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Friday, September 1, 2006
< Religion and politics >
by Harry Vassallo
It used to be a rule of polite society not to allow sex, religion and politics to enter anything other than the most intimate conversation, perhaps not even that. It is almost inevitable that I talk politics nearly all the time. I suppose it is an occupational hazard that the people I meet come to the subject with predictable swiftness.
Religion I religiously avoid. It sets my teeth on edge when it is mixed with politics. I find it unethical. Nobody should be politically wooed on the basis of religious affinity. Freedom of worship and the defence of religion are enshrined in our Constitution precisely to make one's faith altogether separate from one's political opinion. Religion, or the arm's length relationship of politics to religion, is part of our political common ground. Religion and politics should occupy separate spheres and co-exist without friction.
In reality, believers and unbelievers are all voters and the different spheres, however separate they may be kept, inevitably meet in the same people. It is because of this dual existence that every effort must be made to avoid the exploitation of religious affiliation in any partisan polemic. My teeth are set on edge particularly when it is clear that a politician or political party heads in the opposite direction exploiting voters' faiths to secure or retain support. There could be little worse in my view than being divided politically on religious lines. It defeats democracy and exploits religion.
It is a comment made by Mgr Nikol Cauchi, Bishop Emeritus of Gozo, which allows me to risk crossing the lines I set myself. It is no business of mine as a politician to comment on the fall in attendance at Mass which was the topic of Mgr Cauchi's article. What struck me was a phrase about the decline in faith and morality.
It is a point where the separate spheres meet and merge. Mgr Cauchi, perhaps inadvertently, implies that no faith means no morality. For many Christians there is no morality but Christian morality. It is their yardstick and they fail to comprehend how others manage without it.
That in itself is a pretty sad world view. I know many non-Christians and indeed many non-believers who set themselves very high moral standards. But that is not really my concern either: what anybody thinks privately of anybody else. What interests me is the effect of this commonplace on those who relinquish their communion with the Catholic Church. If, in my role as a politician, I must be strictly neutral regarding the rise and fall of numbers of the faithful in any religion, I must also recognise the preponderance of the Catholic faith in Malta and the practical consequences of its desertion by many who take away with them the notion that there is no morality but Christian morality.
Although it is belief in an afterlife and the love or fear of God that is set up as the driving force in Christian morality, there can be no question that morality, any set of rules governing human behaviour, relate directly to humans as social beings in their relations with one another. It is inevitably at the core of politics.
The possibility that a growing number of people may be getting away with the idea that they have no social obligations at all because they have shed the fear of God, is a serious matter. The result is a growing trend of every wo/man for her/himself. It is a snowballing of convinced and uninhibited opportunism and exploitation of others. The evidence lies all around us in the ongoing smash and grab of environmental and common heritage assets by the powerful to the detriment of the whole community.
If the Church has serious problems in keeping up with the competition for the attendance of its congregations, the country has similar problems in persuading the new generations that no-limits individualism is socially suicidal. Every example before them points the other way. The prime social virtue is clearly the accumulation of wealth, how it is achieved is secondary at best. Once an amorality is acquired in one's youth it is near to impossible to expect any contrary development later on.
On a purely political level the cost of the malfunctions that ensue must be astronomical if unquantifiable: from increasing crime rates and non-payment of taxes to all forms of unsustainable development threatening the country's future earning ability. The social consequences of unfettered instant gratification, certainly increase the burden of the social assistance necessary to make up for them. The internalisation of the ethos of a community by its members is necessary to ensure its success, perhaps its survival. The fear of God has little to do with it even if it should be a sin to squander such resources when they should be fruitfully employed.
If God-fearing also means law-abiding, then declining church attendances may be a concern for the state for the practical reasons mentioned above. It is of greater concern to the state that the fear of God is substituted by fear of the state and no limits set but what the traffic will allow, the last remaining commandment being "Thou shall not get caught."
While the purpose of any religion is the saving of souls and that of any state is to provide the framework for peaceful and fruitful social co-existence, it would be disappointing not to recognise synergies possible where their paths meet. It certainly suits the state to be possessed of a law-abiding population. It is a magnificent advantage to have a population that fully understands the need for restraint and the common reward for considering also the needs of one's community rather than one's own alone.
I modestly submit that it may serve the Church also to ensure that its lost sheep also retain a sense of obligation to their neighbours. There must be more hope of contrition and redemption for lost sheep who have not been reduced to a ball of screaming appetites. Making it clear that Christian morality is not the only morality possible, is no loss. It may be a way of increasing the chances of recovery of losses. The inference that lapsed Catholics are necessarily bad persons only alienates them further, especially if it is not true at all.
Assuming that the present trend will continue, it may not be a bad idea to allow more room for respect for people of other faiths and of none. Mgr Cauchi speaks of peer pressure from the derision of lost sheep for the faithful. Reducing the attrition may help reduce the peer pressure. It increases everybody's freedom and gives greater value to anybody's choice. This a great gift of Christianity to the world and it lies at the core of Western civilisation which remains culturally Christian to a greater extent than many of its members, Christian or otherwise, may ever suspect.
It is the path to a more mature society, not that regularly derided as modern and libertine in sermons to the converted, but one which is capable of greater depth, less prone to be swayed by slogans, perhaps less sheepish and more embarrassingly inquisitive, one also capable of achieving greater heights in all spheres.
Dr Vassallo is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party.
This article may also be viewed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=235616