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VALLETTA, Malta – Almost 50 years ago, Pope Paul VI said that “the split between Gospel and culture is, without a doubt, the drama of our times.” In large measure, he was referring to the breach between religious faith and secular culture, which is especially pronounced in the West, and, above all, in Western Europe.

Across most of Western Europe, Mass attendance rates stand at all-time lows, vocations to the priesthood and religious life have bottomed out, and states long ago legalized virtually all of the behaviors the Catholic Church vigorously opposes, including divorce, birth control, abortion and same-sex marriage. The residue of the church’s ferocious resistance to all of that has fueled an equal-and-opposite anti-clericalism, which is a defining feature of many European societies.

However, there’s one corner of Western Europe where the divorce between faith and culture is still playing out in real time: The tiny island nation of Malta, with a population just over 500,000, has an outsized role in the global church as, historically at least, one of the most pervasively Catholic societies on earth.

My wife and I spent the past week in Malta, a sort of busman’s holiday, trying to take the temperature in the country following the early April visit of Pope Francis. We can certainly confirm the Catholic ethos of the place – one of our cab drivers, who took us back and forth to multiple locations, quietly made the sign of the cross whenever we passed a church.

There are more than 360 churches in Malta, which amounts to one church for every 1,380 residents of the island. If you compare that to Rome’s metropolitan statistical area, where there are around 900 churches and 4.3 million people, meaning one church for every 4,800 people – and remember this is Rome we’re talking about – you’ll get a sense of what makes Malta so unique.

So Catholic is Malta that the archbishop’s car doesn’t even need a license plate because it’s enough to display his crest, and everyone knows which vehicle is making its way down the road. Although the Maltese constitution guarantees freedom of worship, Catholicism remains the official state religion.

Given that history, the transition in Malta to a secular society in which the church is merely one among many lifestyle alternatives is still a work in progress. Consider:

  • Divorce has been legal in Malta only since 2011.
  • Civil unions, for both heterosexual and homosexual couples, were legalized in 2014.
  • Malta’s blasphemy law, which criminalized the “vilification of religion,” especially offenses against the Catholic Church, was abolished only six years ago in 2016.
  • Same-sex marriage was adopted in Malta five years ago, in 2017.
  • Abortion remains illegal in Malta, with one 2021 poll showing that 67 percent of the Maltese remain opposed to decriminalization and only 18 percent are in favor. However, the same poll showed that support for decriminalization is stronger among the young and those with higher levels of education. In addition, polls also show that a majority of Maltese disagree with prison sentences for women who terminate a pregnancy.
  • Malta’s left-leaning Labor government, which prevailed in parliamentary elections in late March, has vowed a national discussion on euthanasia. At the moment, assisted suicide is a crime which carries a potential prison sentence of up to 12 years.

What all this suggests is that Malta may be the only place in Europe where the church still has the chance to defuse the bomb before it goes off, meaning to manage the transition to a largely secular society without the “split” to which Paul VI referred.

Since 2015, the figure most responsible for how all this turns out has been Archbishop Charles Scicluna, whose 63rd birthday is today.

In terms of outlook and style, Scicluna is known as a churchman who prefers to avoid public crusades over contentious issues. That may be ironic, given Malta’s history as a crusader stronghold ruled by the military order of the Knights of St. John from 1530 to 1798, but perhaps it takes a country that knows in its bones what a crusade means to decide to avoid it whenever possible.

With regard to Malta’s debate over euthanasia, for example, Scicluna has opted against public polemics, deciding instead to throw his support behind a new facility called “St. Michael’s Hospice,” offering palliative care to terminally ill patients. Set to be completed in December, the facility sits on land donated by the archdiocese and valued at over $8 million, with the total cost of the project estimated at roughly $13 million.

In other words, the strategy in the euthanasia debate isn’t to condemn the push for legalization, but rather to demonstrate that alternatives are possible. Scicluna may be playing to a receptive audience, given that a 2016 survey showed that 90.2 percent of doctors in the country are opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide.

It’s worth saying that Scicluna is also arguably Catholicism’s leading expert on the prevention and prosecution of clerical sexual abuse, which has eroded the church’s moral credibility and embittered secular opinion. A canon lawyer by training, he was the Vatican prosecutor who brought down Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, and has gone on to become a leading advisor to Pope Francis on abuse scandals around the world.

The bottom line is that in Scicluna, the Catholic Church may have its best shot at finally getting the transition to secularism right, at least in this tiny corner of the world. It’s too early to tell how things will play out, but the mere prospect is intriguing – especially because, while secularism may have arrived in Western Europe first, the cultural forces it represents sooner or later seem destined to reach the rest of the world too.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr