It’s funny that as our society struggles to legalise IVF as a viable technique, the greatest reminder of the early 1960s are the medieval sermons of Mons. Mario Grech, who must surely yearn for the good old days when Bishop Michael Gonzi was supreme and no one ever dared to question the Church.
But one man did question the Church and helped make us question the Church.
His name was Dom Mintoff and just like all great leaders he had his faults and foibles, but his idea of a secular state that legislated according to the needs of its citizens and not the needs of the Church remains relevant up to this very day.
And I have always admired him for this!
It was no easy matter challenging Bishop Gonzi in the 1960s when people used to kneel and kiss his ring. When challenging a priest meant a padded cell at Mount Carmel Hospital. When families became destitute overnight as priests promised heaven to dying patriarchs, on condition that they left all their riches and properties to the Church. When only Nationalists could go to University; and when being a Labourite meant automatic excommunication and a burial in the Addolarata landfill.
Just look at what Dom Mintoff fought for in the 1960s:
· The right of any Citizen to a Civil Marriage.
· The rights of parents to decide whether their children should have religious instruction or not
· The right of every Citizen for a decent burial in a cemetery
· The right of the police to enter churches to stop interference being made to public meetings from church property
· Public morality will be based on norms practiced in Western Europe
· The right for free general elections without the imposition of mortal sin by the Church. Every Citizen including members of the Clergy, is equal in the eyes of the law
And he was crucified for these six points.
Unfortunately, the 1960s happened too long ago and that’s why the Nationalist Party likes to mention the 1980s. They may not have been Labour’s best years, but they were nothing compared to the 1960s. If there is a party that should really be ashamed of its past, it’s the Nationalist Party for fraternising with Fascists and using the Church’s vast resources to steal elections by demonising Labour supporters and making their already miserable lives worse. Such an event never really happened in our country’s political history. Never was a party disciplined by the Church for pushing secular reforms.
The right to a Civil Marriage
It had to be Mintoff to introduce this right in the early 1970s and divorce was enacted almost forty years later by a Nationalist Party that was forced by a more liberal Nationalist back-bencher who was pushed out of the party.
The rights of parents to decide whether their children should have religious instruction or not.
Even, today, half a century later, children of non-religious, atheistic or parents of different beliefs are discriminated by a system that still strongly favours the Catholic Religion. This is one of the six points that will have to wait for a New Constitution to be changed.
The right of every Citizen for a decent burial in a cemetery.
This point is so barbaric that it remains a big blot on the local Church’s turbulent history. A Church that supposedly bases its teachings and actions on those of Jesus Christ who sympathised with whores, pagans, sinners; treated its members like dirt, not because they weren’t Catholics (most Labourites were); but because they were Labourites.
The right of the police to enter churches to stop interference being made to public meetings from church property
Today, the Nationalist Party likes to project itself as the party that champions justice and freedom and are self-styled Professors of Democracy. Those who remember the sixties know that the Nationalist Party of that time never lifted a finger to stop the Church from acting in such an anti-democratic and oppressive manner against Labourites.
A Labourite meeting was met with the tolling of bells and the whistling of thousands of members of Il-Museum, L-Azzjoni Kattolika and so many other lay religious groups. If you were a Labourite and went for confession, the first thing the priest asked you was which newspaper you read. If it was a Labourite one, you did not get absolution!
The police who were controlled by the Nationalist Party were given instructions not to soil sacred ground by helping the sinners and so the bells kept tolling and Mintoff kept gathering the masses, many of whom were starting to ignore the Church’s edicts and becoming increasingly anti-clerical.
Public morality will be based on norms practiced in Western Europe.
Half a century before Eddie Fenech Adami dreamt of the European Union, Dom Mintoff was already clamouring for a secular state based on European norms. The Church had such an oppressive strangle hold on these norms that during confession, priests could freely ask a family man whether he was having sex to make children or whether he was using some form of contraception. If it was the latter, he was given a real talking to!
Priests could ask inappropriate questions on what sort of sex couples had, how many times they did it every week and why they only had a few children. Keep in mind that the sixties was a time of economic crises for Malta with many people begging in the streets and families broken up as the bread-winner was sent to England, Australia or Canada to find work. The standards of morality imposed on the Maltese during this time were similar to that imposed on women by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Mintoff wanted this to stop.
The right for free general elections without the imposition of mortal sin by the Church. Every Citizen including members of the Clergy is equal in the eyes of the law.
The way how during the last thirty years, the Maltese Church stopped interfering openly in politics is a reaction to the continuous interference by Bishop Gonzi in the fifties and the sixties, and the terrible fall-out against the Catholic Church that resulted.
Although the current Church still remains staunchly Nationalist as shown by its Labour antagonistic media, Nationalist priests such as Peter Serracino Inglott and Joe Borg who have (or had) a huge influence on the Nationalist Party; during the sixties, the Nationalist Party and the Church were practically one; and this was the main reason why Dom Mintoff lost the 1960s elections.
Although the Nationalist Party likes to claim that democracy was threatened in the 1980s, it never mentions the fact that democracy was absent in the 1960s because the Labour Party couldn’t be elected due to the imposition of mortal sin by the Church totally backed by the Nationalist Party.
Mintoff may not have been perfect, but no one can question the fact that he was a reformer and a friend of the weak and poor.
Still, his greatest achievement remains the way he was able to show that a country can advance if it adopts secular principles; and the fact that the Nationalist Party never continued his work, is the reason why the Catholic Church in Malta still wants to dictate whether civil rights such as divorce and gay marriage are legalised.
The reason why the Maltese people legislated in favour of Divorce is a direct result of Mintoff’s struggle to have a secular Malta and free our minds from the tentacles of superstition and ignorance.
For this I want to thank him and hope he is finally resting in peace.