Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Church and Greece

The Malta Independent on Sunday

There is much in common between the present situation of the local Church and that of the Republic of Greece.

To start with, they are both in a desperate situation, working through a crisis of their own making. Yet, whilst fully deserving the pain caused by their arrogance and bad management, we cannot nonchalantly let them simmer in their own juice.

Our well-being depends on their successful recovery from the mess into which they have got themselves. Never in a month of Sundays did the Church authorities in Malta expect that a referendum about the introduction of divorce would get an outright majority approval at the first attempt. The Church knew that divorce would eventually be introduced through normal parliamentary procedures, when an increasingly liberal society demands it of its representatives.

Such measures which concern the rights of minorities should never be addressed through a referendum, but recourse to this odd instrument was organised in the near certainty that the popular decision would tie the hands of the elected representatives for many years to come. Convinced that in a popular electoral vote the majority that does not need recourse to divorce would trample on the rights of the minority with a comfortable margin, the Church and its PN allies organised a quick referendum in which, with the subtle assistance of the PN and Church tandem, the anti-divorce campaign was much better resourced than its adversaries, which only had the arguments in their favour.

As the campaign evolved and the pro-divorce campaign, especially through the excellent performance of its main representative Dr Deborah Schembri, started winning the arguments and people’s hearts and minds, the Church entered more directly in the campaign, with the threats of awaiting hell for those who voted for divorce becoming less veiled and more and more nuanced, to the point where the local Church’s second in command labelled pro-divorce Catholics as wolves in sheep clothing.

At no point in the campaign did the Church make the obvious distinction between the introduction of divorce in the civil statute, which for all intents and purposes is a civil right enjoyed by all other people of the world, and the actual act of divorce which in most circumstances is an act forbidden to those who want to continue to form part of an active Catholic community even at the level of partaking the Holy Sacraments.

No effort whatsoever was made by the Church to explain to its followers that they would be sinning, possibly, by actually applying for divorce but certainly not by giving the minority that needs divorce a civil and responsible way out of their broken marriage.

The Church made the horrible error of contradiction by portraying the increasing problem of marital breakdown as a direct result of the introduction of divorce when, in fact, marriages are breaking down at an accelerating rate even though divorce is not yet on our statute book.

In the end, those who remained undecided until the last minute finally had to decide whether to back the Church’s evident contradictions or back members of their own household or near family who were suffering the personal experience of marital breakdown and who needed divorce as a route to a fresh start in life.

Greece is in a financial straight jacket. It entered the euro club by misrepresenting the true state of its finances and rather than using the 11 years since it has been a eurozone member to bring its public finances in line with its obligations and liberalising its economy to render it more flexible and competitive, Greece has contrarily used its euro membership credentials to borrow cheaply to continue financing its extravagance and its living beyond its means, and to defend the privileged rigidities inbuilt into its economy. In the process, many European banks built exposure on Greek sovereign debt, in the widely held assumption that no eurozone member would be allowed to default on its debts.

Today Greece is a financial nut case. By any measures, it is bankrupt. Government debt is now twice the 60 per cent GDP limit established by euro rules. The economy is contracting as imposed austerity measures are forcing the government to roll back its role in the economy without any compensating increase in investment in the private sector, which remains scared by the financial mess in which the country is enveloped.

Countries that find themselves in such situation normally have the option of imposing an instant cut in the standard of living in order to regain competiveness through the devaluation route. Greece does not have this option, unless it decides to exit the euro and default on its international debt – a move that would wipe out the Greek banking system, leaving the country in a financial mess bigger than the one it is in already.

It can stay within the eurozone and still default on its debt, but this would again wipe out the Greek banking system as it loses the life support of the ECB. Basically, the only route left is to hop from one bail-out to another organised by the remaining eurozone members (including Malta) to avoid a dirty default – which would rock the European banking system that is still recovering from the financial crisis of 2008 – and gain time until the Greek economy is restructured back into competitiveness and growth. In the meantime, the mass privatisation of economic entities still controlled by government needs to be urgently undertaken to lessen the quantum of the bailout required.

Ultimately, when the European banking system gets into better shape in the medium term, some sort of a managed debt reduction has to be organised, on a voluntary basis, to reduce the debt burden without triggering cross default commitments.

The tasks facing both the Church and Greece are of daunting proportions. In both cases silence, humility and hard work should be the main ingredients for embarking on the road to recovery. Both cases have an advantage in the fact that their recovery is in the interests of the many that have disciplined their arrogance and bad management and can expect much support in working their way back to health.

The Church will have to do better than issue an embargoed ‘apology’ at the end of voting which, between the lines, was celebrating a premature and – as it happened – non-existent victory and seek to retain the respect of those they perceived as vanquished but who ultimately proved to be the victors. The Church must accept that there is nothing tragic about the Maltese acquiring the right to divorce already enjoyed by most other Catholic countries and rather than continue to squander its energies and resources in defining everything in heaven or hell terms, it should apply its resources to guiding Catholics to better marriage preparation, to support better assistance to families, to be more effective in guidance to those who seek assistance when their marriage is passing through difficult times, to persuade Catholics that they should resort to annulment or divorce as a very last resort and ultimately to bring more transparency and compassion into the mechanism of marriage annulment.

Greek politicians should issue an all-party unconditional apology to the Greek people for having promised the unsustainable, for having squandered resources and for giving them the illusion of an easy life based on borrowed rather than earned money. They should then embark on a national programme to work their way out their financial troubles, not by organising street protests, which scare away investment, but by accepting reality and cutting back to the extent necessary to render their economy competitive, which would then attract investment and lead to economic growth – an indispensable and currently missing ingredient in the austerity package.

For our own sake, Europe needs a healthy and stable Greece, as much as Malta needs a messianic Church totally espoused to the true values of the Gospels.

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