Roseau, Dominica (TDN) -- I view with some degree of trepidation the news that the government of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerritt has made a donation of $500,000 to the Roman Catholic church to assist in the restoration of the cathedral.
This is clearly a case where good news could potentially be bad news. And especially in this general election season, the appearance of the Bishop of Roseau posing with the prime minister in a prominent photo accepting the cheque, raises some very serious issues that must be addressed.
Those of us who believe that there ought to be a clear line of demarcation between Church and State see this as bad news, even if it is good news that the church is receiving the much needed funds for the restoration of the cathedral.
So why the need for separation between church and state? It’s quite simple. The church must not be in a position where it feels morally obligated to any government which would inevitably constrain the church’s ability to speak out openly and freely, as it should, on matters of morality and ethics in the conduct of public policy.
People, and yes, governments, usually give gifts with the expectation of something in return. In this case, the loyalty of the church, or at least the expectation that the church would be somewhat deferential to the government that made the gift, and not criticize when there is a need to, on matters of morality and good governance.
Already we are troubled by reports that some government supporters refer to the honorable bishop as “their boy”, meaning he is squarely in their corner. This is dangerous stuff which should give all of us pause.
It is not enough for the church to claim that it is an independent voice of reason and of ethical and moral behavior at the public policy level. The church must demonstrate in word and deed that it is a veritable independent voice and the acceptance of this gift, complete with photo and the massive publicity which the prime minister received in the process, effectively compromises the independent voice which the church needs to maintain.
At the global level, much of the progress in the twentieth century in the realm of civil and human rights in the United States and South Africa and elsewhere has been spearheaded by church leaders, notably, martin Luther King in the United States and Desmond Tutu in South Africa, etc.
They maintained their independence to speak out conscientiously and be the catalyst for change, not unlike the role that Jesus Christ played in his life on earth. It would indeed be a moral tragedy if the church feels muzzled, as I fear it will, because they perceive they owe a debt of gratitude to a government in power for the receipt of $500,000.
But the irony is the $500,000 really came from the tax payers of Dominica. But that’s not how Mr. Skeritt sees it, or how he would like us to see it. Considering we live in an age when government has gone to great lengths to create the impression that the people’s tax money is government’s money which they are free to dole out as they wish, and expect political loyalty in return, we are treading dangerously on thin ice.
Think Red Clinic and the general impression that the money is coming from the prime minister, and not from the nation’s coffers.
So what was the alternative to the direct grant from the government to the church? Simple. Individuals and corporations should have been encouraged to make charitable donations to the church and legislation enacted to grant donors a double tax credit, two dollars of tax credit for every dollar of donation, or some variant, up to a certain level.
This would have had the same effect of the direct grant from the government, without the baggage of knowing that the grant came from the government and the false expectation of loyalty to government that the grant in its current form encourages.
That’s how it is done in advanced democracies and this is how it should be done in the future to protect the right of free speech by church officials who are expected to speak out on matters of morality in the public sphere.
At the very least, it would remove the temptation for political fanatics to refer to the bishop as their “boy”, a characterization that the bishop himself should reject.