Editorial | Sunday, 04 April 2010

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Serving God and Mammon

Our front-page revelation today should serve as a stark eye-opener to all those who are complacent in their convictions about religion and its centrality to the Maltese national identity.
As was perhaps predictable, an overwhelming majority (92%) of respondents to our survey identified themselves as adherents of the Roman Catholic and Apostolic Faith: of which Malta also claims an ‘unbroken’ tradition lasting almost 2,000 years.
Of that statistic again, a staggering 89% further describe themselves as ‘practising Catholics’: i.e., they attend Mass at least once a week. On paper, this would make Malta the single most Catholic nation on Earth after the Vatican City in Rome. But such a superficial reading of the statistics would be grossly misleading.
Under scrutiny, what emerges from our survey is less of a homogenously shared belief-system and common cultural traditions, than a vast grey area concerning the precise details of what it actually means to be ‘Roman Catholic’. Astonishingly, it transpires that substantial majorities of Malta’s ‘practising Catholics’ do not actually practise any of the better-known Catholic disciplines at all. Almost 70% openly disagree with Church teaching on family planning and artificial contraception. A smaller but equally absolute majority (54%) agree with the introduction of divorce – fiercely opposed by Church authorities on both social and theological grounds.
But it is on the subject of theology itself that the discrepancy becomes most evident. It is clear from the statistics that – despite considerable emphasis placed on religious studies by many schools, and the Church’s own insistence on a strict regime of Catechism lessons – many Maltese Catholic have grown up without a very clear concept of their religion’s most basic doctrines and dogmas. For instance, a quarter of Maltese Catholics do not believe in Hell, and almost exactly one half reject the official Church doctrine of Purgatory. And yet – perhaps to balance the scales – a sizeable minority still believes in Limbo (an article of faith the Church itself has since relegated to the sidelines, though few seem to have noticed locally).
Perhaps most incongruous of all is the reported 16% of youths (7% of total) who are comfortable calling themselves Catholics, despite the fact that they do not actually believe in any form of afterlife at all. This is bizarre; indeed, almost surreal. It is after all difficult to reconcile two more mutually incompatible belief-systems than, on the one hand, Christianity (with its central message of the Resurrection of Christ); and on the other, a belief in the finality of death and the non-existence of the immortal soul.
And yet, these respondents appear to be oblivious to the glaring contradiction. Like other categories of ‘lukewarm’ Catholics – those who do not share their Church’s views on condoms, divorce or Papal infallibility – these non-believing believers are quite happy to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds (or, to us a more Biblical equivalent, to serve both God and Mammon) against the explicit commandment of Christ himself.
For all this, the most interesting revelation is the preponderance of people – religious or otherwise – who reacted negatively to the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights against displaying crucifixes in public places.
This is especially significant, as more than any other statistic it is concerned directly with the external trappings of religion, as opposed to the inner significance of the faith itself. Crucifixes in public buildings represent an emblematic affirmation of faith as a means of social and cultural identification – along almost exactly the same lines as a national flag denotes both citizenship and also patriotic allegiance to a particular country.
It is therefore unsurprising that a population that is religious only in name would identify with its religion’s outer symbols far more than with the religion’s core beliefs and principles. Clearly, when we talk of Malta as a ‘Catholic nation’, the phenomenon we are referring to is that its people like the idea of belonging to the Catholic faith, and not necessarily the articles of faith that come with the territory.
This in turn is not altogether surprising: in the absence of any other unifying political force, religion has for centuries given the country its only source of unity and stability, as well as delineating the all-important difference between what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in society.
Much can be gleaned from this observation, especially when one also considers that the same country is now debating legislation on a wide variety of fronts – divorce, cohabitation, bioethics, etc. – that seems to directly challenge the authority of the Catholic Church, as well as Malta’s previously intermingled Church-State relations.
Clearly, now more than ever is a good time to reappraise our understanding of the country’s on-and-off relationship with Catholicism, and to restore unto Caesar that which God has somehow appropriated as His own.

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