The Church can only say that a person’s decision is not in accordance with the Church’s teaching; saying it is a sin would be playing God in people’s conscience, according to the Dean of Theology at the University.
“When one makes a decision in conscience, seeking the truth, and the decision is different from what the Church teaches, one could say the individual is not in agreement with the Church’s teachings, but when we talk about sin we’re talking about something between the individual and God, and that is something where we can’t play God ourselves,” Fr Emmanuel Agius said.
“Just like we can’t play God in science, we can’t play God in people’s consciences.”
Fr Agius was speaking to The Times in the wake of comments, made earlier this month, by Mgr Anton Gouder, the Curia’s Pro-Vicar, who said that convinced Catholics voting in favour of divorce would be going against Christ’s teachings and thus committing a sin, stoking the already heated debate on the introduction of divorce in Malta.
The Church has so far not commented on Fr Gouder’s statements. On Saturday, the Bishops issued a pastoral letter asking anyone contributing to this debate “not to distort the love for each person ingrained in the Christian message by embarking on some kind of crusade, even in the case of clear signs of provocation”.
Theologian Fr Charlò Camilleri wrote a Talking Point published in The Times on Friday criticising the overzealous approach of Catholics and “Curia spokesmen” in the discussion on the introduction of divorce.
Arguments based on an “I command, you obey” attitude, such as “voting in favour of divorce is a sin” and “no MP can vote for divorce without sinning seriously against God”, put forward by particular people, be they a Curia spokesman or zealous Catholics voicing their opinion, sound as nothing more than a fundamentalist retrograde interpretation of the positive teaching of the Church on marriage, Fr Camilleri wrote.
“Sin is a matter related to one’s own personal conscience. It is matter of the foro interno! And while the Church is surely in duty bound to form consciences by proposing objective guidelines, she cannot coerce the individual conscience of its members even when these take decisions that differ from the official Catholic teaching.”
Fr Agius said Fr Camilleri’s position was consistent with the Catholic Church’s teaching on conscience, but emphasised that in no way did this mean that either he or Fr Camilleri should be interpreted as being in favour of the introduction of divorce in Malta.
“The Church has the moral authority to teach and enlighten the conscience of its members but one should always respect the decision of the individual,” Fr Agius said.
“Obviously, one should always keep in mind the risk of self-deception. One could easily deceive himself he is taking a good decision in conscience while he is not striving for truth. When we speak on conscience formation it’s very important that the individual enlightens himself and refers to moral authority, but the final decision should be taken by the individual.”
The professor of moral theology said that when “we talk on the question of divorce we must also take into consideration empirical facts and truths, and we must be humble enough and admit we are not experts in empirical facts.
“The Church must always be in dialogue with experts in the area to enlighten its teaching and individual decisions.”
Mgr Gouder’s argument was that since Jesus spoke explicitly against divorce, convinced followers would not vote in favour of it.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Joseph Muscat was asked about Fr Gouder’s comments in the context of the clash Labour had with the Church in the 1960s when voting Labour was declared to be a sin.
“I don’t intend to open another political-religious confrontation in our country... All I want is a debate through which all parties can express their opinion so that a mature decision can be reached,” he said during a radio interview.
Dr Muscat has declared himself in favour of divorce and said that if elected Prime Minister, he would present a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament and give his MPs a free vote.
Yesterday, he said he hoped Mgr Gouder’s comment had been blown out of proportion by the media, adding that some Labour supporters were still suffering from the 1960s battle.
He emphasised that he was in favour of divorce for those families who were suffering because of the lack of this legislation, but stressed that he believed there had to be control mechanisms to ensure there was no abuse of the system.
[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]