What were the reasons behind the Interdett and the "war" between the Church and the Labour Party?
It’s 1961. The Catholic Church is led by Pope John XXIII, known as ‘The Good Pope’ and eventually declared a saint. Under his guidance, the Church went through a radical modernisation process in the 1960s. He prohibited Italian bishops from interfering with local elections. He helped the Christian Democracy Party cooperate with the Italian Socialist Party. On an international scale, he built bridges with the Eastern European communist countries and their Orthodox churches.
Meanwhile in Malta…
Church bells were being used as a censorship weapon. Renowned Labour supporters had to get married in the sacristy using mixed-religion marriage rites. Priests were refusing to give absolution to Labour supporters during confession since this was considered a mortal sin. Members of the Labour party who passed away, such as Guze Ellul Mercer, were being buried in an unconsecrated part of the cemetery, called the ‘Miżbla’.
What was happening
In 1961, the Maltese Church, led by Bishop Mikiel Gonzi, had made the first steps towards imposing an interdict on executive members of the Labour Party, declaring that reading Labour newspapers and attending their meetings is a sin.
In canon law, an interdict is a form of prohibition from participating in certain church rites. This could be imposed by bishops, not necessarily by the Holy See. This was not the first time. In 1930, the Bishop at the time, Mauro Caruana, interdicted Prime Minister Gerald Strickland and whoever voted for his coalition.
Bishop Gonzi’s point of view
Dom Mintoff’s socialist beliefs and close ties with socialist and communist countries had already put him on the radar. Tensions between Gonzi and Mintoff had been growing over the previous years when Mintoff was campaigning for Malta to integrate with the UK.
Fearing that this could hurt its valuable position in society, losing out to the Anglican Church, the Maltese Church played a very active role in that referendum, instructing its followers to vote against integration or to abstain. Voting turnout reached just 60%. Up to that stage, however, an interdict was not called.
On top of the integration issue, it is easy to see the Church's problem with Mintoff by looking at the six constitutional amendments proposed by the Malta Labour Party (MLP) in 1963:
The introduction of civil marriage and divorce.
The removal of obligatory religious education in state schools.
The right to be buried in a state cemetery.
The right of the state to halt religious functions aimed at political interference.
Morality based on Western European principles, rather than Catholic ones.
Every citizen to be considered equal when facing the law, including priests.
The 1962 election and the 'soldiers of steel'
By the 1962 election, Gonzi and Mintoff were in an all-out war. The interdict was in full swing.
This election and its aftermath was one of the darkest periods in Malta’s political history, as reciprocal hatred seemed to split the island between those who believed in socialism, and devout Christians, even within the same families.
Despite the 51,000 “soldiers of steel” who still voted in favour of the Malta Labour Party, the Nationalist Party, led by George Borg Olivier, won the election. This eventually led to the declaration of Independence in 1964.
How it ended.
The situation took years to improve. In fact, it wasn’t until 4th April 1969 that an official agreement between the Church and the MLP was announced. It read:
"In modern society, it is necessary to make a distinction between the political community and the Church. The nature of the Church itself requires it not to get involved in politics…The Church does not impose moral sin as a form of censorship…relations between the Church and the Malta Labour Party have improved a lot."
The scars that formed during those times took decades to heal, and some still haven’t healed. The privileges of the Church within Maltese society have been reassessed by the public since then. Having said this, the Church still has a role to play in Maltese politics, as long as mistakes of the past in the way it delivers its messages are not repeated. It can be a conservative voice of traditional values, in a world where principles sometimes seem to change by the hour.