Catholic Malta legalises gay marriage – how did it happen?

A view of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral rising over Valletta in Malta (PA)

The Maltese Church needs to re-examine how it deals with change and political challenges

The news that Malta has legalised gay marriage – an event that coincidentally took place while I was visiting the island – has been interpreted by some as a sign of the collapse of Maltese Catholicism. But things are not a simple as that.

It is absolutely true that the Maltese bishops opposed the change; however, not for the first time, the bishops found themselves on the losing side. Back in 2011, they opposed the introduction of divorce, which was passed, though by a relatively narrow margin. But those with longer memories may well remember that the Church also opposed integration with Britain back in 1956, though that passed with a huge majority.

In addition, the Church had fallings out with the then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff as well as an earlier Prime Minister, Lord Strickland. The condemnations from the pulpits of both Strickland and Mintoff were largely counterproductive, and seem almost quaint by today’s standards. While the British colonial authorities treated the Catholic Church with the greatest respect, recognising it as a power in the land that had to be kept onside, this does not mean to say that the Church’s role in politics was ever as decisive as the British, or even perhaps the Church, might have liked to imagine.

Indeed, those who see the Church as a political power, or who see a Catholic country as a political monolith, or simply, as the Independent would have it, “conservative”, are perhaps betraying a lack of understanding of how Catholicism works.

The recent legalisation of gay marriage should be seen in the context of the political duel between the ruling Labour Party and the Nationalist Party opposition. Labour, before the recent election, made a manifesto pledge on gay marriage, and the Nationalists did the same, walking into as trap set…

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