Should Malta’s Catholic Church shut up on social issues? My answer is no. Before substantiating my opinion, I need to position myself on this matter. I am speaking as a sociologist, and there is no such thing as a sociologist without a standpoint. My political ideology is Green, situated somewhere within the spectrum of the liberal left.
I also believe that rights should be matched with responsibilities, and I agree with pragmatic democratic politics of deliberation, dialogue and compromise. I therefore distance myself from all-or-nothing absolutism and fundamentalisms of all stripes, shapes and colours.
I am not a religious person but I dislike anti-clericalism and I value the contribution of the Church in society. And if the Church is a protagonist in social life, it should have the right to put forward its views in the public sphere.
Indeed, I find it very strange that some free-speech-ultras (who paradoxically, have little to say about responsibilities) have a problem whenever the Church voices its opinion.
This has nothing to do with whether one agrees or disagrees with what the Vatican says. It has to do with the importance of mutual respect, a fundamental premise of liberal democracy.
On a global level, Pope Francis is not shying away from speaking about social issues. For example, he is doing this on war, inequality, migration and the environment. His moral authority had a huge impact on the COP21 agreement on climate change. And his charisma, humility and down-to-earth approach is helping him drive his message home.
Even when one disagrees with some of his positions, his style is very much within the remit of dialogue among friends, and not of imposition.
Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most influential sociologists in the world, said that Pope Francis is giving the “entire humanity a chance”, when he speaks up for the “outcasts of our globalised world”. In Bauman’s words: “Francis speaks to the spirituality of our times: followers of the ‘personal God’ are not particularly interested in the moral prescriptions given by representatives of religious institutions but want to find a meaning to their fragmented individual existences.”
The Church has a lot to contribute in the quest to match rights with responsibilities
Coming from a celebrated sociologist who believes that we are living in a ‘liquid’ world of precariousness, uncertainty and anxiety, and where we increasingly build our individualised identity kits through consumerism, these are very strong words.
How can this be applied to the Maltese context, where the Church seems to be losing its legitimacy and relevance especially among the younger generation?
To a certain extent, Malta’s Church was a co-author of its loss of influence when it frequently used authoritarian discourse that made people feel ‘bad’ for their choices and experiences in an increasingly complex life that cannot simply be designed through an all-embracing narrative.
Concurrently, the rise of an increasingly individualised society – with all its opportunities and risks – made the Catholic Church less attractive to many people, including practising Catholics, agnostics and non-believers.
Yet the same Maltese society of economic growth, progressive liberal rights and consumerism is also the same society where ‘morality’ has risen from the dead to gain currency in public discourse. Surveys are showing people’s concern with corruption and bad governance. In a society of increased rights, a vacuum has been created for the need to speak about responsibilities.
In this context, I strongly believe that the Church has a responsibility to speak up on issues ranging from environmental destruction, commodification of everything and fairness.
By this I do not mean that the Church should have a monopoly over morality. Responsibility, solidarity and respect are values are shared by different social actors. And diversity can exist within a framework of the common good.
What I mean is that having the Church remaining silent on the Panama Papers, the suffering of migrants and the destruction of the environment would be an abdication of responsibility especially when the social is at risk of increased erosion.
In sum, I believe that the Church has a lot to contribute in the quest to match rights with responsibilities. Together with other social and political forces, it can help enrich Malta’s democracy provided that it does not succumb to authoritarian antics, and provided that its opponents do not expect it to shut up.