In the correspondence pages of another newspaper, a debate is going on about whether God loves gays and whether homosexuality is ‘allowed’ (apparently, it isn’t). Yes, really. You wouldn’t believe it, would you? We’re in the 21st century and in the European Union, and still there are many among us who are much taken with these medieval themes. I suppose they are the sort of people who have never recovered from the decriminalisation of sexual acts between people of the same gender. While they might not actually approve of the execution of homosexuals in Iran, they sympathise with the spirit of that thinking.
What amazes me is the literalism with which this subject is debated in the context of Catholic doctrine and biblical teaching. The various writers of letters to the newspaper speak as though we are living in a theocracy, where religious teaching is the law of the land: “The Bible says…”; “Jesus said…”; “The Catholic Church tells us…”; “Catholic doctrine teaches…”. They make not even a passing reference to secular law, as though it is something nasty imposed on this country by outsiders, the law of a coloniser, there to be resisted, ignored or honoured in the breach. They speak as though the only laws that count for them are the rules laid down by the Vatican. They know no others. Despite the decriminalisation of homosexual sex many years ago, here they are, still insisting to whoever will listen that homosexuals of all shape, hue, stripe and religion must never have sex unless they are married to somebody of the other gender.
It is one of the first things noticed by the more literate ‘outsiders’ in Malta and the Maltese who have been away for a long time: the unremitting use of Jesus and the Church as a reference point for behaviour, in the correspondence pages of all our newspapers and even in private conversation. I recently met a woman who returned to Malta for a visit after having lived elsewhere in Europe for 30 years. She was astonished to find that her former school-friends, who are in their late 50s, discuss morality using the terminology of school doctrine classes, and with the same mindset. Aside from the fact that this points to a lack of intellectual development – what I call the ‘foot-binding of the mind’ that was performed on Maltese women until the current generation, it is as though the law and secular morality do not exist.
Whip away the moral framework of Catholic teaching, and these people founder. Without clear instructions from their books of doctrine, they don’t know the difference between wrong and right. They have no parameters for decent behaviour. The teaching of morality within an exclusively religious context is one of the main reasons why so many people here are sleazy, untrustworthy, prone to sharp behaviour which they interpret as cleverness, disloyal, corrupt, and generally lacking those qualities which an older generation describes as irgulija.
When they drop their religion, or more precisely their religious fear of divine retribution, they are unconfined by any standards of behaviour.
If they were taught that something is wrong because Jesus said so, and not because it is intrinsically wrong for reasons that are entirely secular, then when they no longer believe in Jesus, they no longer believe that the thing is wrong. The growth in the number of fervent believers in prayer groups is just the flip-side of the coin. The other side is the growth in the number of people who don’t believe in anything at all, except grabbing as much as they can on their way out.
The debate about whether homosexuals are freaks of nature, people who are essentially “wrong”, genetic mistakes who persist in perversity instead of hiding themselves away in solitary chastity, brings to the fore another class of people behaving badly. They are the ones who think that because they have the Vatican on their side, they can tell us who is allowed and who isn’t allowed, whom God loves and doesn’t love, and who we are allowed to have sex with or not. The only response to that kind of thing is the equally rude “Shut up and mind your own business”, but apparently there are those who cannot resist the temptation to engage these relics of a different world in debate. How can they ever hope to convince them with logic and argument? It’s impossible. The only thing to do with such people is to ensure that they are never in a position of power over others. Fortunately, there are legal and political safeguards against the return of the Inquisition.
You cannot use logic with people who are essentially illogical in their thinking. It doesn’t have any effect. Religious faith, intolerance and overwrought emotions have in-built defences against logic. The most common argument they use is that homosexual sex is evil in the eyes of God because it is “barren” and can never produce a child. Yet there is no parallel teaching that copulation after the menopause is evil in God’s eyes – on the contrary, women whose child-bearing days are long past are urged to have sex with their husband on demand “because it is their duty”.
Anyway, I’m not going to get into that, because it’s too irritating, and I’m sure that these people are the exception, not the rule. Most of us realise that the sexual life of others is none of our business, unless it involves coercion or children. What I do find even more astounding is the way these people are completely out of step with reality, and they don’t even realise it. Even the new generation of priests don’t speak or write like that, and yet here we have all these God-bothering lay-people, presuming to instruct and condemn. One woman wrote to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church – a book that is up there with the worst of them in creating discord, division, pettiness and prejudice. My own attitude towards the Catechism is that anyone who needs a book of instructions so as to know how to be a good person and behave well is a lost cause to start with. How can any person, as this woman did, write to the newspapers to quote this particular gem from her Catechism book? “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” She even gives the reference: 2357.
I suppose the Catechism of the Catholic Church – I wouldn’t know, because I threw my copy away long before I left school, having had absolutely no interest in it – has no instructions on how far one should go in causing severe offence to others who are doing nobody any harm. That would be why the Catechism-quoting newspaper correspondent found nothing wrong in writing this: “The physical anatomy of two men does not complement each other and neither does that of two women. It is like having two electrical sockets on a wall which, no matter how close they are to each other, are unable to generate light.” Yes, I know – it’s unbelievable, more so when you consider that this is a middle-aged woman who, intellectually, has not moved an inch beyond the primitive thinking of metaphors and examples from “everyday life” of the MUSEUM classroom of childhood. And then there was this: “Homosexual behaviour fails to achieve… the continuation of the human race. No homosexual couple can ever generate a child. There are certainly heterosexual couples who are, unfortunately, infertile – but this is not the norm. So much so that a village hypothetically inhabited solely by homosexual couples will eventually disappear while one peopled by heterosexual couples will not.”
This is not just profoundly insulting, like the crass comment about plugs and sockets. It is also profoundly ignorant, and displays some very confused thinking about fertility. Homosexual people are not infertile, unless it is for the same reasons that affect the fertility of heterosexual people. Homosexual women come equipped with the same array of reproductive equipment as heterosexual women, and homosexual men – this might not be taught at the MUSEUM – produce sperm in the same way that heterosexual men do (oh, surprise, surprise). So where is the infertility? Many homosexuals choose to have children, and do so. Many homosexual men are regular donors to sperm banks and have, with supreme irony given our newspaper correspondent’s arguments, fathered the children of women whose heterosexual husbands couldn’t do so.
Whether you approve or not is beside the point; the point is that being homosexual does not make you infertile. It only makes you unable to have a child with your partner. Equally, there are only rare examples of “infertile couples”, though there are many infertile individuals. And I just love that bit about the hypothetical village of homosexuals. There are so many other interesting examples of hypothetical villages that I can come up with, starting with a hypothetical village of interfering busybodies who insist that we all live by their Catechism. Why not round them up and get them all to live together, so that the rest of us can live in peace? Then they could live their lives in bliss, policing each other and reporting the neighbours to the Vatican’s Sex Police.
Ah, but I love even more the confident assertion that a village of heterosexual people will never die out. Give this woman some books to read other than the Catechism. Give her documentaries to watch. Take her on trips abroad, or even on a little tour of our own tiny islands. The world is full of the ghost-sites of villages that have died out, and presumably they weren’t all inhabited solely by well-groomed men with a keen interest in art and dance or women in baggy tracksuits and no make-up. Entire races and civilisations have died out, not just villages – for a great variety of reasons, including the one that we are experiencing now: the fact that people are fertile and heterosexual does not mean that they will have children. Practically every couple in the Maltese Islands is having sex that is every bit as barren, to use the terminology favoured by the Catechism-quoters, as homosexual sex. If they’re not using one of a variety of forms of contraception, as the vast majority are doubtlessly doing, then they are having sex in the Church-approved “safe period” – another exercise in illogical thinking, because the only reason that it is “safe” is precisely because it is “not open to life”. Our negligible birth rate is not the result of people “turning” homosexual, but the result of people having sex only when they know that conception is out of the question.
What is perhaps most interesting about all these people who write to the newspapers to quote the Catechism at us is their assumption that everyone is obliged to live by the rules of Catholic teaching. It doesn’t occur to them for one minute that it is only Catholics who are obliged to live by those rules. Everyone else, including the legions of lapsed Catholics in this country, can do precisely as they please, within the limits of the law and common decency. Even Catholics can do as they please, because there is no Inquisition to force them to stick to the rules.
* * *
Which brings me to the false relics of St Gorg Preca – it seems that people are busy selling pictures bearing his image, which they say were placed against his corpse, giving them miraculous healing properties. The Curia is cross about this, and issued warnings some weeks ago. But why is the Curia surprised that this has happened? The circus in Malta surrounding the saint-making was straight out of medieval times, so it was not unexpected that the trade in false relics would be straight out of The Pardoner’s Tale, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century.