The Minister and the Friar
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.
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.
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.