathed by the winds of moral relativism blowing across the European continent, Gozo emerges as a nation of churchgoers, where divorce and gay marriages are still considered anathema.
While Malta as a whole is evenly split on the divorce issue, only 27% of Gozitans agreed with its introduction, a MaltaToday survey held in August 2007 revealed.
And while 29% of the Maltese favoured gay marriages, only 9.4% of Gozitans expressed this opinion.
Yet Gozo is not entirely immune from the winds of change. Among those under 34 years old, the percentage of respondents favouring the introduction of divorce rises to 36.2%. Support for same sex marriages among this category rises to 32%.


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