Malta, known as a stronghold of Roman Catholicism in secular Europe, is undergoing secular challenges, mainly resulting from its membership of the European Union and because of the tarnished public image of the church due to clergy sex abuse scandals.
The Catholic World Report (June) notes that Malta is still a strongly Catholic country both officially and in practice. It is among the few countries in Europe to prohibit abortion and divorce. The Maltese church has a ratio of seminarians to Catholics higher than any in Europe (five times higher than in Ireland, for example). Although parishes still often serve as social centers in Malta, Mass attendance has seen a recent decline—from 82 percent in 1967 to 51 percent in 2005; even the more devout island of Gozo has showed a drop in such attendance from 97 percent in 1982 to 82 percent in 2005.
The significant number of alleged sex abuse cases that have been reported in the country may further undermine the trust of the Maltese in their church, according to one priest. The lay associations that have been important in turning out religious vocations, such as the Society of Christian Doctrine and the charismatic movement, are also showing signs of weakening, says Roderick Pace of the University of Malta.
On an official basis, support for the ban on divorce is likewise losing its hold, with Pace estimating public opinion split 50/50 on the issue. That issues ranging from divorce and cohabitation to same-sex marriage are going concerns and are being addressed by both of the island’s political parties suggests to some the secularizing influence of other nations—Malta joined the European Union in 2004. It is in this context that Pope Benedict visited the nation last April and made a point of imploring the Maltese people to resist the tide of secularism and remain faithful to the church.
(The Catholic World Report, P.O. Box 2512, Alexandria, VA 22301)