Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna has told the Italian Catholic newspaper L’Avvenire that Maltese Members of Parliament who vote in favour of the Civil Unions Bill giving same-sex couples the right to enter into a civilly-recognised union, including the right to adopt, would be committing “a gravely immoral act”.
He prayed in aid of this statement a Vatican document of 2003 stating that Catholic politicians had a “moral duty to express their opposition clearly” to civil union laws.
He went on to say that the Pope had been “shocked” and “saddened” at discovering that Malta was about to recognise gay couples, a reaction which, if true, given events in Malta over the last 12 months, must cast doubt on whether the Papal Nuncio to Malta is doing his job in keeping the Vatican informed of what’s going on here.
The bishop’s belated intervention reminds me of that wonderful Second World War comedy sketch when the battle of Dunkirk had been lost and Britain’s chances of survival against the might of Hitler looked grim. The RAF Squadron Commander calls up one of “The Few” and says “Carruthers, things are not going well. We are about to lose the war. It is time to make a futile gesture. Get into your aircraft. Go and bomb Berlin. Don’t come back”.
I suspect that Monsignor Scicluna, following the earlier, more measured joint letter by the Archbishop and the Bishop of Gozo commenting on the Civil Unions Bill, must have felt that a braver response – a futile gesture – was needed to make the Church’s voice properly heard.
Rather like the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava he has succeeded admirably. But to what effect? In a liberal democracy, the arguments are, quite rightly, stacked against him.
There are three key points at issue. The first is the moral argument. To accept that what Mgr Scicluna said has any validity in the debate about same-sex unions, or any other moral debate for that matter, on the basis of the committal of “an immoral act” by those who would vote for the Bill in Parliament, the Church must also accept – as the clerical child sex abuse cases have shown – that it does not hold a monopoly on establishing the moral foundations in society, far less the right to condemn those with whom it disagrees.
If the bishop bases his argument on absolute moral values, he and the Church will inevitably be held to absolute moral standards. As he knows personally, the Church’s record on clerical abuse leads in an opposite direction – and to a justifiable charge of hypocrisy in this case.
In his first-ever encyclical letter as pope, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI defined very clearly that “The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics… A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church”.
Benedict did not state that one was committing an immoral act if the State reached a conclusion that justice in society required a different approach from the doctrine espoused by the Church.
On the contrary, there is an explicit acceptance that society and its representatives in Parliament could do so.
As Mario de Marco correctly highlighted,
“One could indeed argue whether it would be immoral to vote against [the Bill]”. Given the manifest and overdue improvements on grounds of social justice which the enactment of this law will bring, there are unarguable moral grounds for passing this legislation. It is an approach which MPs of both political parties implicitly recognised when they stood for election on manifestos pledging their government to introduce civil partnerships or civil unions. To argue, as the bishop did, that the two parties were simply pandering to the gay lobby for votes ill-becomes him.
Secondly, our legislators are elected to a secular Parliament with a duty to cater for the needs of society as a whole, recognising that minorities also have the right to the State’s support. Legislators cannot properly represent the heterogeneous society that Malta has become while being religiously sectarian. There are different faiths within the State, but there can only be one law.
Genuine social justice requires recognition by the State of the freedom and rights of all individuals and the right, which every individual has, to well-being under the law, without any form of discrimination.
All major religions, including the Catholic Church, accept that in a democracy Parliament’s decisions about what sort of behaviour should be lawful are not necessarily the same as what is considered morally right on a purely religious basis.
This is why sodomy and adultery in Malta are no longer criminal offences even though the Church forbids them.
Social justice demanded the introduction of divorce two years ago and, pace Mgr Scicluna, social justice cries out for civil unions today.
It is the duty of society and the State to weigh up the issues on the basis of the interests of the community as a whole, not simply on the basis of private religious beliefs. Yet, rather than allowing all citizens to be protected equally – no matter what their private religious beliefs – the bishop has felt minded to apply psychological pressure to our elected representatives in Parliament for considering – as they had pledged – the introduction of the legal remedy of civil unions, which is not only a long overdue civil right but also a force for the greater common good.
The third issue is the vexed matter of adoption of children by gay couples, which this new law will allow. The Convention on the Rights of the Child states: “In all actions concerning children... the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
Maltese law, based on European human rights case law, already allows single people to adopt. As Ranier Fsadni has so perceptively pointed out, adoptions by gay couples would simply result in making adopted children more secure.
The gold standard for deciding adoption should be the best interests of the child regardless of whether the persons doing the adopting are homosexual or heterosexual. All prospective adoptive parents should undergo the same process and be allowed to adopt if they show themselves to be suitable parents, without the hair-splitting legalistic distinctions the bishop is making on whether they are a couple or single, gay, bisexual or heterosexual.
In Malta, Appoġġ lays down that all adoption applications are treated equally “ensuring that the applicant(s) can provide an environment that ensures the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of the minor to be adopted”. The civil unions scheme should reflect the same approach and specific conditions.
Homosexuality is not a threatening social reality, but one to be accepted. Gay couples have the same capacity for love, caring companionship and parenthood as heterosexual couples. The civil unions legislation before Parliament, including the way it treats the issue of adoption, is a giant leap forward in righting years of injustice towards homosexuals in Maltese society.