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As Fr Harvey leads silent protest on Parliament: Blurred line between church and politics

Published: 
Monday, April 6, 2015
Fr Clyde Harvey leading a silent protest in front of the Parliament on Good Friday. PHOTO: CLYDE LEWIS

The widely-held view is that religion and politics should be independent of each other. However, on Good Friday, the line that separates the two became blurred when Roman Catholic priest Father Clyde Harvey staged a silent protest outside of the Parliament. The outspoken cleric told the T&T Guardian he was concerned about the disillusionment of citizens, particularly young people. He felt “young people are really throwing their hands up in the air and people are becoming more and more disillusioned about politics and with society in general and that is a recipe for social chaos.”

Somebody had to “take a clear stand against what is going on”, he said. Harvey said he got the idea for the protest last Saturday. However, it was not prompted by the furore over Tobago East MP Vernella Alleyne-Toppin’s comments about Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.

“It has been building up over the last year or so and that is why I say nobody could say ‘I am innocent’ to the extent that I myself have not done something, so I am just as guilty as the rest of us. One tends to say ‘I do not know enough, I should not get involved.’ One tends to say someone else will do something about it,” Harvey explained. He said it was not his intent to make Parliament a Good Friday bobolee: “The whole point is that Parliament must never become a bobolee. But that could only happen if we, every citizen, feel strongly enough about that.

“When the people in Parliament lose their sense of responsibility for Parliament and simply see Parliament as a place to score political points and destroy their political opponents the society has to say no. This is not a partisan stance, it is a stance that I hope every citizen of this country can affirm,” Harvey said. While he agrees that the church and partisan politics should be separate and apart, Harvey said “there are times when the church has to clearly uphold and defend the basic principles on which our institutions rest.”

Harvey said he hoped his action on Friday spurs a “raising of consciousness, a rekindling of hope no matter how small, a deepening of commitment to the institutions that are part of the country.” “We cannot say we love T&T if we allow the fundamental institutions of society to fall apart before our eyes,” he said. From time to time, he added, the church speaks out in society and “that is how it should be.” 

“I do not see myself as unique. I think there are other people speaking out. The question is what they say when they speak out,” he said.

RC Archbishop: Church and politics want the same
Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph Harris shares Harvey’s view that a stance must be taken. He said it is not new for the church to make its voice heard in politics, especially when the society is going awry. He pointed out that late Archbishop Anthony Pantin was considered to be the conscience of the nation and from time to time made his voice heard on matters in T&T. That is no different from what Father Harvey did on Friday, Harris said.

“A lot of people think the church should stay out of politics, but I think you have to understand what politics mean. Politics is different from politicking and politics is not partisan politics. Politics is essentially the search for the common good and because politics is the search for the common good the church has a right to express its views on the common good,” he said. He added that one must consider what is happening in Parliament and determine whether it leads to the “common good.”

“After all, at the moment we are all citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. Apart from being religious leaders we are part of this country and we have a desire to see this country become the best that it can become, so even from the point of view of being citizens we have a right to say what we see as important,” he said. The Archbishop also suggested that other religious bodies hold politicians responsible for their behaviour.

“Father Harvey and those who carried on the silent protest are well within their rights to ask that politicians, who are leaders in the society, live up to their vocation. I think all religious bodies should help in the adherence, to understand what is at stake and what is at stake is not so much infrastructure but the soul of the nation,” he said. Harris said if citizens begin talking about the soul of the nation they have to ask themselves if what they see happening between politicians “is helping to build or elevate the soul of the nation, or bring it down.”

The Archbishop said he is hopeful politicians will keep their word and obey the Political Code of Ethics they voluntarily signed. “I do not think any politician wants to run afoul of the church,” he said. 

Harvey, who supported the Archbishop’s call on the Code of Ethics, added: “If the tone of Parliament carries over into the elections this society will self-destruct. Some people can make a sincere commitment to live and truly and fully adhere to the code of political conduct and to deal with the people’s business on the political platform rather than the candidate’s personal business,” he said. If this happens, Harvey said, “this election campaign may be the best we have ever had.”

Samaroo: Not the first time religion and politics mixed
Historian Prof Brinsley Samaroo said the Good Friday protest was not the first time church and politics had mixed. He expects it will not be the last. “It is not unusual for the church to take a position on matters of national issue,” Samaroo said, adding that what Harvey did was not out of the ordinary. “It is one of the things that church should be doing because of the moral authority that it holds in society generally,” he said. Samaroo said one of the periods when the church was most vocal in T&T was in the 1950’s when there was a very serious debate about the Divorce Bill.

“There was a lot of division in society and the church took the position that all Roman Catholic Members of Parliament should not vote for the Divorce Bill. There was a lot of agitation, writing in the newspaper and so on,” he recalled. Samaroo, who said Harvey’s action was overdue, is of the view that the church should assert itself more on issues of governance. 

Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) leader Brother Harrypersad Maharaj agreed with Samaroo, adding that religion and politics are considered to be the two ruling bodies in the country. Politics, he said, governs infrastructure, development and so forth, while religion rules over “moral and spiritual values.” “They must work hand in hand, but each one must maintain their own identity and feel free to criticise the other if we feel that we have crossed the line on either side,” Maharaj said.

However, the IRO president warned that religious people ought not to be “influenced by politics and politics must not be influenced by religion in terms of maintaining their own identity.” He said there are times that one has to congratulate or acknowledge someone for the good work or good things they have done on both sides and he thinks this should be done. “If they have done things that are not pleasing to the society then (religious people) should also have the right to speak out on the things they feel are not right in society,” he said.

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