As a historian specialising in the British and post-War period in Malta, I have written extensively on the 1960s and the Church-Labour conflict.
However, when Archbishop Charles Scicluna asked for forgiveness for burying Labour stalwarts in unconsecrated ground, I could not be as pretentious as to comment. It is the Labourites who experienced the 1960s who are mostly entitled to react and we should wait for their own reaction before we comment. Scicluna’s comments were received by a barrage of commentary, most of which was welcoming and most of it superfluous; but some Labourites who lived those days did actually welcome his comments. Soon later, the Archbishop, also with reference to the Church-Labour conflict of the 1960s, claimed that “he would give his life to heal the wounds of the past”.
When Archbishop Joseph Mercieca made his apology it was made conditional on the basis that both parties would forgive each other. Hardly anyone from Labourites of the 1960s accepted this apology – they simply ignored it.
Admittedly, this time round, Scicluna’s message seems to have been more welcomed by those who have lived those times. However, if I would be pretentious to say or suggest as to how Scicluna’s comments should be received, I would do an equal disservice if, as a historian, I would fail to mention the facts of the historical situation or the fact that many Labourites of the 1960s are still yet to comment (or have refused to do so).
As a historian I am very uncertain on what Archbishop Scicluna wants to give his life for. If he has apologised for burying Labour stalwarts like Ġuże Ellul-Mercer in unconsecrated ground, then that was very clear, but it should also be pointed out that this was only a very small part of the wide and systematic war waged by the Church against Labour and Labourites during that time. When in March 1962 Archbishop Michael Gonzi interdicted the Labour executive committee and later on released the infamous pastoral arguing that Labourites were not good Catholics, a declaration of holy war was made which had divided society even further and pushed it closer into civil strife. The mortal sin was not publicly declared but it was clearly implied, and priests applied it effectively in their duties: Labour party members and activists were barred from making full use of the Church’s sacramental services and those who voted for Labour ‘were going to hell’.
Understanding Gonzi’s power
History has not been just to the Labourites of those times and the exalted biographies of Michael Gonzi, badly researched and horribly written with hagiographic intent, have obfuscated his persona and his history with lies and pseudo-historiography. Obviously, these hagiographies ignore the historical context and significance of his actions which his fans obfuscate with endearing adjectives such as “strong” and “steadfast”. For to understand Gonzi is to understand what happened during that decade, and that also means to understand the main protagonists – the people who suffered the brunt of the Church’s hostility and those who militated in its favour.
First of all, we have to understand that wherever you came from, back then, the Church was an integral part of your life, although it had much more influence and power in the rural areas which had remained insular and deeply conservative compared to the harbour area. Losing recognition by the Church meant being ostracised from the rest of society: a society where the parish priest had to write your reference letter to be accepted for a job, where he consulted you on your sexuality, psychology, even financial affairs, many a times making sure you would well compensate the Church upon your death, and of course… provided you with political direction.
The education system was run by clerics and their lackeys; parish priests could refer you to the mental health hospital at will!
Overcoming this overwhelming social institution took a Labour Party with its 51,000 “soldiers of steel” (suldati tal-azzar) who voted for it despite being condemned and vilified.
And it was a wild animal, yet a much educated genius who could lead Labour in these insurmountable odds: Dom Mintoff, who would counter-preach to his masses, that they did not need to give their inheritance to the Church for them to ascend to heaven. Mintoff did not just do politics. He educated the masses against a constant backdrop of brainwashing by the clerics.
The tangible results of Gonzi’s war were very immediate.
Families were torn apart. Labour activists were ostracised from social organisations. Children of Labour activists and known sympathisers were bullied at school and in the villages. Priests wielded more power and Labour youths’ chances of finding jobs decreased even further, exacerbating their already miserable economic situation. This was the bleak backdrop of Independence: in the 1960s as much as 60,000 men and women had left the islands in search for work – back then comprising as much as 20% of the population.
And here lies a very important reason why going to hell was actually much worse than it sounds today. For the oppressed and hard-working Catholic-Labourite, mired in a dire economic scenario, who struggled to make ends meet, the Catholic religion could provide some hope and light at the end of the tunnel – death at least promised a good afterlife. Now, all the hard work and lifetime devotion to Church and God mattered no longer as the Labourite was bound for damnation anyway. In other words, Gonzi took away from the most vulnerable the most important religious element of Christianity: the resilient and spiritual hope that they could one day be saved. Gonzi sent these people to hell.
The Church’s psychological warfare, waged in a society which could barely feed itself, affected the fundamental social and economic relationships of the working masses, and the most vulnerable were most affected.
So when pseudo-intellectuals from Tal-Qroqq preach their nauseating, elitist diatribes on the affliction of tribalism in our society, they should pause and read a history book to at least understand the fundamental class-consciousness inherent in the historical struggles which have developed throughout history and formed the society we live in today. Let me explain it simply to the publicly-paid, pseudo-intellectuals out there who patronise Labour supporters with their anthropological bullshit: Labour does not have a siege mentality because of Mediterranean tribalism. Labour and the working class was besieged in history by various forces: the professional and commercial elite, British imperialism, the Church with its army of devoted supporters (mostly village dwellers who had never read anything or heard any other teaching or doctrine other than what was prescribed by the clerics).
The organic and cooperative familial model of the Labour Party – which includes tens of thousands of members who consider the party as their main social and public institution – is misinterpreted as “tribalism”. But in reality it is a communal structure developed by historical exigencies. Labour Party members support each other because history thought them so. Genuine socialists should not shun this model as “tribalism”, but work to conserve it against rent-seeking and other abuses.
Gonzi’s political war
On the other hand, the political ramifications of Gonzi’s war dealt a critical blow to Labour’s chances of governing the country. Practically, a large section of society rose up to militate against the Labour Party and a violent confrontation between two large sections of society, the Labourites and the Church’s devotees, was brewing.
Labour’s meeting in Gozo in 1961 was spared from barricades after the local police knew in advance what the Gozitans’ intentions really were, but the Church’s devotees still made sure to make the meeting unsuccessful by drowning out Mintoff’s voice with Church bells and loud protests.
When the same kind of bell-ringing was repeated a year later in the mainland during a Labour meeting in Luqa, Labourites were confident enough to start a riot. It was only then that the British governor, Guy Grantham, knowing very well that the situation could escalate into bloody violence, approached Gonzi with a strong insistence to end the bell-ringing and tone down his war. Gonzi complied because he had no other choice – the British were his guarantors and allies in case Mintoff took power. Labour eventually lost the elections that year and the dirty work had already been done anyway.
The Church-Labour conflict abated thanks to the British’s insistence with the bishops not to escalate tensions in society. The British considered Malta a strategic base and could not afford to have its strategic use compromised by internal strife and conflict. Eventually, Gonzi laid down his arms in 1969 and declared peace with Labour following pressure from the Vatican as well, and after a very strongly-fought election in 1971, Labour won the election by just around 5,000 votes.
Yet, Gonzi did not lose faith that somehow he could have some form of guarantee and protection against the rising tide of socialist emancipation. In 1972, while Mintoff was negotiating a new defence agreement with Britain, Gonzi was busy holding discussions with Gino Birindelli in Rome, the previous NATO commander who was immediately dismissed by Mintoff as a ‘persona non grata’ in the first 24 hours of the re-elected Labour government.
We may as of now, have no excerpts of the talks held between Gonzi and Birindelli, but we can surmise such discussions did not dwell on peaceful intentions. Birindelli had by then joined the Italian fascists (he was president of Almirante’s far-right Italian Social Movement from 1972-1973, serving as an MP up to 1976) and was also a member of the Italian masonic lodge P2, which was involved in conspiring with Latin American military officers in their dirty wars against leftists and dissidents, and implicated in the 1980 Bologna massacre when a fascist terror group bombed the central Bologna train station and killed 85 people.
It would be naive to think that Mintoff’s friendly antics with Gonzi after the peace – the exchange of flowers, the blessings and the letters – were anything more than formal politics.
Peace was made only because the working-class movement had won and the Church had lost. And Gonzi did not start the war to lose it, but when he did lose he had no other choice but to play along. When he was desperately scouring for support in Rome in the early 1970s Gonzi was as vulnerable as ever. Mintoff on the other hand stuck with the accords of the peace made with Church: introducing civil marriage but not divorce. Mintoff threaded cautiously and let sleeping dogs lie. An astute statesman, Mintoff knew there was yet more time for the next secular leap forward, but it was a matter of waiting until society began emancipating itself economically and through education.
If Archbishop Charles Scicluna has ulterior motives for his recent comments, or is actually genuine and honest on what he is saying, one is still yet to see.
I write this because it is very hard to trust Archbishop Scicluna, given the history of how he entered his office. Scicluna was forced to take up the Archbishopric after Paul Cremona was forced to resign in a climate dominated by the influence of a conservative faction of the Church, led by ‘father Beirut’ Joe Borg. Cremona served his role purely as a spiritual leader and refused to get involved in politics, something which infuriated the conservative clerics who wanted a militant archbishop to take on Labour’s influence. Scicluna complied with a political campaign against Labour and its allies, alienating even more Labourites from the Church. He failed to help Simon Busuttil make headway in the 2017 elections and the conservative clerics were left with egg on their face.
After the last election, Scicluna’s political commentary decreased substantially.
Archbishop Michael Gonzi should not be rehabilitated in history as a legitimate historical figure who contributed to the progress and development of society – he did not. Gonzi was a historical pariah and an educated thug who wielded his hostile power without any consideration to those he affected.
Any demand for forgiveness which comes with an asymmetric contract of conditions, such as the rehabilitation of Michael Gonzi, is not a genuine demand for forgiveness at all, but a deceitful way to cloak the Church’s historical abuses and minimise their impact in history.
If forgiveness comes with an openness to history, then it could be more genuine. Scicluna is not an idiot. He is an intellectual and a respected functionary of the Pope. If Scicluna intends to heal the wounds of the past, he could do so much better by avoiding hyperbolic statements such as “I’d give my life to this” and by simply acknowledging history itself.
As a historian, I am still to be convinced of Scicluna’s intentions.