The Reverend Juliana Peña and the Secular State

Rev Juliana Pe?a was — or is — Mr Manning’s Spiritual Adviser. What the term means has not been explained either by Mr Manning nor by a certain Pentecostal/Evangelical preacher who expressed the wish to have all members of government guided by a Spiritual Adviser. The prospect of over-sight by what could be Christian Ayatollahs frightened me. The term Spiritual Adviser is likely to be confused with what used to be called a “Director of Conscience” before Vatican II questioned what that meant. The function of the former “Director of Conscience” remained. The term, however, fell into disuse. The function was to ensure that the distortions which may occur in the prayer and spiritual life of those who embraced a particularly demanding spirituality, were tackled early o’clock. The distortion may be that of “scrupulosity” ie a fear of sinning that is so great that it paralyses action and may lead to severe depression. The distortion may be an extreme mysticism resulting in prayer as a flight from reality. It could signal a serious mental disorder where the voices of schizophrenia are confused with heavenly communication. Attention to Church regulations may be so great as to lose the forest of loving while scrutinising the trees of laws.

None of this would seem to cover the relationship between the Reverend. Juliana Pe?a and the former Prime Minister Patrick Manning. Indeed, Mr Manning was likely to be sharply rebuked or dropped altogether by some priests fearful that ‘advice’ could be used as an emotional insurance policy guaranteeing an excuse in the event of failure. Conscience and a dose of good sense are usually enough to inform action. What was peculiar was the silence which surrounded the news of Mr Manning’s Spiritual Adviser.

The retreat of universality

There may well have been a certain embarrassment. What do you say when your Prime Minister becomes versed in the Bible, is convinced that he is doing God’s will, has a spiritual adviser and you don’t know what that is? It must have been particularly embarrassing for those elderly PNMites who remembered Eric Williams taking on Dom Basil, vaunting Plato over an Aristotle preferred by theologians and being an unrepentant secularist. Eric Williams lived at a time when the secular state was part of the credo of those for whom the struggle for independence and the ending of colonial exploitation were the continuation of the forward march of humanity. Ireland’s Cardinal Cullen called it “a free church for a free people”. For many former colonies, the question was not the conflict between clerics and Lay Academia which had marked the secularism of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe. It was, rather, how freedom could be guaranteed where there were many religions in the same state. After Independence, there was, here in Trinidad and Tobago, a certain discreet understanding which permitted religious freedom and religious tolerance to co-exist. That Archbishop Finbar Ryan was given the country’s highest honour, the Trinity Cross, was symbolic of this. The major conflict was over schools but that was generally papered over by the fact that the government could not provide all the schools which were needed nor could the religions totally finance the schools that they administered. The page of a so-called Concordat was more a recognition that both sides needed each other than it was a detailed agreement between Church and State. That Chambers was a Catholic and Robinson a Methodist did little to disturb the public political peace.

One action nevertheless turned out to embitter, as illustrated in one of Mr Manning’s justifications for land for the “Cathedral” Lighthouse. Under the NAR, with the Archbishop and the Minister of Education being brothers, assistance was given to Servol founded by a third brother, a Catholic priest. That Servol was open to members of any religion is true. However, given the family relationships, it was certain to be perceived as favouritism to the Catholic Church. Peace was disturbed by a new “brand” of believer for whom the informal compromise was unacceptable. In retrospect, what was in question was universality on which the secular state, like the primacy of the citizen, rested. The battle of the symbols, jhandi and Trinity Cross, was the refusal of a common history and of reciprocal recognition. It is within this context that I place Patrick Manning’s public definition of “Christian” of “calling” and his relation to the Reverend Juliana Pe?a.

Family values

Mr Manning was not alone in linking political power to religious righteousness. George Bush illustrated how effective this link could be, particularly in the area of what was called “family values” and which was in fact the area of sexual mores. The problem for Mr Manning was that there was little disagreement about what those should be, as Aspire discovered. This did not mean that behaviour necessarily reflected belief, or indeed that it was meant to, in this world of imperfection. It did mean that there was no Supreme Court decision to worry about. It did mean that Mr Manning as the righteous leader never quite got off the ground. It also meant that the attempt by one of the then PNM Ministers to inject the question of abortion into the election campaign, as some democratic litmus test, fell flat.

There was, however, an Achilles heel in all the freedom, tolerance and understanding: it left the Prime Minister unconstrained by law. The cardinal rule of any secular state is that no religion is “established” and all religions recognised by the state must be treated equally.

The question of land

Two other general rules define the secular state. Citizenship is not linked to religion but is vested in the individual and no one is obliged to follow the religion of the leader or indeed to follow any religion whatsoever. Mr Manning’s frequent boast that he was a “Christian” and that he didn’t “drink or smoke” was irritating since it was, or should be, politically irrelevant. His attempt to mobilise “Born Again Christians” luckily fell on tone-deaf ears. The question of land for the construction of the church (or cathedral) of the Lighthouse of the Lord Jesus Christ raises a different question.

Neither the Spanish nor the British recognised the property rights of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Lands were Crown Lands which the sovereign could distribute for this or that purpose. The Spanish Cedula is an example of this. Land could — and was — distributed for the purpose of building churches but not all church property has been obtained by government grants. Some was acquired by purchase or was donated to the church or willed to the church. One expects grants of land to be given and primarily to state churches, in a confessional state. One doesn’t quite expect church distribution in a Republic.

There is nothing, however, except perhaps custom, which prevents any state from giving out free land to religious organisations provided that all religions recognised by the government have the same right to granted land. In other words, I cannot say yes to the Reverend Juliana Pe?a’s request for land for her cathedral and no to the Maha Saba’s request for land for a temple in Tobago, or the other way around. The Patrick Manning – Rev. Juliana Pe?a affair raises questions beyond this. I will here pose only two of these questions. Does the hope that in this or that government, x or y church can have “influence” or “contact” deflect us from assessing Party policy beyond our own “what we can get” and is this scramble of the religions good for religion or country?


"The Reverend Juliana Peña and the Secular State"

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