David Friggieri | Sunday, 19 April 2009
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Give the Church a break!

I sympathise with Mgr Anton Gouder who told the editor of The Sunday Times that the Church has become a soft target. Going one step further, I would add that the Church is the entirely wrong target for the Hardtalk-style questions posed by the formerly ultra-conservative newspaper.
For starters, what exactly do we expect the representatives of the Church in Malta to say when faced, say, with a controversial statement made by the Pope on condoms? What exactly is the purpose of such questions? I suspect that the interviewer is more interested in asking the question than actually receiving an answer. Or to put in differently, while the interviewer is quite sure what the answer will be – these things hardly change overnight – he is concerned about the impact that the tough question will have on people’s perception of the newspaper itself. This is the newspaper’s prerogative, of course, but I think it is worth pointing it out nonetheless.
Here’s a prime example of a question in the same interview which was aimed at the wrong target. Is the Church applying pressure in any way behind the scenes on the question of divorce? Mgr Gouder was asked. To which he replied, intelligently and elusively, that he wasn’t aware that any pressure was being brought to bear. Again, to borrow a Maltese expression, x’ridtu jghidlek?
If the Church is the wrong target and if the questions aren’t entirely banal, it isn’t too difficult to work out that the proper targets for these questions are the political parties and, in particular, the party which, come next election, will have been in government for a quarter of a century.
It would be interesting to know, for instance, what the ruling party’s leaders think about the separation between Church and State; whether it is correct to assume, on behalf of an entire people, that the most important manifestations of the nation’s unity were three religious ceremonies and, indeed, to what extent Church teachings on a host of issues determine government policy.
Rather than a divorce debate (prematurely aborted it seems), Malta needs to have a serious institutional debate about what type of nation it would like to be. We have seen, time and time again, that issues like divorce have a tendency to explode like a loud firework, only to fizzle out a few weeks later. We then wait for the next debate (condom dispensers at University, Gift of Life’s badgering of an MEP candidate, the arraignment of that guy in Nadur) to give us something to get hot under the collar about.
The Church, I think, is doing a wonderful job on many counts, not least on the aesthetic one. I was in Malta over the Easter holidays and enjoyed attending Mass at St. John’s and following the Good Friday procession in Zebbug and L-Irxoxt on an incredibly windy morning in Naxxar. I was moved by all three ceremonies – for the community spirit which still exists in our towns and villages, for the genuine emotions written on people’s faces and for the purely aesthetic pleasure which these old traditions create. One sincerely hopes that the Church will be wise enough to ignore all those kill-joys who call for the sobering up of our religious feasts in the name of some imaginary ‘true spirituality’. The half-hearted processions which occasionally pass through the streets of Brussels pale into depressing insignificance compared to the vibrancy and communal feeling which Malta’s feasts provide.
None of this need be lost or compromised by a serious discussion about the relationship between Church and State in Malta in AD 2009. And the right targets for those tricky questions aren’t our Monsinjuri but our Onorevoli. In fact, since this question is a quintessentially European one, it would be intriguing to know what our MEP hopefuls think about the matter. Wasn’t Europe meant to be about more than cash, technicalities and VAT on second hand cars?

David spent his Easter holidays in Malta. The highlights included L-Irxoxt in Naxxar, the excellent sea-food at Zeri’s and tapas at Leglegin. Back in Brussels, in a futile attempt to stave off the saudade, Brikkuni’s masterpiece of an album has been playing non-stop on his hi-fi.


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