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Liberty of Conscience

Question: I heard that the Catholic Church put pressure on Catholics to vote a certain way during the 1962 election in Malta. Could you tell me about it?

Answer: In 1962 the Catholic authorities compelled the faithful to vote against a certain political party. They did not allow the people to vote according to their conscience. History records:

Mintoff [the leader of the Labour Party] had formulated proposals for state-church relations which envisaged the separation of church and state. He proposed the recognition of civil marriage, the abolition of mandatory religious education; the inspection by state-officials of subsidized, mainly Catholic, private schools; the dispensation of social services to all inhabitants without any sort of favouritism; financial restrictions to be placed on the church; the exclusion of church intervention in the state censorship of books and films; the limitation of privilegium fori (thanks to which the Bishop could not be taken to a government court); and lastly the end of meddling in politics by ecclesiastics. During the dispute churchgoers were advised to refrain from voting for Mintoff's party. Refusal to do so would mean interdiction. It became a mortal sin to vote Labour. (Cassar C., A Concise History of Malta, p 238).

The Catholic Church used the pulpit, the confessional, the media and even the public meetings in its vigorous campaign. I asked my father about his experience. During confession, the priest asked him how he intended to vote in the general election and refused to give him absolution. An interdicted person was prohibited from church life and the sacraments, and in the case of death, he would be buried in the unconsecrated section of the cemetery called "il-mizbla" (literally, the rubbish dump), implying that his soul was damned. The memory of the dead was disgraced and his family was humiliated.

This sad episode from the ecclesiastical history of my country is a reminder of the true nature of the Catholic institution. Whenever it was possible, Rome has employed coercion, compulsion and even violence to promote itself.

Christ equipped His church with the Word of truth, and love, and not with threats and compulsion. He would have us reason with people. We cannot compel them to change their mind or to act contrary to their conscience. God alone can grant repentance. "And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth" (2 Timothy 2:24,25).

Dr Joseph Mizzi