THE bitter conflict between Church and State raging for some time past in the Maltese Islands, and not yet settled, is closely connected with the language problem in this small but important British colony. Maltese -- a Levantine dialect -- is the language of the middle and lower classes; Italian is spoken, with a limited vocabulary and a peculiar intonation, by the upper class, about one-sixth of the population. English is the official language of the administration, but Italian is that of record in the law courts; that is, the inhabitants of Malta, 86 percent of whom cannot understand Italian, are liable to be tried in that language by Italian-speaking juries. This language problem has been present ever since the British title to Malta was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris of 1814, and various schemes of instruction to overcome it have met with scant success. In the 1880's the battle was drawn between the party led by Sir Gerald Strickland (now Lord Strickland), which opposed the spread of the Italian language, and the Mizzi party, which wanted to insure the predominance of the Italian language. These battle lines have come down to the present day, when the coalition government (the Constitutional and Labor parties) favors a policy of developing Maltese nationality along the lines of British Imperial citizenship, with English culture, standards and ideals, while the opposition (the Nationalist Party) represents the Italian-speaking elements.

The occasion of the present conflict between Church and State was a dispute over ecclesiastical discipline. Father Carta, head of the Franciscan order in Malta, attempted to remove Father Guido Micallef from the island for disciplinary reasons. Lord Strickland, the Prime Minister, intervened. Lord Strickland, himself a Roman Catholic, was born in Malta of English and Italian parents; he returned to Malta in 1921 and reëntered local politics after a distinguished career in the British Colonial Service, in the course of which he was Governor of Tasmania, Western Australia and New South Wales. In regard to the proposed transfer of the friar, Lord Strickland maintained that it was intended not as a disciplinary measure but as punishment for his support of Strickland in the 1927 elections, and he threatened to expel Father Carta as an undesirable alien on the ground that an Italian could not command a British subject to leave British territory. Popular feeling ran high, and finally the Maltese Legislative Assembly adopted on January 24, 1929, a resolution[i] requesting His Majesty's Government to invite the Vatican to send a fully authorized representative to Malta to inquire into the case.

The British Government, believing that the Micallef case was but a symptom of the generally unsatisfactory state of affairs in Malta, asked that an Apostolic Visitor be sent to Malta to investigate not only the Micallef case but also the whole question of the relations of the ecclesiastical authorities to the political government. The Cardinal Secretary of State replied that the Pope approved of such an investigation, but suggested that it be conducted by his own Delegate Apostolic. Accordingly, Mgr. Paschal Robinson was chosen, with the cordial approval of the British Government; he proceeded to Malta, where during April and May he conducted a thorough investigation into the relations between Church and State. He informed the Governor, Sir John Du Cane, that he thought the differences between the government and the ecclesiastical authorities could best be dealt with by a concordat, and the Governor advised the British Government that such a concordat should be concluded within a year, before the next general elections. The Maltese ministers requested that this concordat should provide that no foreigners be appointed heads of religious orders in Malta. The British Government asked for a copy of Mgr. Robinson's report, or at least the conclusions that he had submitted to the Vatican, so that it might see whether they formed a suitable basis for discussion; but as late as March 14, 1930, it had received neither.

Instead the Cardinal Secretary of State on July 2, 1929, wrote to the British Legation to the Holy See that "Lord Strickland is not persona grata to the Holy See, as he pretends to be," and enclosed an anonymous account of Lord Strickland's activities in Malta, according to which "Malta is at present subjected to a régime of terror and despotism, in which the opposition in Parliament is disarmed and its press gagged, the courts threatened, justice suspended, the constitution in danger, the country in a ferment, the Church and religion openly insulted and opposed." The Maltese ministers questioned the source of this account; and they added: "Be the source of the aide-memoire what it may, the contents of the document itself are obviously a travesty of the situation in Malta, dictated by undiluted political bias and transparent personal enmity against Lord Strickland, chronically indulged in by the opposition, or the socalled 'Nationalist' party in Malta. . . . The de facto leader of the Nationalist opposition is Dr. Enrico Mizzi, . . . who has been notorious in the past for his anti-British propaganda in Italy and in Malta. . . . The basis, aim and object of his policy, as stated by him, are 'that the only solution of the Maltese question is the annexation of Malta to Italy' and that 'the day cannot be far off when Malta, which de jure belongs to Italy, shall belong to her also de facto.' . . . It is to bolster up this absurd claim that the opponents of the government have made it a rule to associate Catholicism with Italianity and to denounce everything that is British as inconsistent with and hostile to our faith." They denied having defamed priests, except those taking an active part in politics for partisan purposes. On August 10, 1929, the Cardinal Secretary of State explained that this account of Lord Strickland's activities was based on the reports of Mgr. Robinson and the bishops of Malta. He further stated that the Holy See denied "the false and malicious insinuation made by Lord Strickland that the Holy See has acted in favor of the Italian party in the island." However the Holy See agreed on October 13, 1929, to initiate negotiations with the British Government through diplomatic channels in order to end the disturbed religious situation in Malta, but it added: "At the outset of the discussions in question it will be as well to remember that the principal, if not the sole, cause of the disturbed religious conditions in Malta has been the anticlerical attitude of Lord Strickland." This allegation was repudiated by the British Government, which recalled that on March 1, 1929, it had expressed its belief that the cause of the trouble in the colony was disregard of the rule against political agitation by priests and the intense participation of the Maltese priests in local politics. More than three months later (on February 7, 1930) the British Legation to the Holy See complained that it had received no suggestions as a basis on which the British Government and the Holy See could negotiate an agreement with regard to Malta.

In December 1929 the Archbishop of Malta, addressing his parish priests, said: "His Holiness has said: a certain minister is not persona grata with us. . . . Whoever of you, or of our clergy, after the words of the Holy Father, dared to say still that this government has been badly treated by the Pope or that the government is right in the religious question, would show himself a bad Catholic and as such will incur the canonical penalties." To the British suggestion that the archbishop should be restrained from making such remarks, the Cardinal Secretary of State replied that as soon as conversations for a concordat had begun silence should be enforced on both parties so that the negotiations might proceed without interruption.

On December 28, 1929, the Governor of Malta advised Lord Passfield, the British Colonial Secretary, that he considered it very desirable, in view of the fact that the necessary diplomatic negotiations for a concordat would probably not be concluded before the general elections that were likely in the following spring, to secure before those elections a statement that the Vatican disapproved of priests either taking an active part in the elections or being candidates for the Legislative Assembly; and he offered to obtain, and did obtain, a pledge from the Head of the Ministry to restrain his supporters from making provocative utterances during the negotiation of the concordat, provided a dissolution of the legislature did not take place before the Vatican's pronouncement was made. In reply, the Cardinal Secretary of State stated that he was skeptical of the value of a promise from Lord Strickland, and that "no negotiations for a concordat were possible as long as Lord Strickland was in power." The Vatican drew up and presented to the British Legation to the Holy See a long and detailed account of the activities of Lord Strickland in Malta with regard to the Catholic Church, alleging especially that his speeches had insulted the Holy See, and that he had portrayed the priests in Malta as oppressors of the working classes. As the Vatican refused to issue instructions to the Maltese clergy and also to negotiate a concordat while Strickland was in office, Strickland's undertaking automatically lapsed. Thus ended the discussions for the time being.

On April 26, 1930, the Governor wrote Lord Passfield that many priests were asking penitents in the Confessional whether they intended to vote for the Constitutional Party and, when the answer was in the affirmative, were refusing them absolution. He added that the members of the Maltese Cabinet believed "that the clergy were using undue influence on the electors, particularly with reference to the Confessional, contrary to the Electoral Law, which provides the penalty of imprisonment for such an offense. They added, however, that in their opinion the Church was trying to provoke them to retaliation, which in turn would justify the excommunication of [the] ministers." A week later, two ministers investigated the situation in the island of Gozo and found abundant evidence that the bishop, after the writ for the general elections had been issued, instructed the priests of his diocese to preach against the Constitutional Party and to refuse absolution to its supporters, and they obtained a number of sworn statements indicating that the bishop's instructions had been followed extensively.

On May 1, 1930, in a joint pastoral letter, the Archbishop of Malta and the Bishop of Gozo stated: "Know, therefore, as Catholics: (1) You may not, without committing a grave sin, vote for Lord Strickland and his candidates, or for all those, even of other parties, who in the past have helped and supported him in his fight against the rights and the discipline of the Church, or who propose to help and support him in the coming elections. (2) For even stronger reasons you may not present yourselves as candidates in the electoral lists proposed by Lord Strickland or by other parties who propose to support him in the coming election. (3) You are also solemnly bound in conscience in the present circumstances to take part in the elections and to vote for those persons who, by their attitude in the past, offer greater guarantee both for religious welfare and for social welfare." The Cardinal Secretary of State, defending the words of the bishops, stated on May 20, 1930: " It cannot be said that they have hindered the electors in the full liberty which the exercise of their political rights demands; they have rather wished to safeguard this liberty against the artifices of politicians considered by them and by their people to be adversaries of the Faith and of the public welfare."

Believing that if the elections were held grave disturbances would probably ensue, the Governor issued an ordinance postponing them indefinitely.

On May 30, 1930, the British Government, summing up the course of the dispute, informed the Cardinal Secretary of State that the Holy See "have now refused to take, as far as concerns them, the steps necessary for the restoration of a normal political life in Malta, whilst, before that, they had delayed many months the long-promised negotiations for defining the relations between Church and State in the islands, and finally rendered them impossible by attaching a condition as to the personality of the Head of the Maltese Administration, which constitutes nothing less than a claim to interfere in the domestic politics of a British Colony."

The deadlock which made constitutional government in Malta impossible was broken by an Order in Council, signed in London on June 24, 1930, which temporarily suspended the constitution of Malta and validated all ordinances enacted by the Governor since the dissolution of the legislature in April. It remains to be seen whether after this firm step by the British Government the strong feelings aroused in Malta will subside, so that there may be some final solution of the question how to regulate the position of the Church there.

A. S. V. S.

[i] This and all other documents referred to in this article are printed in "Correspondence with the Holy See relative to Maltese Affairs, January 1929 to May 1930," London, 1930. Cmd. 3588.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now