There’s no better time to dwell on religion in Malta than in the lead up to Christmas when Christian iconography is everywhere. OK, what topics are we supposed to avoid at polite dinner parties – religion and politics? Well, first up this piece isn’t about a particular point of view; it’s meant more as a round-up of some facts about Malta’s dominant religion Roman Catholicism, and some of the more recent issues that have surfaced regarding church, state, and public sentiment on religion. It should provide some insight for anyone thinking of moving here, whatever religious background, if any, they have. It is meant to set the scene. We’ll be doing an article on places of worship for other religions soon. Meanwhile, here goes…
Setting the Scene
In Mdina yesterday on a family walkaround, my seven-year-old son noticed a large crib on display outside the Natural History Museum, just near the city gate. I barely gave it a glance, while he inspected it closely. “Mummy, baby Jesus is missing!” he exclaimed. Yes, there were Mary and Joseph glancing lovingly down at an empty nest. I jokingly thought perhaps someone had stolen it (apparently, that happened to some town cribs last Christmas, I’ve since learned). “No Mummy”, he said, “King Herod’s had him killed.”
This rather gruesome thread to the nativity story is not something that featured in my religious teaching at school (Church of England) until I was probably a bit older. It’s called ‘age appropriateness’. But my son, born and brought up here, has known about King Herod’s edict since age three, and his nursery school years. It did upset him then.
Similarly, the children (aged then 6 and 9 yrs) of a close UK friend of mine were very perturbed by some graphic statuary in the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu when we went round the museum. You forget, if you are living here, how common place Roman Catholic religious symbolism is – statues, bleeding heart paintings, crucifixes and so on. It’s up close and personal from the moment a child is born.
And these symbols feature very prominently in even the most secular of moments. I attended a parents’ information morning at my son’s school, which started with a teacher saying a prayer and crossing herself while those congregated joined in. I asked her not to at the next session – quite frankly, I couldn’t see why religion was needed on this secular occasion. I was, it has to be said, the only one who objected.
This episode somewhat mirrors those that led to the recent European Court of Human Rights ruling that Italy should remove crucifixes from classrooms. The court said the practice violated the right of parents to educate their children as they saw fit, and ran counter to the child’s right to freedom of religion. The case was brought by an Italian mother, Soile Lautsi, who wants to give her children a secular education. Needless to say, this incident in neighbouring Italy, and a recent move by Spain to follow suit in removing crucifixes has been keenly followed and debated here in Malta.
Before I go further with some examples of the debates, let’s look at some facts, as well as they can be documented:
The Constitution of Malta & Roman Catholicism
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, but establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion.
Facts & Figures
According to some latest sources, Freedom House and the World Factbook, some 98 percent of the Maltese adhere to Roman Catholicism, making the Islands one of the most Catholic countries in the world. Around a quarter of practicising Roman Catholics in Malta actively belong to a church group, initiative or organisation. According to the most recent Eurobarometer Poll (2005), 95 per cent of Maltese citizens responded that “they believe there is a God” (which was the first highest result in the European Union); three per cent answered that “they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force”; while just two per cent answered that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force”.
Around two per cent of the population is not Roman Catholic, and comprises mainly small communities of Muslims and Jews, as well as various Protestant communities whose numbers are swelled by British retirees and new expats. There are the declared atheists, who are communing with like-minded folk more openly these days – see the Atheist Group Malta on Facebook.
Roman Catholicism & Public Schools
Religious instruction in Roman Catholicism is part of the curriculum, athough not compulsory and students may opt not to participate in religious lessons. Be aware though that the school calendar is hugely dominated by Catholic religious events and festivals, and the school priests seem to hold mass regularly for all children who have had their First Communion.
Divorce & Abortion
Malta is the only country in Europe that does not permit divorce. Performing abortion on Maltese territory is also illegal. As the Republic of Ireland is being challenged at the European Court of Human Rights for the first time in 15 years on its legal ban on abortion, it seems only time before a similar case will be brought against Malta. There have been attempts to find loopholes in Malta’s abortion laws, by claiming outer territorial waters to be outside this law, as in the case of the Women on Waves’ so called ‘abortion ship’.
Other recent religious issues & debates
Censorship & Religion
Earlier this year some young people dressed up as nuns at Nadur carnival in Gozo, as well as one dressed up as Jesus. They were taken to court for violating a ban on villifying the Catholic Religion. Common sense prevailed in this case, but only because, luckily, the young people were not wearing crucifixes or garments that could be construed as sacred or holy. It was in the end just considered ‘bad taste’. The case can be read about here or the judgement viewed here. But it has now spawned an interesting Facebook group,with considerable following, calling on a whole lot more people to go dressed as Jesus at next year’s carnival without fear of retribution.
Gaming Industry & Malta’s Morals
There is some irony in the fact that traditional Roman Catholic Malta has shot to the fore as an online gaming industry base. This has not been overlooked by various local bishops, and others who speak out to uphold the nation’s morals. While the companies can not serve online gamers locally, some people here are worried about its overall influence and its presence on the islands, but it does drive a swathe of the economy. Read more on this here.
All Religions Equal under the Law
With Pope Benedict’s impending visit to Malta next April, there have been numerous international calls from religions such as Hinduism and Judaism for him to urge Malta to treat all religions and denominations equally under its laws. Malta’s Criminal Code reportedly makes one liable to imprisonment up to six months for publicly vilifying “Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion”, while committing such act against “any cult tolerated by law” makes one liable to imprisonment for up to three months. Read more here.