In a sense, the joint statement issued by the Bishops of Malta and Gozo last weekend – to the effect that cohabiting partners cannot receive Holy Communion – tells us more about the changing face of Maltese society than it does about the rules and regulations of the Catholic Church.
Faced with comments on Xarabank by a well-known and charismatic parish priest– who claimed that he himself would not withhold the sacrament of Holy Communion to partners living in relationships outside marriage – the Archbishop’s Curia evidently felt the need to set the record straight on this sensitive issue.
At a glance, however, it is singularly revealing that the Bishops would feel compelled to do so at all. After all, we are not dealing with a regulation that was suddenly and unexpectedly imposed on the faithful without warning. On the contrary, it has always been the case that persons living in such relationships are denied sacraments such as Communion. And yet it seems by the general reaction that very few people today (at least, among younger generations) appeared to be cognisant of this otherwise very simple aspect of Catholic life.
One suspects therefore that the apparently widespread ignorance of this age-old restriction has much to do with the relative rarity of such relationships in bygone years: a sweeping statement, agreed; but one which is nonetheless backed by a wealth of circumstantial evidence.
In fact, a quick comparison between today’s demographics and those of, for instance, the 1950s will promptly reveal how very drastically Maltese society has changed since then.
In an interview with our newspaper last Sunday, Martin Scicluna, director-general of the Today Public Policy Institute, pointed towards a staggering 160% increase in the number of people in broken marriages between the census of 1995 and that of 2005... as well as an increase from over 13,000 broken marriages in 2005, to the estimate by Discern (the Church’s own advisers on marriage issues) of 35,000 by 2015.
Clearly, then, we are dealing with a situation whereby the discipline of denying sacraments to cohabiting couples was all-but unheard of in decades gone by. But as time wore on and social patterns changed beyond recognition, the Church was prompted (ironically, by one of its own shepherds) to remind its adherents that its own basic rules and regulations have by way of contrast changed little, if at all, over the corresponding period.
Of course, it is tempting to write off this entire controversy as a purely internal matter for the Catholic Church alone. After all, only the seriously deluded would argue against the basic freedom of any religious institution (any institution at all, for that matter) to impose its own regulations on its members... provided that such regulations fall within the parameters of the law, and that the members themselves also enjoy the freedom to end their association with the institution in question.
So far, so good. But there is an another aspect to the entire issue that extends far beyond the remit of the Church itself. The Bishops will no doubt see things differently, but for those who argue in favour of a clearer distinction between Church and State, their own statement last Saturday provides one of the most potent arguments to date in favour of the introduction of divorce.
Naturally it would be facile to assume that all partners currently in relationships outside marriage (and therefore denied Holy Communion) hail from earlier, broken marriages. But again, statistics strongly suggest that a sizeable proportion of such couples are in fact not unwilling, but unable to marry – and thereby formalise their unions in the eyes of the State, if not in those of the Church – precisely because Maltese legislation does not permit remarriage in the event of a separation.
This alone may account for part of the outrage with which the Bishops’ statement was received in some quarters. It is as though the Church were heaping insult onto injury: leaving such couples with absolutely no option whatsoever when it comes to regularising their situation – not even that of renouncing their religion, for Malta’s ban on divorce (and therefore remarriage) is absolute, and not confined to any particular creed.
So by withholding sacraments from cohabiting partners, while the State (under heavy Church influence) also denies the possibility of divorce, the Church can be seen to have reduced a sizeable chunk of its own member base to pariah status.
Naturally, the introduction of divorce in itself would not change the state of play regarding the Church’s sacraments – these are after all within the Church’s domain, to administer as it deems fit. But it would certainly restore dignity and self-respect to an increasingly downtrodden underclass of Maltese society... not to mention re-establish social order where there is currently chaos.