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Government funding to churches is wrong & can compromise

Fr Peter Ripa at Thanksgiving Mass outside Mount Hagen CathedralPAULUS RIPA

THE recent announcement that prime minister Peter O’Neill donated several millions of kina - public money - towards the construction of the Catholic Cathedral in Mt Hagen leaves me with many misgivings.

Whilst it may be a relief for thousands of Catholics in Western Highlands and Jiwaka provinces, it is wrong for the Church to accept donations from the government.

Firstly, over the last couple of hundred years the development of liberal democracy has seen the definition of roles of church and state to be separate. 

History has shown that when church and state are intertwined there develops intolerance, ecclesiastical corruption and oppression of minorities who do not profess the faith of the ruling religion. This is making a comeback in fundamentalist Muslim states now.

Second, government funds are clearly for designated secular purposes, and building churches or making donations to church groups are not right and proper. It can be rightfully construed as misuse of public funds.

Third, and most importantly, the church has always been an independent conscience and bulwark for what is right and what is wrong.

In many developing nations, e.g. in South America, the church has consistently been the only opposition to dictatorial and oppressive regimes which have often been backed by powerful nations of the West as well as the communist bloc.

In PNG, where there is no effective political opposition, the churches should be more vocal in issues where a powerful government is railroading policies and actions through parliament which are ill thought through and of great detriment to the nation.

In such circumstances the churches are compromised by government funding for projects which really should be funded by the churchgoers themselves. The bishops have been bought and they dare not utter anything against the government of the day.

I confine my arguments to the Catholic Church because I am a Catholic and I will, of course, personally contribute to the Mt Hagen Cathedral construction. I imagine that other churches, particularly those which are not mainstream, may have fewer scruples about taking a stand against the presence of what one writer called “structural evil” (Ronald Sider in Rich Christians in a Hungry World).

What can be funded by government are social services provided by the churches such as schools, clinics and hospitals, services for the disabled and the poor and so on. But such contributions must follow rules of proper accountability.

The Catholic Church has a distinguished role in providing these services and, due to its outstanding performance in accountability, has been the major recipient of funding from sources such as the Incentive Fund.

Funding support for these activities in the public good needs to be continued and expanded as, in many instances such as health services, the church is the only reliable provider in rural and remote areas.

However the church should not lose sight of its primary role of evangelisation, part of which includes the role of defender of the poor, the dispossessed and the oppressed.

Dr Paulus Ripa is a paediatrician and teaches at the University of PNG School of Medicine


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Robin Lillicrapp

I have strong theological persuasion that could articulate doctrine etc.

At the end of the day, though, Bible bashing an increasingly dumbed-down electorate does little but foment subjective and sentimental whims.

It is a reason I support the aims of the Croc Prize initiative.

I suspect there are school systems in PNG among the church sectors who are striving to achieve similar ends: literacy and discernment.

These are powerful tools at the disposal of individuals who, availed of their use, become personally aware, articulate, and responsible for their actions; hopefully, even accountable to their Maker at a personal level.

Lord, give us a nation of such empowered people.

Jimmy Awagl

The state has an obligation to fund its physical church to address social issues since humanity represents both the physical and spiritual church.

Churches play a major vital role to shape and mould humanity and state laws should fund churches for genuine infrastructure to benefit the nation and humanity.

Government is comprised of human being who constitute the church. We cannot separate government from human beings so funding the church is an approach of holistic development.

Giorgio Licini

Thank you, Dr Ripa, for your comments and for causing me to take a stand. The issues you raise are particularly difficult. But I was not going to shy away by calling on Archbishop Douglas Young. It’s only that, since your article was revolving around the new Mt. Hagen Cathedral, I really didn’t believe I knew better than the local bishop.

Besides that, I am sort of Director of Communications for the PNG/SI Catholic Bishops’ Conference, but not an official spokesperson. Needless to say that I consider this to be an advantage for the purpose of information and debate; though my opinion can only be considered in fact as mine.

I will try to briefly tell what I personally think on the various issues you raised on your article and those you added on your comment:

1. I personally don’t like expensive churches. I never built one. I know of a priest in PNG who is planning one of PGK3 million, but I am telling him that it can and should do it with PGK300 thousand; the main reasons being the social environment and the conditions of our people.

2. I have been told, however, that the project in Mt Hagen is not only for a “Cathedral”, but also other social and communication services to go along. But I do not have sufficient information on the details; so I really cannot say if I would personally budget or approve the same amount if I were in the place of the Archbishop of Mt Hagen.

3. I also don’t know if I would have resorted to soliciting government funds. It depends very much on the situation, the actual needs, the relationship between the local community and the political leaders…

I personally do not have particular problems with government helping churches also on building places of worship, besides those for education, health or social purposes in general, which may indeed be a priority.

People grow, mature and become better persons and citizens also through prayer, listening to the World of God, celebrating the sacraments and spending time in fellowship…

Of course they must be the first to contribute towards the building of their cathedral, church, chapel, kingdom hall or whatever; others should only complement.

4. With the Catholic Bishops’ Conference new Headquarters project in Port Moresby and the Mt Hagen Cathedral, the government leaders came up with pledges that very much surpassed Church expectations. I had a chance to notice, however, that a “pledge” does not necessarily translate in… actual cash. At least not that fast!

5. I was not present at the Mt Hagen event, but in Port Moresby I also noticed that Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and others justified their pledge with the wish to give the Catholic Church proper headquarters to run the social services the Church is in fact running in the country.

And the present headquarters at Gordons are there for any PNG citizen to see: cramped, partially burned down and substandard (myself I could not find space there with my new job in 2012 and had to migrate to Madang).

Should the Church keep on looking for outside funds (now severely dwindling anyway) or become more and more self-reliant with the help of the national community? That’s certainly also open to debate!

6. You say that the Church should be more vocal on social concerns such as corruption, etc. I agree. We will never be vocal enough; especially if we keep on identifying the Church with our 19 Bishops or so (some in fact are dead and not yet replaced) and a few Secretaries of Commissions like myself.

We did what we could in the past few months/years with corruption, elections, charter change, death penalty, mass sterilization of the poor, etc.

But much more will be done and achieved when thousands of Catholic (and no-Catholic) teachers, lawyers, doctors and health workers, professionals in general will organise themselves, talk and speak… Fasten your seat belts and take off!

7. The issue of contraception, which covers an enormous range of situations, should be more discussed among everybody and at all levels.

Things are stuck at the moment due, in my opinion, to the “original sin” of the O’Neill-Dion government: do major things without consulting anybody. This we saw with constitutional changes, asylum seekers, the death penalty, and the contraception as well.

We do not believe that plans of mass sterilisation will solve our problems. Exactly as we don’t believe that the death penalty will solve the crime problem. There is a much more comprehensive, patient, long term, educational, law enforcing process to be undertaken in both fields.

I strongly admire politicians like Parkop, Ipatas, Tomuriesa and others who put young people in school. They kill so many birds with one stone! Get the present generation educated and you will have a good population balance in a couple of generations.

The issue of birth control, however, is complex, has many faces, it also requires a degree of realism to go with sound moral and ethical principles. Hope the government opens a table of discussion to which everybody will certainly be happy to participate.

8. A final note on the effects that government support to Church buildings may have on election day. I may be totally wrong, but my impression is that in the PNG context it will have none.

First, these buildings are not private residences, nor are meant to generate profit of any sort.

Second, people consider government money as “their” money. And as far as I know government grants (for social programs or recently for buildings) never deterred the Catholic Church from voicing criticism about any government policy it felt it had to talk against.

I support the separation of Church and State but not to that level of paranoia displayed in some Western countries.

Dr Ripa’s warning against the risk of “intolerance, ecclesiastical corruption and oppression of minorities”, however, must be taken into the most serious consideration and never underestimated.

Social prominence can always lead, at times unwillingly, to social prevarication; which is very very bad!

Thanks again Dr Ripa and Keith for the space generously accorded! And welcome indeed to any further contribution!

Peter Kranz

Thank you Archbishop Young for your excellent response. I know that many Churches are providing basic care and support in PNG which would normally be the prerogative of the state in other countries.

This is good Christian charity. But as you say "the danger of being bought is very real". At some time the state may demand it's pound of flesh.

I remember being schooled in an SDA environment when there was a lively debate taking place about whether to receive state funding at all.

"But they will determine our curriculum!"

"They will say what we can and can't teach!"

On the other hand -

"We are saving the state money by providing education."

"We have the right to send our children to schools of our own choosing."

It's a complicated issue, more so in the case of PNG.

I reckon churches should be rightly compensated for the shortfall in public funding and services that they help to meet.

But this must not be at the cost of church principles, or of the inclusive provision of services for all, irrespective of faith.

Giorgio Licini

This is from Archbishop Douglas Young SVD of Mount Hagen.

I appreciate Doctor Ripa’s comment and, as a product, even something of a victim, of a western secular “liberal”, democracy with a fairly strict division between church and state I agree with him entirely.

I say a victim because, for most of my childhood, the State did not assist my education because I was in a Catholic school and the burden was carried by my parents with considerable stress on our family income.

The Catholic Bishops Conference has consistently maintained that the State should adequately budget for and fund the areas for which it is responsible: roads, communication, civil infrastructure, education, health, security, law and order.

If the State adequately supported the economic infrastructure, and generated employment our people could earn their own money and freely contribute for religious and other purposes.

We know from history that the Church is at its strongest when it is entirely supported by the generosity of its members. Whenever it is dependent on the State it is at risk.

However we have to admit that this is not the popular view of our constituents. If they could articulate their position in these terms they might say that the Western liberal approach is dualist whereas the Melanesian Way avoids unnecessary and non-traditional distinctions between the secular and the religious.

Thus, in the view of the majority of Papua New Guineans, politicians and public servants can and should be explicitly motivated by their faith and the churches should receive public funding. Our people tell us “the money is ours”.

We would also not argue for a strict division as per USA or Australia because, as Dr. Ripa, says, we must always be free to influence the public sphere.

At the same time we have to be accountable to the wider community, not only financially but morally also.

The argument of our fund raising committee has been that the State has failed to contribute adequately to the services that Dr. Ripa has mentioned: health and education, and related social services.

For 80 years the Catholic Church has been providing these services. They see the Kina for Kina contribution of the State as “catching up “with what is owed.

I admit that I for one was surprised and possibly a little embarrassed by the size of the Prime Minister’s pledge. This may have been influenced by the fact that the project is not simply a cathedral but also a home for Triniti FM radio station, the beginnings of a Conference Centre, a venue for large scale public events of a religious or civic nature, and integrated with long-term plans for the development of Rebiamul Field, including parking.

Some of the funding will certainly go to aspects that are normally taken care of by public authorities such as road, power, and communication connections, water supply and drainage.

Sometimes I hear politicians talk about “tithing”, i.e. giving 10% of public funds to the churches. I am one who is opposed to this. For one, I think tithing is an Old Testament idea and the New Testament idea is to give according to ability.

Also if the churches have 40% of education and health care surely they should be getting 40% of the funding for these sectors! This is not the case.

If the State merely followed its statutory obligations to those churches providing services, and withdrew some of the onerous taxation burden, we would be able to take care of our spiritual and pastoral services quite adequately.

Currently much of our limited income and resources goes towards providing services which are the obligation of the State.

The danger of being bought is very real. We will have to see whether this happens in Mount Hagen! On the other hand, some maintain that the only way to bring about change is to be part of the process and not standing outside it with a holier than thou attitude.

Generally people seem to appreciate the stand of the Catholic Church on social issues especially corruption and the care for rural areas. I doubt if this will stop. If it does, then please let us know!

We are currently attempting to respond to another area where the State is failing badly: the care for vulnerable children especially orphans.

This requires both a sharp public criticism of this failure and a willingness to work along with those who are in a position to do something.

P.S. Thanks for the pledge!

Bomai D Witne

Paulus Ripa, you are highlighting a challenge facing the Catholic church. In my view, the role of the Catholic Bishops Conference (CBC)is to provide leadership on spiritual and physical matters, consistent with the teachings of the Catholic church and the laws of the land and international conventions. CBC has committed its leadership in that direction and like other organizations some failure is inevitable. CBC through the bishops, most (national)priests and the laity joined hands in living and extending the CBC's stand on various spiritual, socio-cultural, political and economic issues in the communities they live in. In my view, Papua New Guinean Catholics must rise up to the challenge to understand the issues discussed by the CBC and discern what is right and what is wrong, taking into account realities facing them daily. I think you have just done this. I have my own views. While I find it difficult to separate the CBC and Bishops from the parishioners on such matters, I also understand that the Archdiocese of Mt Hagen accepted the donation from the government to build a Cathedral, does not in any way compromise or weaken the position of the Catholic church on issues that it has always being passionate and vocal on, including corruption and illegal election practices. I am a Catholic and I have my on views on the government and its donation to my church will not change my views on the government.

Paulus Ripa

Fr Licini, your response is interesting. As a member of the clergy you do not seem to have an independent opinion and you seek a response from the Bishop of Mt Hagen.

My comments are not confined to Bishop Young. I gather the Conference of Bishops and the diocese of Port Moresby have all benefited from PNG government donations.

Yet it seems that potential conflicts of interest were not taken into account. I would be interested in what discussion took place in the recent conference of bishops on such issues.

I know Bishop Young and have a lot of respect for him as he is one of the truly great bishops both in his pastoral work as well as running a complex archdiocese like Mt Hagen with its development of social services such as schools and health facilities.

Indeed his leadership and management skills has seen the archdiocese benefit from donor funding such as the incentive fund for various clinics and schools and steady growth of the church from a missionary church to a local one.

I am more disappointed with the Bishops conference as a group who have only seen fit to make weak statements against corruption and make veiled pronouncements against artificial contraception and family planning promotion.

The latter was such a disappointment to many of us lay health workers when population boom is a huge ticking time bomb both at family level and as a nation.

As laymen, we would assume that there is much prayer and thought by our church hierarchy before decision making and often we may disagree but accept decisions as Gods plans may be contrary to ours.

However, occasionally we wonder whether the bishops may not have prayed enough or the Holy Spirit may have taken a break when they prayed.

What will be the church’s response when the ruling party and its candidates in 2017 demand their “pound of flesh” for their contributions?

Giorgio Licini

Trying to get a comment from Archbishop Douglas Young SVD of Mt Hagen. Hope to be successfull...

Michael Dom

Exactly right.

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