Chapter 22


THE MALTA INQUISITION—VOTE CATHOLIC OR BE DAMNED

In 1962, the Island of Malta was still a dependency of Great Britain. In that year there took place an historical political struggle upon whose outcome would depend the Island's future status.

The Catholic Church, as was to be expected, played no mean role in the proceedings. But, as always when she can do so, she used religion to promote her political interests and politics to promote her religious ones.

This she did with the utmost disregard for the basic tenets of democracy, liberty and honesty. Her influence being paramount, she could impose her will upon all and sundry in moral, ethical, social and thus even in political matters. As proved by the fact that the Maltese law on marriage was the law of the Catholic Church, as codified in the Catholic Canon Law, and that the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion was the religion of Malta.

Prior to the 1962 election, the main political opponent of the Church, the Maltese Labour Party, promised the electorate to reduce the overwhelming power of the Church by a reasonable liberalization. The Church came to the fore boldly, brazenly and determined to win, cost what it may. The civil authorities were already under her thumb while her opponent was hamstrung in all possible directions.

Catholic leaders, priests and others had complete freedom to speak, to preach and to hold assemblies; her opponents had to run the gauntlet of the Catholic police who, when they could not brazenly veto meetings, resorted to tricks bordering on the dishonest and the illegal.

In addition, the election commissioner and his assistants were all hand-picked by the Catholic Church via the colonial administration.That was not all. Catholic organizations and the priests often openly disturbed their opponents meetings. Indeed, it was an open secret that priests organized veritable religious-political expeditionary Catholic gangs with the specific purpose of breaking up assemblies. The Catholic crusaders were not all adults. Thousands of school children were taught genuine democracy in a practical way by being supplied by their parents with hooters and whistles, which they used en masse whenever they came across Labour speakers, often preventing the speeches from being delivered.

A friend of the author, Mr. Tom Driberg, a prominent member of the House of Commons, who happened to be visiting the island at the time, was persistently hooted by hundreds of school children, who pursued him wherever he went, having taken him for a potential speaker, which he was not.

The Catholic clergy surpassed themselves in their vigorous activities to defend the spiritual interests of Holy Mother Church (and, we must not forget, one solid third of the island which she owned) by using their brains as well as their muscles to silence the devilish enemies.

And so the very bells of their belfries were made to work whenever the whistles of their children (who, presumably, were put to bed exhausted) had no more wind in them. The clergy's method was certainly a sonorous one. And most effective. For it not only silenced the Labour speakers, but deafened them and their listeners and those who did not want to listen at all, the Catholic themselves.

So it came to pass that when the former Maltese Premier, now enemy number one of God and of Saint Peter, began to address an open air meeting, the bells of a nearby Church began to toll.

At first both Catholics and Socialists assumed there was a funeral somewhere. Then, since the bells started to ring joyously, they supposed they had made a mistake and that it must be a wedding. Then, since the ringing turned into a kind of pandemonium, they concluded that somebody had already won the elections (still weeks ahead) or that there must be a carnival to celebrate some forgotten Saint or other.

The bells, however, were in no mood to rest. On the contrary, they tolled and pealed and rang with increasing energy, stopping periodically only for a few minutes, to let the speaker begin his first sentences, to start anew with devilish merriment. On this occasion the bells rang continuously for THREE SOLID HOURS, not one minute more and not one minute less.

When the Labour listeners, now practically stone deaf, lost their patience and attempted to take the bells by their ropes... via a well conducted siege of the belfry, they found the belfry and the Church unassailable. A massive police cordon had surrounded the sacred building, to prevent those vociferous silvery proclaimers of the rights of the Church from being silenced.

Dom. Mintoff, the speaker who had not been permitted to speak, and the parish priest who had ordered that the bells be rung had sufficient energy left to write. So, while the first wrote protests to his own press, the latter wrote a justification of his sonorous interpretation of freedom of speech to the Times of Malta (February 3, 1962). That journal one morning printed an illuminating letter from Father Innocenzo Borg, of Luqa (the place where the bells had tolled for three solid hours).

What? He, anti-democratic? he asked. What an insult! Like the Catholic Church and the Archbishop of Malta, he, too, was a firm believer in freedom of speech. Had he made the bells toll? Yes, he had. But, assured Father Innocenzo, he had given the Labour speakers several opportunities to stop speaking...and if that was not democracy, could anyone tell him what true democracy meant? Here are the very words which the good Father Innocenzo (i.e. Innocent) wrote in his letter of explanation:

As regards the ringing of the bells which continued long after sunset, may I say that the pealing of bells stopped when the loudspeakers with their irreligious and scandalous talk did stop. The bells rang, in fact, as a protest against this kind of speech... and a speaker began to attack the church teaching and his Grace the Archbishop. Several times, the ringing of the bells for a very short time had unsuccessfully warned this speaker to stop his irreligious speech, before the din of the bells as Mr. Mintoff put it, "attempted to interfere with the public meeting taking place in the public square."[1]

In addition to the mobilization of belfries, that of the porches of churches followed suit, as well as of their walls, internal and external. For posters of all sizes, colours and kinds appeared all over Malta, decorating the sacred buildings with slogans in which the Devil, the Labour Party, all the Saints of the Calendar and even God Himself, not to mention the Catholic Church figured prominently.

"Vote as directed by the Diocesan Junta," said a poster on a Young Christian Workers Club. "God will be watching you. God will judge you." "If you vote for the enemy of the Church," said another, on the walls of Gudja Parish Church, "you will be defying the Bishop, you will be defying God (sic).''

Parish priests sent letters to the voters. Witness the one received by the parishioners of Marsa, Malta, written by Father Felicjan Bilocca of the Order of St. Francis:

Before you cast your vote, say unto yourself: I have but one soul. Am I going to lose it because of Mintoff?

A picture at the top of the circular showed Father Felicjan blessing the new Church at Marsa dedicated to Our Lady of Tears.[2]

Whether the voters thus addressed shed tears of joy at the Father's political counsel is not recorded. But in all probability, remembering their souls, they voted as he told them to vote. Thousands more did likewise. Father Felicjan Bilocca was not the only one to use religious fear to compel voters to vote for the Church. Following threatening words with deeds, the Church ordered whoever she could mobilize to vote according to her dicta. All young seminarians who had never voted before, for instance, were compelled to go to the polls. All the sick and the infirm of Malta were mobilized. Witness the following extracts from a stenciled circular sent to bedridden voters before polling day:"

We know that many of you never leave your home, not even to hear Holy Mass. This time, however, YOU MUST COME OUT.

God knows your good intentions, and He will give you the help you need.

We must vote for those whom we know not to be against the priests, against the Church and against the Archbishop.

Do your duty, dear brethren, so that you will share in the Victory for Catholic Malta.[3]

After which there was the following warning:

Our volunteers will be wearing a badge mounted with a coloured photograph of Mons. Archbishop. Do not accept lifts to the polling booths from persons who are against the Church.

That was not all. The Catholic Church mobilized her most feared spiritual weapons and unblushingly used religious "terror" to compel voters to vote her way. Imitating Pope Pius XII, who years before had done the same, they told the Maltese, in no uncertain terms, that unless they voted for the political party favoured by the Church they would be grilled in the flames of Hell for endless millions of years. Purgatory, in this case, was to be bypassed altogether. Priests all over the island told voters that it was a mortal sin to vote for Labour. The Archbishop himself gave specific instructions to that effect:

Preachers can indeed be of great service for the reassertion of the Church both in civil and political matters, as the occasion demands... and for the recuperation of souls lost on account of political matters... In their sermons or speeches they should explain the divine influence of the Church for the formation of a perfect society both private and public; about the divine power of the Church and her unerring judgment, EVEN IN CIVIL LAWS; about the gravity of mortal sin... the utility of Catholic associations. [4]

The Archbishop's words were confirmed by the Bishop of Gozo who, in April of the same year, published a circular telling Catholic voters that to belong to the Labour Party or even to attend its meetings was "a mortal sin."

To coordinate the individual and collective fear thus engendered by the Hierarchy, the Vatican then dispatched to Malta from Rome some of its best "organizers," specialized in that very type of warfare generated directly by religious pressure and the fear of the punishment of God.

These specialists were veterans in that kind of religious-political pressure, since they had used it in exactly the same way on a larger scale in Italy several times before. For instance, back in 1949, Pope Pius XII had excommunicated all and sundry who either directly or indirectly supported the Communists or their allies the Socialists, in order to compel them to vote for the Catholic Party, inspired and backed by the Vatican itself. In 1959 the Holy Office had reiterated the excommunication, followed by another one in 1965, when Cardinal Ottaviani said that the Holy Office decrees were still in force. [5]

Tacticians" like Father Rotondi, a Jesuit, led by none other than Professor Gedda, a former President of Italian Catholic Action, descended upon Malta and coordinated the religious pressure to yield the maximum political results at the voting stations.

Professor Gedda, a brilliant organizer, had even fuller cooperation from the Maltese Hierarchy than he had received from the Hierarchy in Italy, where the Church, notwithstanding her boldness, has to tread with a certain care. In Malta, the Church went further than anywhere else. That is, she transformed the sacrosanct confessional into a polling ballot box. Confessors were ordered to tell penitents how to vote. Disobedience meant refusal of absolution.On the days of Our Lord January 29 and 30, 1962, His Grace the Archbishop called a secret meeting of all FATHER CONFESSORS only, at the Catholic Institute, Floriana, and ordered them orally—under a THREAT OF EXCOMMUNICATION—to "ask penitents whether they were voting Labour and to refuse them absolution if the penitents persisted."

And so it came to pass that one morning—or, perhaps, evening—the stupefied Maltese Catholics discovered that their confessionals, those havens of secrecy and spiritual comfort which they had always assumed were dedicated exclusively to whisperings between them and their spiritual fathers concerning interesting private misdeeds (mostly confined to love and money), now had become places of veritable political confabulation, whence the Archbishop of Malta ordered them how and for whom to vote.

In case readers should doubt the authenticity of these archiepiscopal instructions, we quote a few. They are an ad litteram translation of the Latin text distributed by hand on March 7, 1962, to parish priests only:

Methods of Procedure for Father Confessors and Preachers:[6]

A. As regards the Father Confessors

1. First of all, confessors should inquire of the penitent whether he voted or not.

2. If the penitent did not vote, the confessor should ask him why he shirked to fulfill such a heavy obligation.

(a) If the penitent shirked this obligation through mere negligence while conscious of the gravity of such a thing, he is to be accused of a serious omission...

(b) If he shirked this obligation because he had no faith in any of the candidates...he should be argued with...; he should, however, be REFUSED ABSOLUTION unless he faithfully accepts the relevant directions issued in May 1961 against the spokesmen of the political party hostile to the teaching of Holy Mother Church.

(c) If indeed he shirked this obligation through malice he should be REFUSED ABSOLUTION...

3. If the penitent voted for the party hostile to the Church, the confessor should ask whether in so doing the penitent had sinned in private or in public (such public action implies either making ones intention manifest or canvassing for that party).

(a) If the penitent declared himself to have sinned privately, whether he should be absolved or not depends on his sincerity...

(b) If on the other hand he sinned in public, he should NOT BE ABSOLVED, unless and until he makes his atonement public...and honestly promises that wherever possible he will make reparation to the same extent that he had wrought damage to the Church, Bishops, Priests, and all those he may have offended.[7]

So much for the sacrosanct sacrament of the confession which, Catholics never tire of repeating, is inviolate and dedicated exclusively to spiritual matters.

Having terrified the voters in the secretiveness of the confessionals, the Maltese Hierarchy now came into the open and inflicted a spiritual leprosy upon their political opponents by hurling their bolts against the members of the National Executive Party. Here are their words:

Their lordships... feel compelled to inflict from now the canonical penalty of personal interdiction according to canons 2291-2 and 2275 on all those who at the meeting of the National Executive of the Malta Labour Party held on March 15, 1961, took part in the drawing up of the statement or approved of it by their votes...[8]

In short, the members of the party opposed to the Church had been put out of bounds to all Catholics by the canonical penalty of "personal interdiction."

The result of this state of affairs can be gauged by the fact that foreign visitors to the island at that period were, to quote a well known member of the British Parliament who was among them, "treated with such ferocious hostility and discourtesy" that the car they were in was shot at.[9]

The Church's vengeance against her political opponents went even further. Not content with the mobilization of terror in this world, she mobilized terror of the next that would pursue them beyond the tomb.Thus Joseph Mercer, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, who died in September 1961, was not given burial where Christians were usually interred, but was laid in a spot popularly known as the "refuse dump." He had not even been present at the Executive Meeting of March 15, and was a practicing Catholic. Another Labour Party member was refused burial in the same way.[10]

As the election day approached, the Church intensified her pressure upon all and sundry. News agents were forbidden to sell literature opposing the Catholic party, Catholics were forbidden to put advertisements in Labour journals. Over 80 per cent complied, for fear of reprisals. Children were questioned by priests as to the political attitudes of their parents, while parents not conforming to the political dicta of the Church were denied the sacraments.

Finally, on the eve of the elections, crucifixes draped in mourning were paraded in village squares with the caption: "Why are you voting against Me?"

Last but not least, during polling day itself, to complete the campaign of terror against the already cowed Maltese Catholics, cohorts of black robed priests, nuns and monks appeared at the voting queues and stationed themselves in front of the voters, chanting and saying the rosary, while bedridden and practically dying faithful were carried on stretchers to vote "for the Church and for God." The result? The Church won."[11]


Footnotes

1. Letter from the Reverend Father Innocenzo Borg, Parish Priest of Luqa, to The Times of Malta, February 3, 1962. See also Suppression of Freedom of Conscience in Malta, May 28, 1962—a collection of documents and Photostats dealing with the 1962 Elections.[Back]

2. See Suppression of Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Speech during the Recent Elections in Malta, May 28, 1962.[Back]

3. Signed Monsignor M. Azzopardy, Director of the Family of the Sick. Issued by the Diocesan Junta of Catholic Organizations Movement for the Victory of Catholic Malta.[Back]

4. See Suppression of Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Speech during the Recent Elections in Malta, May 28, 1962.[Back]

5. Cardinal Ottaviani's reminder to Catholics everywhere, August 1965, Rome.[Back]

6. The written instructions were distributed on March 7, 1962, a few weeks AFTER the elections. This was done for fear that, had the written instructions been distributed before or during the elections, the British government would have been forced to cancel the elections, as they had done in 1930. The instructions were then put in writing since by 1966, when the next general elections were due, Malta would have become independent. Thus, being no longer subject to the British government, the Church, under a Maltese administration supported by her, would be free to act without restraint—as, indeed, she did.[Back]

7. For complete text, see Methods of Procedure for Father Confessors and Preachers, Document "J." Photostat copies of the Latin original are held by the Malta Labour Party. See also Suppression of Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Speech during the Recent Elections in Malta, Memorandum and Supporting Documents, May, 1962.[Back]

8. Priests and Politics in Malta, 1962.[Back]

9. See Reynolds News, December 3, 1961; also The Voice of Malta, December 10, 1961. [Back]

10. Idem.[Back]

11. Two years later, in 1964, Malta became independent. The date of Independence, however, due in the spring, had to be postponed because the Church in Malta refused to accept certain basic democratic clauses inserted by the British government in the new Constitution, since the new Constitution, as the Secretary of State for the Colonies said during discussion of the Malta Independence Bill in the House of Commons, July 23, 1964, was not going to "place the Catholic Church above the law." (Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, Volume 699, No. 149, columns 709-710).

The Maltese Church, with the connivance of her representative, had tried every device to put herself above the Constitution, finally counting on the time limit of thirty-six hours before the House of Commons went into recess. Thanks, however, to Lord Alexander of Hillsborough and others, the maneuver did not succeed. For further documentation of the 1962 Elections in Malta, see Suppression of Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Speech during the Recent Elections in Malta, May 1962, Memorandum and Supporting Documents. Also, Malta Independence Bill - Order for Second Reading, House of Commons, July 23, 1964. Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, Volume 699.


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