The Puzzling Backstory to Controversial Maltese Directive

Sudden changes in approach to doctrine, episcopal rivalries, and a swift drafting process are some of the factors that led to the contentious document.

St. Paul's Cathedral, Malta.
St. Paul's Cathedral, Malta. (photo: Wikipedia)

Malta’s two bishops were in Rome this week, just days after the Jan. 13 publication of their controversial “criteria” on interpreting Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, but they declined to answer any questions about the document while here.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo, co-signatories of the directive, assert the primacy of conscience over the objective moral truth in the document, stating that remarried divorcees can receive Holy Communion after a period of discernment, with an informed and enlightened conscience, and if they are “at peace with God.”

Archbishop Scicluna declined to answer a series of questions from the Register on the criteria, and Bishop Grech did not respond to them either when contacted this week. 

Instead, Archbishop Scicluna referred to a brief comment his spokesman sent the Register Jan. 16, saying the “criteria” in the Maltese bishops' document “follow the magisterium of the Catholic Church in the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia by H.H. Pope Francis.” His spokesman also urged reading the entire document.

The so-called “Maltese directive” on the most controversial chapter of Amoris Laetitia has been strongly criticized by theologians, canon lawyers, and some Vatican officials since its publication last week, but won the support of others, such as Malta’s LGBTIQ community.

The bishops’ critics argue that it very obviously contradicts previous papal teaching, the Catechism, canon law, and Vatican instruction.

Archbishop Scicluna told the Times of Malta Jan. 17 he was “saddened by the reaction from certain quarters” and invited priests who may have concerns “to come forward and discuss them directly with us because we want to be a service to our people.”

He also said that the bishops' main concern was not to add anything to Pope Francis’s exhortation that they felt was not already apparent. “What we did was put the arguments in order so that they could be followed logically, making it easier for priests to understand what the papal exhortation was asking of them,” he said.

However, the directive has been viewed by some as disastrous, and several priests outside Malta have said they would be unable to follow the guidelines if their own bishops imposed them. Part of the reason for any faults in its text may have been the speed at which the document was produced. The Register has learned that the first draft was presented to the bishops' advisors only on Jan. 2. The document was translated and published in L’Osservatore Romano in less than two weeks.


Silent approach

Some are now wondering what happens to a priest if he refuses in conscience to go along with this instruction. This and other questions, such as why the bishops chose to only focus on Chapter 8 of the document when supporters of Amoris laetitia contend that it is clear, were also put to the bishops but they did not respond to them.  

As well as their lack of response, another concern is apparent pressure to ensure the “open door” approach to Holy Communion and remarried divorcees is carried forward. Talk in Rome is of some bishops being forced by the Vatican to toe the same line as the directive, although the Maltese bishops have firmly denied allegations in some media that Bishop Grech, who reportedly has a forceful temperament and has been accused of bullying in the past, threatened this week to suspend his priests if they refused civilly remarried divorcees without an annulment Holy Communion.

Another question surrounds the publication of the directive in L’Osservatore Romano, a move that gave the document the appearance of a Vatican imprimatur. The newspaper’s editor, Professor Giovanni Maria Vian, did not respond to questions on who authorized its publication and how it came to be published in the Vatican newspaper, some of which is monitored by the Secretariat of State.


Bishops’ ‘volte-face’

Malta’s bishops appeared not long ago to be strongly orthodox in a country that, until recently, was considered the most Catholic in the world. Bishop Grech was once reputed to be unyielding in matters of doctrine and, ahead of a referendum on divorce in 2011, warned that those who do not follow Christ’s teachings should not receive the Eucharist.

But when Francis was elected and a new, left-leaning Maltese government came to power, that all changed. “Overnight Grech performed the most spectacular volte-face,” said an informed source. “We were all astonished.”

Until the directive, Archbishop Scicluna was considered to be solid and balanced in his views. A competitive spirit between him and Bishop Grech has also meant the relationship between the two bishops has not always been easy. It has therefore mystified many Maltese Catholics how the two have come together so quickly on something so controversial.

The directive is understood to be the brainchild of Bishop Grech who wrote most, if not all, of it, while Father Emmanuel Agius, dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Malta, was an advisor. Father Agius hosted a European conference in 2015 on the new “pastoral” openings for remarried divorcees. Then-auxiliary bishop Scicluna made it known to associates that he was shocked by the innovative theology being discussed at that meeting.

Father Agius also attended an international symposium last October in Leuven, Belgium. Participants at the meeting, whose theme was “A Point of No Return? Amoris Laetitia on Discernment and Conscience for Divorced and Remarried Couples”, heard talks by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, both of whom are known for their strong support for the “open doors” approach to civilly remarried divorcees receiving Holy Communion.

According to sources, Father Agius has “told everyone that would listen” that the bishops’ criteria “are the correct interpretation of Amoris laetitia.” Malta's vicar general, Father Joseph Galea Curmi, has also been informing priests that if they do not want to follow the contents of the document, they “have misunderstood” it.