Malta’s Archbishop: Seminarians Can Leave if They Don't Agree With Pope Francis

Instruction comes as it emerges priests who disagree with bishops’ interpretation of Amoris Laetitia are being bullied and intimidated.


The Archbishop of Malta has confirmed to the Register that he told the country’s seminarians earlier this month that if any of them do not agree with Pope Francis, “the seminary gate is open,” implying they are free to leave.  

Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s remarks are the latest in what Church sources in Malta say is a heavy-handed crackdown on any ecclesiastic unwilling to subscribe to the Maltese bishops’ interpretation of the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia — an interpretation the bishops say is identical to the Holy Father’s.

Last month, Archbishop Scicluna and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo — the episcopate’s only two bishops —  released “Criteria” on interpreting Chapter 8 of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the family in which they appeared to assert the primacy of conscience over the objective moral truth.

The guidelines allowed some remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion after a period of discernment, with an informed and enlightened conscience, and if they are “at peace with God.”

Their interpretation caused an international outcry among theologians, canonists and others who argued that it contradicted previous papal teaching, as well as breached canon law and the catechism. Archbishop Scicluna has defended the guidelines, saying they “adhered to Amoris Laetitia” and also “followed the interpretation that the Pope approved.”

Since the Criteria were published Jan. 13, a number of clergy sources in Malta have contacted the Register alleging the bishops won't tolerate any clergy having a different interpretation of Amoris Laetitia than the one presented in the Criteria among the clergy. 

According to the sources, three priests are allegedly intimidating anyone who does not agree with the Criteria. The three had been opponents of the previous bishop, Archbishop Paul Cremona, but have now become the present bishops’ allies. One of them reputedly attacks any priest who shares critical stories on the Internet.

“This group of priests, with a few others, have been hogging the conversation for decades,” said a Maltese priest on condition of anonymity. “No one else seems to be allowed to contribute to the debate and they have done untold damage to bridge-building since they brook no opposition.”

He said they “fall on any dissent like a ton of bricks” and “no other priests are given any opportunity to contribute to the conversation” except for priests who are “like-minded.”

When he was appointed Archbishop of Malta in 2015, many of the island nation’s clergy were initially hopeful that Archbishop Scicluna would reset the theological and pastoral agenda, but now feel these priests have “hijacked” the local Church completely.

“There is a lot of discontent in the rank-and-file clergy, for they see that after holding so much promise, Scicluna's episcopacy has become one of bullying and betrayal,” the priest said. 

At a meeting with Malta’s priests on Feb. 14, Archbishop Scicluna appealed for understanding, saying he had no choice in co-signing the guidelines. According to sources present, he said in conscience he could not go against the wishes of the Pope. He admitted it was a mistake not to consult the nation’s clergy on the Criteria before they were released, alluding to the fact that they wanted to be the first Bishops’ Conference to do so.

However, he also expressed “shock” at the fact that the C9 felt they had to pledge their allegiance of full support for the Pope. He asserted that to be Catholic, one is with the Pope. He also criticized the fact that people are questioning the Pope’s mercy. Such criticism came to a head earlier this month when 200 posters critical of what they viewed as unmerciful actions of the Holy Father appeared across Rome.

The archbishop also gave the impression that accompaniment of remarried divorcees in their discernment should take place over a significant number of sessions, and considered ten sessions too few. He “totally excluded” giving such permission to receive the Sacraments after one meeting, or after a brief Confession, for instance before a funeral.

Archbishop Scicluna declined to comment on the contents of his meeting with priests.

The Maltese prelate, formerly the Vatican’s chief prosecutor who was well respected for his handling of clerical sex abuse cases during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, said in relation to Communion for remarried divorcees that for some people it is impossible to live chastely as brother and sister (to live in sexual continence was a requirement, based on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, clearly stipulated by Pope St. John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio). However, he stressed that the reference is to human impossibility and does not exclude that grace might come into action, assisting these people.

As well as the alleged intimidation, some of Malta’s clergy are also concerned that the country is currently without an apostolic nuncio. Archbishop Mario Cassari, 73, has been unable to work due to prolonged ill health. Although a Head of Mission is acting in his place, if a priest were to clash with his bishop, or be harassed by him, the clergy feel “totally isolated” in the absence of a nuncio.

This article has been updated with some additional reporting.

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