Malta seems to be tailor-made for those who, like me, can’t help wondering if and how one can remain fully Catholic in this era of globalisation. Malta is the last European country, perhaps together with Poland, where Catholicism remains a significant part of its national identity. Article 2 of its constitution states: “The religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion.” At the same time, Malta is enjoying an economic boom that is suddenly planting the seeds of globalisation.
Will the country find the way forward for Catholicism in the 21st century, or will it be caught between two stools like other majority Catholic nations before it? The president of the republic of Malta is Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, a politician from the ranks of its Labour Party who has never concealed her Catholic faith. I had the opportunity to meet her and discuss this topic with her.
Your Excellency, first of all what does it mean to be a Catholic who has the responsibility to play such an important role?
Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca Most importantly, being openly Catholic while also being the head of state in a country with a great diversity of religious traditions, and people who observe no religion at all, is the importance of respect. Just as the true message of Christianity is of human freedom, to say “yes” and to cooperate with God’s plan in our lives, so too must a respectful leader stand firmly in truth, but never seek to impose it by force or coercion.
We must always respect one another. Highlighting proactive measures to address a growing lack of respect has become a major part of my work as President of Malta.
What are the Catholic values and figures that you’re most connected to?
M-L CP I feel very closely connected to the lives and missions of St Francis, and to our Pope, Francis. Both share a common commitment to serve others, and I believe that all politicians, policy-makers and community leaders must have this basic desire to be of service to others.
Can one be a Catholic and live without an identity problem in the contemporary world? What are the common values of Catholic tradition and contemporary globalist thinking?
M-L CP I believe that we are living through a complex period in the history of our world. We have an opportunity to reassess our identities, not only in terms of our traditions and practices of faith, but also what we mean when we talk about belonging to a “nation”, or forming part of a “European Union”. Britain’s decision to leave the Union, for example, has sent a worrying message about fragmentation and division which, I feel, has a parallel in the fragmentation we see among different denominations of Christians. What we need most of all, however, is unity. We must work together, in solidarity, acknowledging that we are one human family, no matter our faith tradition or culture.
Is Catholicism a content or a container? Do you think that in Malta there will be room in the future for a Catholic society, or will Catholicism be just one of the many contents inside a container constructed by other cultures?
M-L CP Catholicism is a deep-rooted component of our Maltese identity. It will always be a special part of our national heritage, in some beautiful ways and also in some difficult ways. I believe that when we have a precious treasure, which we surely do in the cultural heritage of our Maltese Church, then it is only increased when we share it with others. We should never be afraid to share what is best about our faith and our culture, encouraging others to do the same in a spirit of friendship.
Do you see a specific Catholic way for globalisation?
M-L CP I think that Catholicism gives us a reference point from which to continue removing the walls that have separated us, as peoples and nations, for too long. Instead, we should be building bridges and renewing old relationships between our communities, while also forming new friendships with cultures and groups that may, at first, seem very different, but are, ultimately, concerned with remarkably similar questions of wellbeing, of prosperity and of peace.
Divorce as a new conception of temporary marriage, same-sex marriage, abortion conceived as a right, gender equality: these are just some of the many controversial topics that make Catholic social teaching clash with contemporary Europe. Is there a solution for this clash?
M-L CP I believe that there needs to be a distinction made between those things which restore full and equitable dignity to the human person, and those which are potentially damaging to the social good of our societies. Some of these topics are not “controversial”, in and of themselves. For example, issues such as equality between men and women, or the recognition that love should not be discriminated against by the state, are a necessary development within our democratic nations.
As free democracies, our freedom to engage in mutually respectful dialogue must always remain sacrosanct. The solution, whenever clashes arise, is to reaffirm this basic commitment to create meaningful encounters among people who hold different points of view, and yet all share an equal right to be heard in the full dignity of their experiences.
Islamic immigration and integration is a controversial topic in Malta. An important part of Maltese historical identity is based on the defence from Islam. One part of the Maltese people holds to the contemporary belief that all religions should be equal before the law. Another part of the people thinks Islamic people should not be in Malta. Since it is clear that the European experience has not brought anything good in this field of integration of Islam, will Malta find an original solution that other countries may copy?
M-L CP Unfortunately, there is some ignorance about Malta in the wider world. It is true to say that the Knights Hospitaller, who took control over our islands for hundreds of years, were fierce opponents of the Ottoman Empire. However, it is equally true that many of the agricultural and architectural innovations which one sees in the Maltese Islands were brought here during the Islamic Golden Age.
Our Maltese language is a Semitic one, and there are elements of our culture which connect very easily with our brothers and sisters on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. There is more that connects us than drives us apart. It is this spirit of hospitality, modelled on the example which the Maltese gave when St Paul was shipwrecked here, which we must bring to the field of inclusion.
Perhaps it is what the Acts of the Apostles calls the “uncommon kindness” of the Maltese, shown to the shipwrecked Apostle, which is our greatest guide at this time of global uncertainty. I hope that the kindness and compassion of our ancestors shall be a fitting example, both to the Maltese people and to other people of goodwill.
Let me also mention that, for the past 20 years, the Maryam Al-Batool School in Malta has provided primary and secondary co-educational tuition to Muslim students. Many of the teachers and heads of school have been Christians, working alongside their Muslim colleagues in a spirit of close collaboration.
As President of Malta, what words would you like Catholics from the United Kingdom and from all over the world who are reading this never to forget?
M-L CP During times of crisis and confusion, we must remember that the greatest gift of our faith is the sure knowledge in the victory of Christ over the troubles and the challenges of the world. We must remember the words of Pope Benedict XVI’s groundbreaking encyclical, Deus Caritas Est – God is love. We must work together to ensure that each and every person knows this profound truth about our Catholic faith, and each and every Catholic should be open to this powerful message of love.
Paolo Gambi is a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald