The Min­is­ter and the Friar

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS - Mark A. Sam­mut

As they say, it’s bet­ter to watch the movie be­fore read­ing the book. That way you avoid the let-down, be­cause the book is al­most al­ways bet­ter than the movie.

What a breath of fresh air Fr. Ivan At­tard of the Do­mini­cans! And what a to­tal­i­tar­ian op­pres­sive view from a top Min­is­ter of the State! I am ob­vi­ously re­fer­ring to Fr. At­tard’s videoblog on con­tra­cep­tives and the irate re­ac­tion of the Min­is­ter for Eu­ro­pean Af­fairs and Equal­ity to it.

Let’s clar­ify some points. 1. It is Fr. At­tard’s duty to preach the teach­ings of the Church he be­longs to. If he were to be silent, he would be a fraud, a par­a­site liv­ing on the do­na­tions re­ceived by the Church and other monies earned by his Order. 2. It is Fr. At­tard’s con­sti­tu­tional right to ex­press his be­liefs, with­out fear of rep­ri­mands from the State. Fr. At­tard en­joys fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion, un­der the Eu­ro­pean Con­ven­tion of Hu­man Rights, and un­der a se­ries of other in­ter­na­tional treaties. 3. When a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the State rep­ri­mands some­body for ex­press­ing views and be- liefs which do not break any law, there is the pos­si­bil­ity of chill­ing that per­son’s in­cli­na­tion to en­joy their right to free­dom of ex­pres­sion in a full, wide, and demo­cratic fash­ion. 4. Yes, the views ex­pressed by Fr. At­tard are not con­trary to the law. They are his views (and, in­ci­den­tally, the views of quite many peo­ple). So Fr. At­tard has the sacro­sanct right not only to hold them, but also to ex­press them freely. 5. He­lena Dalli, the Min­is­ter in ques­tion, too has the right to hold views and be­liefs and to ex­press them freely, but she has to ex­er­cise that right with cau­tion and cir­cum­spec­tion, be­cause she is not a com­mon cit­i­zen: she is a Min­is­ter and when she speaks, it is the State that is speak­ing through her. Min­is­ter Dalli is not the Min­is­ter for Trans­port, say, or Agri­cul­ture. She is the Min­is­ter for Eu­ro­pean Af­fairs and Equal­ity, and her com­ments there­fore can be un­der­stood as the ex­pres­sion of for­mal gov­ern­ment and there­fore State pol­icy. 6. The Min­is­ter speaks as if there were one truth – hers. This is a to­tal­i­tar­ian ap­proach. In a demo­cratic en­vi­ron­ment (which is our Eu­ro­pean her­itage), there is not a sin­gle ap­proach. All law­ful ap­proaches are equally pro­tected by the law and by the mo­ral sys­tem on which the law is based. 7. It seems that the ne­olib­er­als are day af­ter day show­ing us their true colours: to­tal­i­tar­ian lib­er­als: you are ei­ther lib­eral like them or they (metaphor­i­cally) burn you at the stake. What did Fr. At­tard preach? Ac­tu­ally, if you lis­ten to his videoblog you will find a very co­her­ent cri­tique of the ne­olib­eral sys­tem. It shows that he is ex­tremely well-read, lev­el­headed and can clearly read the signs of the times.

Fr. At­tard made two points, es­sen­tially.

One, con­tra­cep­tives re­move the need for self-re­straint. He made an in­ter­est­ing con­trast be­tween self-re­straint as self­dis­ci­pline and self-re­straint as self-op­pres­sion. Frankly, I see noth­ing wrong with this rea­son­ing. Fr. At­tard used the anal­ogy with food ... and I smiled, be­cause if only I could ex­er­cise the self-re­straint Fr. At­tard spoke about, I would not be over­weight!

So, as a life phi­los­o­phy, Fr. At­tard is propos­ing a praise­wor­thy model. Ex­er­cise self-re­straint as self-dis­ci­pline. Con­trol your ap­petites and you will live a bet­ter, hap­pier life, be­cause you will free your­self from the op­pres­sion of your de­sires. What is there to cen­sure in this, Min­is­ter?

The learned Do­mini­can was here crit­i­cis­ing the lib­er­tar­ian as­pect of ne­olib­er­al­ism, which is the idea that you can (even should!) sat­isfy all your ap­petites (mostly sex­ual) be­cause it is your right to do so. (In one of my re­cent ar­ti­cles, I quoted the con­tem­po­rary philoso­pher Slavoj Žižek’s ob­ser­va­tion that the cur­rent dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy tells you that since you can, you should.)

Two, that con­tra­cep­tives ex­ist in a mar­ket econ­omy. Here Fr. At­tard was pre­sent­ing a cri­tique of late cap­i­tal­ism, namely the ex­ag­ger­ated form it has taken un­der the aegis of the ne­olib­eral world­view. Again I can­not find any grounds on which to dis­agree with the learned friar. Whereas the free mar­ket is prob­a­bly a good thing, not all things should be freely traded. There are things that should not be in the mar­ket, be­cause of their ef­fects on hu­man be­haviour. Or else, their trade should be con­trolled.

Al­co­hol is a good ex­am­ple. There is the free mar­ket in al­co­hol (pro­hi­bi­tion­ism was not a great suc­cess in the US a cen­tury or so ago), but cer­tainly it makes sense to preach self-con­trol when con­sum­ing al­co­hol. In­deed, the State cam­paigns against drink­ing and driv­ing. So why should the State cam­paign for the re­spon­si­ble con­sump­tion of al­co­hol, but – ac­cord­ing to the Min­is­ter – a Do­mini­can priest should not cam­paign for the re­spon­si­ble use of con­tra­cep­tives (or no use at all, just like no drink­ing at all)?

Both al­co­hol and con­tra­cep­tives form part of the ex­ag­ger­ated cap­i­tal­ist men­tal­ity – the con­sumerist men­tal­ity – at the root of ne­olib­er­al­ism. Con­sume, con­sume, con­sume: that’s the Com­mand­ment of the Ne­olib­eral Reli­gion. There are ex­cep­tions, ob­vi­ously, and while the State cam­paigns for self-re­straint with re­gard to al­co­hol con­sump­tion, a Min­is­ter of the same State crit­i­cises a priest for cam­paign­ing for self-re­straint in mat­ters sex­ual. Messy think­ing, I would say, as both re­fer to in­stinc­tual ap­petites.

Read­ers’ Com­ments

I no­ticed a cou­ple of reader com­ments on news por­tals that dealt with this story. Th­ese read­ers ar­gued that since the priest is celi­bate he should not preach on sex­u­al­ity.

Th­ese com­ments make two log­i­cal mis­takes.

First: as Leo Tol­stoy fa­mously pointed out, “All happy fam­i­lies re­sem­ble one an­other, but each un­happy fam­ily is un­happy in its own way”. Your ex­pe­ri­ence in your fam­ily or re­la­tion­ship(s) does not make you an ex­pert. If you think other­wise, you are mak­ing the mis­take of think­ing that from one ex­am­ple you can ex­trap­o­late a uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ple.

Se­cond: A psy­chol­o­gist need not have ex­pe­ri­enced the ail­ments their clients com­plain of to be able to help them. A lawyer need not be a busi­ness­man to rep­re­sent a shop owner in court. And so on and so speak their minds in bars and cafés where their friends would shut them up. Now they take to the so­cial me­dia. With no sense of self-re­straint.

Birth Rate

There is also an­other way of look­ing at the sub­ject raised by Fr. At­tard. Malta’s birth is the fourth-low­est in the EU (1.37 births per woman in 2016, as re­ported in 2018 by Euro­stat). What is the sig­nif­i­cance of this sta­tis­ti­cal da­tum in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion?

We have to con­sider three el­e­ments, to my mind.

One, that Joseph Mus­cat is be­hav­ing – to bor­row a phrase re­cently used by Ro­mano Prodi – as if win­ning an elec­tion means that you get the coun­try as your dowry. In other words, Prime Min­is­ter Mus­cat is be­hav­ing as if an elec­toral vic­tory means he can rad­i­cally change the coun­try: he wants to im­port tens of thou­sands of for­eign­ers for short- to medium-term eco­nomic growth. Long-term, this in­flow will rad­i­cally change the so­cial fab­ric of the coun­try, while over­stretch­ing its shaky in­fra­struc­ture.

Two, in the long run, it would be wiser to adopt pro-fam­ily mea­sures en­cour­ag­ing the Mal­tese to have more chil­dren (and move the birth rate up from the fourth-low­est) in order to have enough tax­pay­ers to sus­tain the pen­sions sys­tem and the broader so­cial wel­fare in­fra­struc­ture in the fu­ture.

Three, if we look at it in strictly non-re­li­gious terms, Catholic teach­ing (which is what Fr. At­tard was preach­ing) is a pro-fam­ily ide­ol­ogy, and can there­fore be use­ful in a pop­u­la­tion project meant to per­pet­u­ate the wel­fare state with­out shift­ing so­ci­ety in fun­da­men­tal and ill-thought-out ways.

The Eu­ro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights and the Two Min­is­ters

A re­cent case de­cided by the Eu­ro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights should make in­ter­est­ing read­ing for our two Ul­tra-Ne­olib­eral Min­is­ters: He­lena Dalli and Owen Bon­nici. In E.S. v. Aus­tria, the Court de­cided that where at­tacks “go beyond the lim­its of a crit­i­cal de­nial of other peo­ple’s re­li­gious be­liefs and are likely to in­cite re­li­gious in­tol­er­ance […] a State may le­git­i­mately con­sider them to be in­com­pat­i­ble with re­spect for the free­dom of thought, con­science and reli­gion and take pro­por­tion­ate re­stric­tive mea­sures” (para. 43 of the judg­ment).

I feel that a State should al­ways con­sider that any of­fence directed at any of the sane re­li­gions (Chris­tian­ity, Is­lam, Ju­daism, etc) is not cov­ered by free­dom of ex­pres­sion, be­cause it hurts un­nec­es­sar­ily and adds noth­ing to a demo­cratic en­vi­ron­ment. Ul­ti­mately, democ­racy is like Val­letta: a “city” built by gentle­men for gentle­men. Taunt­ing peo­ple for their re­li­gious be­liefs is nei­ther gen­tle­manly nor pro­duc­tive.

My Pe rsonal Li­brary (28)

Paolo Vil­lag­gio’s Fan­tozzi, rag. Ugo: La Trag­ica e Defini­tiva Trilo­gia (Riz­zoli, 2013) is the lit­er­ary pro­gen­i­tor of the hit movies which have en­tered the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion of the Ital­ians, and I dare say, the Mal­tese. If the movies are funny, the books are even more hi­lar­i­ous. Ev­ery para­graph con­tains an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, a hy­per­bole, that is at once funny and a source of in­sight into the predica­ment of the av­er­age (Ital­ian?) man.

(I say “man” on pur­pose: “maschilisimo rozzo e im­po­tente” – “un­couth and im­po­tent machismo” – is one of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Fan­tozzi that Ste­fano Bartez­za­ghi refers to in his In­tro­duc­tion to the book).

As they say, it’s bet­ter to watch the movie be­fore read­ing the book. That way you avoid the let-down, be­cause the book is al­most al­ways bet­ter than the movie. The way Vil­lag­gio moulds the lan­guage to cre­ate a true but ab­surd and there­fore im­pos­si­ble ren­di­tion of re­al­ity is breath-tak­ing. It is this para­dox be­tween form (im­pos­si­ble, ab­surd, im­plau­si­ble) and con­tent (true-to-life) that in­ducts Fan­tozzi to the Hall of Lit­er­a­ture. Fan­tozzi is like Mythol­ogy: im­plau­si­ble sto­ries meant to ex­plain the true mean­ing of life.

In an in­ter­view Vil­lag­gio gave to a Swiss TV chan­nel way back in 1975, he spoke of one of the big­gest mis­takes of con­tem­po­rary Western ide­ol­ogy. He ar­gued that the com­mon man has been promised that if he buys and con­sumes, he will at­tain hap­pi­ness. “Is this con­sumerist so­ci­ety ... happy?” Vil­lag­gio asked. “No, it’s the devil, it’s the op­po­site. This kind of hap­pi­ness is highly un­happy.”

Re­minds you of Fr. At­tard’s words.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malta

© PressReader. All rights reserved.