It is an undeniable fact that Maltese society has radically changed during the last two decades. The internet, European Union membership, relatively cheap travel and mass tourism, an influx of foreign workers, etc., have all contributed towards this change. One of the most important changes has been a great increase in secularisation, with the Catholic Church’s very strong influence on how the majority of people think and act, now being something of the past.
Indeed, the Catholic Church’s role in Malta today is purely a spiritual one, although it still gives advice on social matters to guide its religious believers. It is also obvious that church attendance has considerably declined over the years and the number of practising Catholics in Malta likewise. Also, the substantial number of foreigners now living in the Maltese Islands has meant that religions other than the Catholic one have flourished.
Furthermore, all Maltese governments today act on the basis of the separation of church and state. The Archbishop of Malta has no influence over government decisions and is not consulted beforehand about them. He is absolutely free to comment about them and even to publicly criticise them if he so wishes but that is the limit of his involvement in state matters. Of course, the Archbishop is always willing to help should his contribution be needed in matters of national interest. Moreover, relations between the present Maltese Government and the Catholic Church are very good.
All these changes have brought about a situation where public discourse today is based on total freedom of expression. As such, we are now witnessing public debates about topics which were absolutely taboo several years ago, e.g. abortion, euthanasia. We are also seeing the creation of new pressure groups lobbying in favour of their particular position on issues of public contention, reinforced by very able public speakers and article writers. Unfortunately, this has sometimes led to situations where people who are vociferous supporters of one particular view or the opposite one have shown signs of intolerance towards those who do not agree with them.
This, of course, begs the question: can secularism and religion co-exist in today’s Maltese society? – I believe that the answer is a definite “yes”. To be absolutely fair, let me start by stating that I am a practising Catholic and that, for example, I am against abortion even in such special circumstances as, for instance, cases of rape. That being said, I would also like to state that I respect those who do not agree with what I believe. I definitely do not regard myself as superior to others with opposing views to mine, totally shunning a sense of superiority based on my moral position on such issues. Neither do I condemn anybody for one’s particular opinion on a contentious issue, as who am I to judge others?
In my opinion, tolerance of different opinions from one’s own is precisely where we face a major problem in Malta. As an opinionist, I read practically most of what is published on various topics. One thing I cannot fail to note is the strong and derogatory language used by many champions of the opposing views on controversial issues affecting one’s secular outlook on life or one’s religious beliefs. For example, I find it very unfair that some people who are highly critical of the Catholic Church and its beliefs denigrate Catholics as “conservatives” and do their utmost to portray them as reactionaries, almost as if they have cobwebs coming out of their nose and ears.
One thing I cannot fail to note is the strong and derogatory language used by many champions of the opposing views on controversial issues affecting one’s secular outlook on life or one’s religious beliefs.
On the other hand, some Catholics err when they attack those who do not follow the Catholic Church’s teaching, using fire and brimstone language and imagery. They forget that when Christ was asked to condemn the adulteress, he did not throw the first stone, instead using love and compassion to guide her towards a better and more meaningful life. My main point is that you should show respect and tolerance towards those who do not agree with your views. Unfortunately, in Malta, despite all the progress we have achieved during the last few years, this is an area where we are still found patently lacking as a people.
We have to keep in mind that the dark days of the politico-religious dispute of the 1960s are, thankfully, long past. Why did that particular dispute, the epitome of a clash between secularism and religion, last so long? – Because both opposing sides were so entrenched in their positions that debate with the opposing side was next to impossible, indeed unthinkable. Of course, times were different and we cannot judge the past with the benefit of hindsight. During the politico-religious dispute, ideas, customs, social and religious development, etc., were those of the 1960s, not of today. It was a different Malta that has totally vanished.
However, we must learn from the mistakes of the past if we are not to be condemned to repeat them. The crux of the argument is that dialogue should be the order of the day. When secularists dialogue with religious believers in an atmosphere of mutual respect, it does not mean that one has to surrender one’s own position on a particular issue. It simply means trying to understand what the person holding an opposing view is saying and what motivates that person’s opinion. It means being ready to agree to disagree while also fully understanding the opposing view as explained by the person holding that particular view.
We are now living in a globalised world and a cosmopolitan Malta. We cannot continue to progress unless we learn to accept and tolerate different ideas, opinions, customs, beliefs, etc. This is the world we live in today where we have to adapt to rapid changes every single day. Both secularism and religion are part of this reality and people who hold opposing views have to learn to live with each other in tranquillity and peace.
We owe it to our children and to all future generations.