The Church has come a long way in the past 100 years or so. From a quasi-worldly kingdom, She is now becoming a more convincing pointer towards a kingdom which is not of this world. Yet, I think there is a third stage ahead which the Church is aware of but might not yet be ready to embrace.
Let me first illustrate the three stages with examples from the Maltese Church:
1. The Dictator Stage – “It’s either this way or the highway”
We know what is right and what is wrong – the Bible and Tradition guide us and you are duty bound to follow. If your conscience does not agree, then it is malformed and it is your duty to educate yourself and align it to the teachings of the Magisterium. If you do not vote as we say, if you are living with your partner outside marriage, if …, then you are sinning gravely. We are sorry to break it to you, but you are going to hell if you keep living like this… who isn’t with us is against us… you cannot be in our club and choose to ignore the rules which don’t suit you.
A perfect example of this stage in the local scene is the interdiction of 1961 where those who held certain beliefs were excluded from a number of ecclesiastical rites.
2. The Mother Stage – “Spread the good news – God loves you”
Let us explain our standpoint on the various issues and you will see that you cannot disagree with us. Be on our side and convince others too, we are duty-bound to spread the good news as our Lord Jesus Christ had sent his disciples to preach the good news to the four corners of the world. Do good and let the people of the world see the mercy of God through you. Tell them that God knows we are vulnerable, that we have doubts, that sometimes we fall off the right track, and that all we need to do is to show we are remorseful.
A good example of this stage is the episcopate of Archbishop Paul Cremona, captured in his opening speech: “Aħna rridu nwasslu dan il-messaġġ [ta’ ġid] li huwa fil-qalba tat-tagħlim ta’ Ġesu’ Kristu, għax fuqu trid tissejjes kull Komunita’ Kristjana. Dan il-messaġġ huwa ta’ ġid lis-soċjeta’ Maltija kollha…” (“We have to deliver this [good] message that is at the heart of the teaching of Jesus Christ, because any Christian Community has to be based on it. This message is beneficial to the whole of the Maltese society…”)
3. The Companion Stage – “We are journeying with you”
Even though we believe in an all knowing God, we are still in a continual process of discovering His truths. We are on the same boat with the rest of the people of the world – trying to make sense of the great mysteries and questions of the universe. We do not try to convince others to listen to our message, we do not believe we are any better than the rest of the world. We simply offer our companionship and share our thoughts about this journey.
Admittedly, I could not find quotes from the Bible to aid the illustration of the third stage. The closest I could think of is the quote “Whoever is not against us is with us” and the quiet and hidden days Jesus lived in Nazareth. Yet, when I came to find an example from the Maltese sphere, it was surprisingly easy: the conclusion drawn up by the Synod (concluded in 2003) proposes a vision of the Church as a “sister and servant” – a perfect summary of this stage.
Although there seems to be a commitment by the Church – both locally and globally – to become ever more humble, the general attitude portrayed by the Church in Malta (possibly distorted by the Media) is still far from being that of a sister and servant. To mention just one recent example, Bishop Scicluna’s referral to a vote in favour of the Civil Unions Bill as “a gravely immoral act” sounds very motherly to me (or, stretching it, maybe the utterance of a motherly sister).
I sincerely hope that the Church will one day fully realise the third stage: She may still claim that Her God is the Truth, all knowing and absolute, but acknowledges the fact that She doesn’t have perfect access to this source.
At the end of the day, in the present reality, I believe the Church would be much more relevant as a sister than as a mother.