The Apostle Paul brought the Gospel to Malta, and the Maltese today arguably remain the most Catholic people on the planet, despite plunging Mass attendances in recent years. The strategic position of the Maltese islands made it inevitable that their history would be full of invasions and wars.

Conflict of another sort, however, erupted from Malta earlier this month and spread worldwide with the publication of a document by the nation’s bishops. The text, “Criteria for the Application of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia”, offered a set of guidelines intended to help interpret and apply the most disputed section of Pope Francis’s much discussed document.

Anybody who has been following the discussions surrounding Amoris Laetitia should know by now that to venture an opinion on its somewhat ambiguous provisions concerning Communion for the divorced and remarried it is to enter a war zone. The issue goes beyond discipline to touch long-held Church teaching, with vocal disagreements being aired on whether and to what extent a change in discipline is compatible with maintaining doctrine.

The Maltese document comes down firmly on the side of a relaxation of the discipline. It speaks of a process of discernment and examination of conscience under the pastoral guidance of clergy, quoting Pope Francis, who says that not all people in irregular situations are subjectively in grave sin. The crucial passage affirms that if the person “manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

Reactions to the Maltese document were rapid and vociferous. Conservatives denounced it as a disastrous compromise of essential doctrine. Those who are apparently relaxed about the issue of doctrinal continuity and open to liberalising Church law leapt to its defence. The publication of the document by the Vatican’s house journal L’Osservatore Romano seemed to bestow the seal of official approval, suggesting that the Pope himself was backing it, albeit at arm’s length.

Who are the intrepid (or foolhardy) prelates who have ventured into this minefield, offering a clear – and contentious – interpretation of a document of renowned ambiguity? Malta has only two dioceses: the Archdiocese of Malta, and just one suffragan see, Gozo. The Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, 57, was first auxiliary to Archbishop Paul Cremona then succeeded in 2015, a year after Cremona’s surprise resignation. Mario Grech, 60 next month, has been Gozo’s bishop since 2005.

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