Family and Gender in Malta: A Changed Environment, with Recognizable Maltese Differences

  • Families enjoying themselves in front of the San Filippo Band Club headquarters on the eve of the feast of San Filippo d'Agira, Żebbuġ.
  • The image of Our Lady of the Assumption draws a steady stream of visitors to Ta' Pinu shirne, where Mary is said to have spoken to two villagers.

Maltese life has been transformed in many ways over the last 50 years. The islands have become more prosperous, more integrated into Europe, more diverse, more committed to neoliberal economic models, and more secular. Of all the changes, one area often noted by interviewees when talking about Catholic life on the islands concerned changes around family life and gender norms.1

Until recently, the legal system and the social norms that accompany it hewed closely to traditional Catholic norms for gender and family relations. Adultery and homosexual acts were punishable by law until 1973. Civil marriage, i.e. marriage by a state officiant, rather than a priest or minister, was not possible until 1975 and remained an uncommon choice for Catholics for a long time after.2 Until 1980, women who worked for the government were required to resign from their jobs when they married, due to the expectation that it was their role to be at home with their children.  

These were consequential changes, but in 2005 anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain could still write, “despite changes in the law, the self-important image, and dominant position of Mediterranean man still persists. Men still maintain that they have the right to hold forth in public while the family women remain quietly in the background.”3 But things were changing. Younger women, he wrote, accepted that more grudgingly, and boys and girls were being educated together.4  

Change has been more rapid since 2011 when divorce was legalized in a referendum that the Church, which spoke out strongly against it, expected to win. Until that time, because of the Church’s political and social influence, one scholar reports, “divorce was hardly even mentioned... It was not even included in the electoral manifestos of the two dominant political parties.”5

All these changes came about through democratic practices, not through court rulings.  Survey data from 2020 suggests that Maltese are typically European in their acceptance of the following statements: “everyone's choice of personal lifestyle and family life should be respected;” “equality between women and men should be actively ensured in all areas;” “there should be no discrimination on any grounds, including sex, age, ethnicity, religion, political or other opinion, membership of a minority, wealth, disability or sexual orientation;” and “everyone should have the freedom of thought, expression and religion.”6  

In the second of two studies of Maltese family life in the 1980s and 90s, Carmel Tabone, O.P. noticed one cultural reconceptualization of family life that may account for some of the change.  He described it as a “desacralization” of the conception of marriage’s purpose. In his 1983 survey of married people, one question asked why the person had gotten married. Out of seven choices offered, among which they were asked to rank the top three, almost 71% chose “to love and serve God through marriage” as one of the top three. Almost 13% ranked it first. A decade later, in 1993, just over 43% chose “to love and serve God through marriage” as one of the top three and just over 5% ranked it first. Though marriages continued to take place in churches most of the time, their essential purpose was being secularized.

Malta is still conservative by some important measures. Abortion is illegal, except to save the life of the mother. The country’s 2021 divorce rate was the lowest outlier among countries in the European Union, about 1/3 the median for the EU as a whole.7 On the other hand, the marriage rate has declined notably in recent years, though in 2021 it was still higher than the EU mean.8 Marriage is often deferred, for economic reasons, many say, but as is true in many Western societies, the increasing treatment of youth and adolescence as distinct stages of life has also contributed to the deferral of marriage. Single parenthood has grown much more common. The percentage of births to unmarried parents tripled from 10.6% in 2000 to 31.8% in 2016, though that is also lower than the proportion for the EU as a whole.9

As births barely outpace deaths in Malta, any population growth on the islands today is due almost exclusively to immigration from other countries.10 In 2019, Malta had the lowest rate of live births in all of Europe, at 1.14 births per adult woman, just over half the birth rate necessary to naturally sustain the population, though it bears noting that the birth rate was already low in 1967 (2.25 per adult women) and in 1985 (2.02), a period when Catholic influence and sacramental adherence was exceptionally high.11  

Catholic interviewees for this research reported that even though families are getting smaller and households are less likely intergenerational, family is still important. The structure of family life has for years been more nuclear than intergenerational.12 Some middle-aged interviewees, even if they remembered having an elderly aunt or parent living in their home when they were children, today had parents in care homes or living separately. Interviewees reported that relatives took time to visit each other and that adult children often stayed at home into their 20s.13   

Two working-class women interviewees lamented the impact of the cost of living on families. They remembered when women could stay at home to help care for older and younger members of the family, but saw that as quite difficult now. They were both glad for the opportunities that women had to work but also lamented that working was a necessity that did not necessarily put families ahead, due to housing costs. “You have to work,” one said. Another agreed but added, in a way that concretizes this article’s opening paragraph, “When I was young it was totally different… We didn’t spend money the way we do now.”  

While there was a certain nostalgia among interviewees for the best aspects of family life from the past, and some feeling that the situation now was not the best it could be, none desired to turn back the clock fully. A woman suggested that while divorce was new, she knew of plenty of other forms of separation and marital distancing before that. “My mother always told me, ‘You don’t really know what’s going on in other people’s houses.’” A father of four, married for decades, talked about how he and his friends regard these social/familial changes: “It’s a personal matter. Who am I to hold something…I can’t force someone. There are so many cases of people who got it [a marriage] wrong on the first try and they found happiness. They are good people, they are living a good life. And even gay people, they were born that way. Even the Church is accepting that.”  

On family matters, without letting go of traditional ideals, interviewees typically appealed to the language of situation, conscience, and human experience. Several admitted that the hierarchy’s failings, particularly around clerical sexual abuse of children, have done a lot to undermine the Church’s authority and teaching on sexual morality. 

Some also pointed out that for reasons perhaps derived from the historic influence of Catholic social thought, Malta provides an unusually strong, family-friendly social safety net: free education from kindergarten through tertiary education, healthcare, and high-quality social services. These were evidence, they thought, that Maltese value the family, even if traditional metrics about family life are changing.

Gender roles

Gender roles have shifted, but certainly not disappeared. Already in the 1990s, Tabone’s surveys detected a nascent shift from complementary thinking in terms of gender roles and familial responsibilities to what he called symmetrical thinking.14 Parliamentary leadership is heavily male in its district representation, but the constitution created up to a dozen at-large seats for women as an “under-represented sex.” There is, as in every country, a gender pay gap. In 2019 Women in Malta earned 11.6% less pay per hour than men, but interestingly, that was better than the European Union as a whole (14.1%), where some of the most prosperous countries were the most unequal.15   

In Church settings, membership in confraternities has become open to women, but only men had the public robed roles or carried the statues in the feast procession observed in Żebbuġ, though there were altar girls in the procession. At the setup for the feasts, there was some gender-typical role-casting obvious among the volunteers, but a few women were involved in tasks once considered a male preserve, like setting up fireworks.  

Attentiveness to religion is certainly gendered. A 2021 survey asked how much Maltese consider religion when making decisions about what is good or bad. 63.2% of women vs. 44.9% of men said that they consider religion a lot when making decisions about what is right or wrong.  68% of women compared to 51.9% of men consider religion important in their lives.16

In interviews for this research, when asked whether the ordination of women was an important issue for them or their friends, no one said yes. This could be the result of some shortcomings in the selection of interview partners, which could be a matter of selection bias, though it seems congruent with a recent research project composed of interviews with forty-four Maltese.17 When asked, “What are your views on the Church’s stances on social issues? Can you give me any examples?”, with instructions to interviewers to probe, “For example, I don’t know, when it comes to poverty, the environment, migration, women, work, etc. Whatever you want. Pick your main issue,” it was striking that LGBTQ issues showed up at the top of the list in terms of frequency, while “women” showed up eleventh. Poverty and social justice came in second, reproductive issues third, and “divorce/separation” fourth.18  

Divorced and LGBT Catholics

Angele Deguara, a Maltese sociologist who interviewed Maltese Catholic adults whose marriages had ended, found that even in a country that had voted to allow divorce, the influence of traditional Catholic teaching on the family was still manifest in the form of social judgment, both actual and perceived in the form of shame. Those shame dynamics, she wrote, make clear that even if Malta has agreed to allow divorce, divorce was not perceived as a morally equal option. Her interviewees all believed that they were loved and not judged by God, despite their situations, but were sensitive to the social stigma they perceived. They reasoned morally about their situation based on what they believed about God’s love for them. Church ideals of family life and marriage were still the interviewees’ ideals, but unsought situations had altered what was possible for them. Thus, they approached Church teaching on marriage as something to be “applied as necessary and disregarded when not applicable to one’s circumstances.”19   

Deguara also interviewed LGBT Catholics in Malta. They often distinguished between how they understand the Church’s teaching and how they understand God: “my study participants also tend to associate God with love and forgiveness and profess to have a personal relationship with God, speak to him, and feel his presence.”20

A survey of self-identified LGBTI people by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights revealed important challenges that LGBTI people faced in Malta but also showed that their situation was better than in much of Europe. Maltese respondents had the highest level of belief compared to citizens of other EU states that their government was doing enough to combat prejudice and intolerance against them, were average among EU citizens rating their own openness about their identity, were second least likely among Europeans to avoid holding same-sex partner’s hands in public for fear of being assaulted, and were least likely to report threats or harassment in the prior year. They expressed life satisfaction at nearly the same high level as other Maltese.21  

Conclusion: “What has not changed”

Amidst all these changes, there was an undercurrent in conversations with Maltese about what is distinctly Maltese in terms of culture, and what is not. Two middle-aged interviewees suggested that attitudes toward the family were the primary way Maltese culture still tilted toward the sensibilities of their North African neighbors, more than their European ones.  Arguably, some re-tilting in the European direction is in progress. But, having listed a whole range of changes in Malta in recent decades, one interviewee asserted confidently, “What has not changed is loyalty, patronage, family first, what is good for my family is good for me.” That, he said, meant a culture in which nepotism was seen more as a reasonable expectation than a problem, where “family first” had forceful implications.  

When they talked about the family, several interviewees expressed worry that Maltese were becoming “too individualistic.” But other data suggests that they are, compared to many other people in the developed world, quite communal and relational. In a recent government survey, 60% of Maltese were “highly satisfied with personal relations in their life” (a 9 or 10 on a scale of 1-10). More than ⅓ were moderately satisfied (5-8 on the scale) and only a bit over 5% registered less than 5 on the scale. This was true even though they ranked their financial situation much worse.22 In the same study, almost 60% of Maltese reported never, and 23% rarely, feeling lonely. Levels of depression and downheartedness were low.23  So far, it would seem, the structures of family life, and even their religious motivation, are changing, but the relational bonds born out of that religiously-shaped culture seem strong. 

  • 1Undoubtedly, all of these phenomena are interrelated. In addition to the sources cited below, the research supporting this site’s articles on Malta are based on twelve in-depth interviews and many informal conversations conducted in the parish of Naxxar over ten days in March/April 2023, and during three days of the parish feast of San Filippo d’Agira in Żebbuġ in June of 2023.
  • 2In 1993, 11% of marriages were contracted civilly. Carmel Tabone, O.P., Maltese Families in Transition: A Sociological Investigation (Santa Venera, Malta: Ministry of Social Development, 1995), 49.
  • 3Jeremy Boissevain, Hal Kirkop: A Village in Malta (Malta: Midsea, 2006), 170.
  • 4Boissevain, Hal Kirkop, 170.
  • 5Angele Deguara, “Sexual Morality and Shame Among Catholics Whose Lifestyle Does Not Conform to Church Teaching,” Sexuality and Culture 23, no. 3 (September 2019): 793-810, doi:10.1007/s12119-019-09591-w. See also, R. Pace, “Growing Secularisation in a Catholic Society: The Divorce Referendum of 28 May 2011 in Malta,” South European Society and Politics 17, no. 4 (2012): 573–589. Six years later, by a nearly unanimous parliamentary vote, same-sex marriage was legalized, again over Church opposition. Assisted reproduction was also legalized in 2012 and 2018.Quickly as these changes seemed to arrive, surveys done by Carmel Tabone, O.P. in 1983 and 1993 make clear that on divorce, birth control, and civil marriage, the ground was already shifting. Tabone, Maltese Families in Transition, 90.
  • 6Their rankings were almost exactly equal to the median level for the rest of Europe, at about 8 out of 10 points on a Likert scale. “Values and identities of EU citizens,” Special Eurobarometer 508, European Commission Joint Research Centre, published November 2021, 92.
  • 7For the 2021 marriage and divorce rates for Malta and the EU, see “Marriage and Divorce Statistics,” Eurostat, accessed August 16, 2023.
  • 8Marriage and Divorce Statistics,” Eurostat, accessed August 16, 2023.
  • 9Are more babies born inside or outside marriage?” Eurostat, published April 16, 2018.
  • 10Eurostat, Key Figures on Europe, 2021 (Belgium: Imprimerie Bietlot, 2021), 11.
  • 11Eurostat, Key Figures on Europe, 2021, 12; Robert E. Wright and Robin G. Milne, “The Decline of Fertility in Malta: The Role of Family Planning,” European Journal of Population / Revue Européenne de Démographie 13, no. 2 (January 1997): 147–67, One needs to step back much further to encounter the era when big families were the norm. In 1948, “one family out of four had more than ten children,” and in 1963, a third of families “still comprised more than six children.”
  • 12Tabone reported in 1993 that the era of multigenerational families on the traditional farm was only a memory. 11.9% of Maltese, he said, had additional kin beyond their nuclear family in the same house.  Tabone, Maltese Families in Transition, 43.
  • 13Contemporary survey data is not available, but Tabone reported in 1993 that more than 92% of married survey respondents visited their parents at least once a week. Nothing about the interviews conducted for this research suggested that this has changed significantly. Tabone, Maltese Families in Transition, 43.
  • 14Tabone, Maltese Families in Transition, 102.
  • 15Eurostat, Key Figures on Europe, 2021, 23.
  • 16Vincent Marmarà and Lou Bondì, L-istat tan-nazzjon [State of the Nation] (Valletta: Office of the President, Malta, 2021), 48-54. L-istat tan-nazzjon is a survey conducted at the initiative of statistician and university lecturer Vincent Marmarà and strategic communications consultant Lou Bondì under the auspices of the Office of the President of Malta.
  • 17Luke J. Buhagiar, Alessia Camilleri, and Delia Mifsud Inguanez, Representations of Catholicism Report - 2022 (Malta: DISCERN, 2022).
  • 18Buhagiar, et. al., Representations of Catholicism Report - 2022, 51, 93. None of this is to say that there are no voices committed to greater women’s inclusion in the church in Malta, but the lack of energy apparent in both interview contexts, in an economically developed Western country, bears noting.
  • 19Deguara, “Sexual Morality and Shame Among Catholics Whose Lifestyle Does Not Conform to Church Teaching,” 800. Deguara noted two Church organizations to provide pastoral ministry for divorced and separated Catholics, but heard about examples where closeness to ecclesial contexts elicited feelings of shame–or sometimes direct comments that held the separated people at a distance.
  • 20Angele Deguara, “Destroying False Images of God: The Experiences of LGBT Catholics,” Journal of Homosexuality 65, no. 3 (March 2018): 319, Deguara’s study stands out for its willingness to explore rich, intriguing, and diverse ways her interviewees conceive the gender and personhood of God, but as with the Catholics & Cultures interviews, it is difficult to generalize definitively from interviews. Her project focuses primarily on how these were an outcome of LGBT identity rather than Maltese culture in particular.
  • 21A Long Way to Go for LGBTI Equality,” European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, published 2020, 1-2.
  • 22National Statistics Office, Malta and European Statistical System, EU-SILC 2021: Well-being, Social and Health Indicators, (Valletta: NSO Malta, 2023), 6, Chart 5.
  • 23National Statistics Office, Malta and European Statistical System, EU-SILC 2021: Well-being, Social and Health Indicators, 9, Chart 6.