Malta has elected the nation’s first transgender politician, a sign of just how far on LGBT rights a country where Roman Catholicism remains the state religion has come. A closer analysis of this shift could help Catholics in other regions in their own journeys towards equality.
Alex Mangion became Malta’s first transgender politician when he won a local election as the Partit Nazzjonalista (Nationalist Party) candidate, reported The Independent. But support for LGBT rights in the conservative party that had controlled Malta’s government since the late 1990s is a recent development, and came only after its 2013 defeat to the Partit Laburista (Labor Party) who had made LGBT rights a major platform item.
Though the Nationalist Party had abstained from a successful vote on civil unions in 2014, Mangion said that presently “having a transgender person in the party made people realize it’s not conservative.” And by 2015, the Nationalist Party had joined the Labor Party in passing a groundbreaking transgender rights law. (It is worth noting that, under that very law, Mangion became “the first person in this tiny nation to be able to update the gender on his official documents without undergoing surgery or hormone treatment.”)
The Independent noted that this shift in a political party is “a microcosm of the evolution underway in Malta,” a traditional Catholic country which outlawed divorce as late as 2011. But where LGBT people once hid, rejected by church leaders and stigmatizing social norms, a married same-gender couple, Steve and Manuel Aquilina, now hosts and produces a leading cooking show. A colleague of theirs, Victor Anastasi, said:
“‘They’re accepted like everyone else. . .We’re a Catholic country. But eventually the church has to come to terms [with society changing].”
Joseanne Peregin, the Catholic mother of a gay son, recalled a bishop once saying, “If you’re gay, excommunicate yourself. Go, there is no place for you in the church.” But then in 2011, she said, the Catholic Church’s control over Maltese politics was undercut sharply when divorce was legalized through a popular referendum.
Now it must be acknowledged,, said Fr. Rene Camilleri, that Catholics in Malta “are not taking a package deal.” Camilleri, who is Episcopal Vicar for Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Malta and a lecturer at the University of Malta, has previously described church teaching on homosexuality as “nonsensical.” He also said Catholic ministers “cannot deprive [same-gender couples] of the blessing for which they ask.”
Today, other nations seek to learn from and even copy Malta’s LGBT laws. Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs, and Civil Liberties Helena Dalli said that “what we have done here is serving as a model to other countries, and, in a good way, because more people are leading better lives.” And The Independent continued:
“Kyle Knight, a New York-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that what’s particularly admirable about Malta’s LGBT rights laws is ‘not just the result as much as the process’ that led to their creation.
“Members of the LGBT community, other advocates and a local human rights group served on a council set up in 2013 to advise the government. Legislation was accompanied by directives that covered how LGBT people in prison should be treated and how schools should deal with bullying of transgender or gay students.
“When Knight was recently asked in Japan how schools should handle anti-LGBT bullying, ‘We copied and pasted these (Maltese) guidance documents and we said, “Look, this is how you do it,”‘ he recalled.”
While marriage equality is not legal yet in Malta, same-gender couples are recognized through civil unions, there are extensive non-discrimination protections, so-called “conversion therapy” is banned with harsh penalties in place, and a 2015 law on transgender and intersex persons is considered the gold standard in Europe.
How does a country where Roman Catholicism is named in the constitution as the state’s religion and where 95% of its citizens identify as Catholic become so progressive in a short time? Some observers might consider Malta a paradox, understanding LGBT equality and the Catholic Church to be opposites. Yet, there is a very plausible explanation for what has happened.
First, it is an oft-repeated but worth reiterating truism: Catholics support LGBT equality because of, not in spite of their faith. Key tenets like social justice, human dignity, and non-discrimination have informed the faithful’s engagement in civic matters, and this includes working for the rights of sexual and gender minorities. It makes sense the citizens of Malta who practice, or even are simply informed by, Catholic faith would vote for equality.
Second, it has to be admitted that there are non-ecclesial matters influencing this shift. In Western contexts, homosexuality has been largely de-stigmatized and neighboring countries in Europe have been moving forward on LGBT rights. Some have credited Malta joining the European Union as an impetus for catching up to their neighbors, and now taking the lead. As in other Western contexts, Mass attendance and the moral authority of bishops have declined in recent years. Some people leave, or are pushed out of, the church, and there is a certain amount of secularizing that happens. These factors and more, as in other regions, contribute to the rapid pace of the shift.
But third, many Maltese remain practicing Catholics and this has made the biggest difference. A few weeks ago, I highlighted the positive outreach of the country’s bishops to LGBT communities . In fact, Malta’s leading gay rights group gave the bishops an award in 2014. Here are other important examples of positive Catholic moments on LGBT issues:
- Drachma and Drachma Parents are both Catholic organizations engaging LGBT issues in the church, and they have made an impact. They helped consult on the civil unions law, pushing back against a bishop’s criticism, They hosted Sr. Jeannine Gramick in 2011 to educate about LGBT equality in the church. They also hosted theologians Sr. Margaret Farley, RSM, and James Alison.) They were credited by Bishop Mario Grech as helping him to understand the need and urgency for new pastoral care of LGBT people;
- A priest who blessed a same-gender couple’s rings was not punished by the bishop; indeed, Archbishop Charles Scicluna affirmed the priest’s outreach efforts to LGBT people;
- After releasing a harsh position paper opposing the government’s efforts to ban “conversion therapy,” a paper in which homosexuality was compared to pedophilia, Archbishop Charles Scicluna listened to Catholics’ criticism and then apologized, saying the church was “dead set” against such programs.
Though I have never experienced the Church of Malta firsthand, I sense a serious Christian community of mature and critically engaged Catholics. Lay Catholics, and clergy like Fr. Camilleri, have grappled with not only church teaching, but the realities of their context.And, quite notably, the country’s bishops have been willing to affirm LGBT people as beloved by God and to listen to their people. They have even been willing to acknowledge where the hierarchy had it wrong, and to apologize to those whom they have harmed.
In under a decade, Malta went from being socially conservative to a world leader on LGBT rights. Maltese Catholics are a shining example of what can happen when the faithful really listen to the Gospel and live their faith in public life. Let us hope more and more historically-Catholic regions follow this path, especially in areas like Latin America and Africa where the church is rapidly growing and yet LGBT rights remain limited.
If you would like to read reflections from members of Drachma Parents, you can find Louise Laferia’s reflection on the call of being a parent to an LGBT person here and Joseanne and Joseph Peregin’s reflection on what makes a family holy here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of LGBT Catholic issues in Malta, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 13, 2017