Conscience & Legislation: Sanity From the Catholic Church in Malta.

In the US and Mexico, some bishops are working themselves into a froth over the possible introduction of legal recognition for same-sex unions. In the Philippines, the issue that has them excited. In Malta, it is the possibility of legal divorce. Unlike the other two regions, though, the Maltese church has allowed some sanity into the official discourse, recognizing the possibility of an informed conscience reaching a conclusion that differs from Church teaching, and so acknowledging that parliamentarians could in principle vote in favour of divorce legislation.


The Awakening Conscience, (Holman Hunt)

Divorce is a thorny subject in Malta, which remains one of the few secular democracies without legal provision for it. Nevertheless the number of separations of married couples has been on the increase for years. As long ago as 2002, an Ipoll survey found that 78% of respondents agreed that Malta should introduce divorce legislation – yet another case where what Catholics in fact believe differs sharply from  what the Church tells them to believe. The topic is once again being raised politically, and characteristically, some churchmen were quick to denounce the prospect as contrary to Church teaching, insisting that to vote for divorce would be a grave sin.

“Whoever cooperates in any way in the introduction of divorce, even those who apply the law, would be breaking God’s law and so would be committing a grave sin.” (Judicial Vicar Mgr Arthur Said Pullicino)

Where the family is united, pregnancy is likely to be accepted and celebrated but where the family is broken, such as in the case of divorced parents, there is a higher probability that life is refused and threatened.” (Gozo Bishop Mario Grech)

This is the all -too familiar, knee-jerk reaction from Catholic spokesman who would like to see the Catechism replace the statute book in matters of sexual ethics. However, a group of level-headed priests and theologians then entered the discussion, recognizing that the Catholicism is strongly opposed to divorce – but also recognizes freedom of conscience. They also drew a distinction between a Church which has a right to make its voice heard, and one which seeks to impose its view on Catholic politicians:

The common position does not endorse divorce. However, the priests argue the importance that individuals form their conscience in the light of Church teachings and the common good before deciding on divorce according to conscience.

The paper is a personal initiative of the priests even though some of them occupy prominent roles within the Church hierarchy.

(Times of Malta)

This position paper, which directly contradicts the earlier warnings of “grave sin” by Bishop Grech, has since been endorsed by the Archbishop.

When asked for the Church’s position on the paper, a spokesman for the Curia said: “The Archbishop endorses the statement released this morning by a group of priests that signed the mentioned statement. I believe that this answers your questions.”

The paper vindicates the position of Fr Peter Serracino Inglott and theologians like Fr Emmanuel Agius and Fr Charlò Camilleri, who objected to threats of sin made by some of the Church’s higher authorities.

In fact, it goes contrary to the statement made by Judicial Vicar Mgr Arthur Said Pullicino who told the judiciary in a homily that anyone who cooperated with the introduction of divorce, including judges and lawyers who participated in cases, would be “committing a grave sin”.

This is an important reminder of the primacy of conscience. While it is essential that conscience be properly formed, and should not simply be used as an excuse to follow one’s own inclination or to avoid that which is difficult or unpalatable, we must recognize that at times conscience will lead us to a conclusion which is in conflict with orthodox Church teaching. At such times, the doctrine on conscience goes way beyond simply allowing us the right to act in a manner contrary to the doctrine: rather, it commands that we have an obligation to follow conscience, not doctrine – even if the conclusion is, viewed objectively, mistaken!  This is the crucial clause of the position paper (my emphasis):

Therefore, after trying seriously to form one’s conscience according to God’s Word and the teaching of the Church and trying sincerely to discover the whole truth and what really leads to the common good, a Catholic:

a) may either reach a right decision or may also in all sincerity reach a decision which, in itself, is mistaken. But whatever the case, one is always obliged to follow and decide according to one’s conscience,

Here is the full text of this statement of sanity. Catholics in other parts of the world would do well to consider the impact of replacing the words “divorce” with “gay marriage”, or “gay adoption”,  or “contraception”, or……

Take your pick.


Declaration about Conscience and Divorce

We, the undersigned, have all written about the introduction of divorce in Malta. Sometimes, we may have seemed to contradict each other. So we decided to meet and clarify together our ideas on conscience and divorce and on what stand Christians could take regarding the proposed legislation favouring the introduction of divorce.

We all agreed on the following points:

1. All citizens, Catholic or not, if asked to give their judgement whether they wish or not the introduction of such a law in favour of divorce have the right and duty to follow their own conscience which needs, however, to be well informed and well formed, keeping in mind the common good.

2. Catholics should strive to have a Christian outlook on the family and on marriage and, according to the teaching of Christ and the Church, witness to this in all circumstances and to strive to see it practised in all structures of society.

3. Both as citizens as well as Catholics they should work hard so that in their country there should be stable and lasting marriages, strong families bound by love and fidelity because this is of great benefit to society at large.

4. For us, Catholics, divorce is wrong whether it is permitted by civil law or not.

5. The decision of every Catholic concerning legislation in favour of divorce in order for it to be a good and responsible decision must be reached with a formed conscience and enlightened by the teaching of Christ who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

6. The Catholic, who not caring about having an informed and formed conscience, decides to follow one’s whim, without seriously paying attention to the teaching of God’s Word and of the Church, but only follows one’s feelings, one’s own thoughts or personal advantage, if not also one’s prejudices, should realise that one is not doing one’s duty as a Catholic. One is responsible for such action before God and may possibly be sinning

7. In order that as Catholics we reach a good moral judgement whether we want or do not want the introduction of divorce law we must in a responsible manner form our conscience and then decide according to this conscience.

Therefore, after trying seriously to form one’s conscience according to God’s Word and the teaching of the Church and trying sincerely to discover the whole truth and what really leads to the common good, a Catholic:

a) may either reach a right decision or may also in all sincerity reach a decision which, in itself, is mistaken. But whatever the case, one is always obliged to follow and decide according to one’s conscience,

b) may still, in spite of having all the necessary knowledge and having done everything to find the whole truth, in conscience not see why to vote against legislation favouring divorce. This one too has the right and the duty to follow what one’s conscience tells one.

c) may also see that in this matter one is faced by the choice between two situations which both in themselves are harmful to the common good. It is legitimate, in this case of conflict, for one to choose the lesser evil after prayer, reflection and sincere search for the whole truth.

8. This declaration should calm all those who are worried that among us there might be differences regarding the teaching of the Church. This declaration is meant to throw light on the moral responsibility of every Maltese regarding their conscience and regarding the common good of society when they have to take a position about a possible proposal to legalise divorce in our country.

Rev Prof Emmanuel Agius, Dean of the Faculty of Theology.

Fr Joe Borg.

Fr Charlo’ Camilleri, O.Carm. Lecturer at the Faculty of Theology.

Mons Anton Gouder, Pro Vicar General.

Fr Alfred Micallef s.j.

Fr Joe Mizzi, Director of the Cana Movement.

Rev Prof Peter Serracino Inglott

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