LEST WE FORGET!
What to many may appear to be a tussle between Church and State on the recent statements made by Archbishop Peter Loy Chong on Catholic Education and the Open Merit System implemented by the Ministry of Education is cause for great interest and indeed serious reflection. The Archbishop's statements have even been labelled as being racist, subjective and even contrary to basic human rights as enshrined in our esteemed Constitution.
In remaining true to his role of Chief Shepherd for the Catholic Community in Fiji, Archbishop Peter Loy Chong has a moral obligation to speak the truth. His remarks are anything but racist because Catholic Education stands for inclusivity and multiculturalism. His remarks are anything but subjective because the fight for the common good is objective by its very nature.
How short and selective human memory can become when challenged to confront truth and reality. Lest the opportunity be lost to posterity I wish to offer a few salient points for reflection, discussion and conversation.
The Catholic Church's contribution to the field of education in Fiji is a well-documented fact. When the Church speaks on issues of education or any other issue for that matter, she speaks with authority and with claim to two thousand years of experience. No empire, dynasty or government can make the same declaration.
Since the dawn of formal education in Fiji, the Catholic Church has been both a trail blazer and trend setter in this area. This however, has also come at a cost. The relationship between Church and State in education has not always been a smooth one. In fact, the predecessors of Archbishop Peter Loy Chong have stood up to governments when policies and decisions were perceived to have adverse effects upon the entire Catholic Education Community. Governments come and go but the Church remains. Policies and decisions are made and unmade but the Church remains. The Church has the ultimate responsibility to protect and uphold the goals and aims of Catholic Education; and she remains unwavering in this regard. For the Catholic Church, ‘True education is directed toward the formation of the human person in view of his final end and the good of that society to which he belongs and in the duties of which he will, as an adult, have a share.' (Gravissimum Educationis, 730-731)
In bringing us to realise the fullness of our human potentials, the central thrust of Catholic Education is brought to fruition within the context of human life along with its pain, struggles and joys. The individual is assisted to understand his/her role in life and participate in civic life by making valuable and worthwhile contributions to the society to which he/she belongs. It is precisely within such a context that Catholic Education derives its role and function. Catholic Education and Human Formation are synonymous. One can never grasp the full implications of the rationale of Catholic Education outside of this framework. From the beginning, Catholic Education found its strength not in the teaching of literacy and numeric skills but in providing a holistic and integrated education. Education was not solely intended for economic purposes as most would tend to believe, but rather to prepare the individual for life. Education from a Catholic perspective is grounded firmly in the belief and the conviction that the whole person is formed; not just at the level of the intellect. This is what differentiates Catholic education from other education systems and philosophies. Indeed, this is precisely what has made Catholic Education the world over a resounding success – Fiji included!
But what does this mean when placed in a particular historical context?
The Church believes that education must be provided to all classes of people irrespective of race, colour or creed. At a time when the Colonial Government did not favour or support the education of children of indentured labourers, the Catholic Church through the Marist Brothers made a stand and went against Colonial policy regarding the education of Indians. In 1897 St. Thomas Indian School was established – which later became St Columba's. The Church was unafraid to stand up to the demands of Colonial officials to cease the integration of Chinese, Fijians and Indians with the Europeans and part-Europeans at St. Felix College. The Education Department made its intentions known when word was communicated to the Marist Brothers that unless non-European students were removed, the financial grant for St. Felix would be withdrawn. Unfazed by government threats, the Marist Brothers continued to teach Fijian, Chinese and Indian children.
Xavier College in Ba was founded to provide education for the children of sugarcane farmers and till today the majority of students on the school roll are non-Catholics of Indian ethnic descent.
Immediately after Fiji gained Independence in 1970, the government was faced with a serious shortage of good trained teachers. The government requested the help of the Catholic Church to assist in this regard so provisions were made at Corpus Christi Teachers College for a one year licenced teacher's course and the secondary conversion course for teachers to teach up to junior secondary level.
The Church has always partnered with governments to provide quality education. Governments have always recognised the valuable contribution of the Catholic Church in the field of education and this has formed the basis of good working partnerships. But the Church will always be the voice – and perhaps in many instances, the lone voice – that will speak out against policies and decisions that are perceived to be unfair and unjust with regard to the common good.
Totalitarianism seeks to destroy the common stories and histories of peoples and communities. In its place they seek to rewrite the narrative to suit particular programmes and agendas. More often than not these programmes and agendas are unjust because they create a very elite society where there is a clear demarcation between the ‘haves' and the ‘haves not.' Is this where education in Fiji is heading today? If it is then Archbishop Peter Loy Chong must speak out. If he doesn't, then who will?
Since 1891 the Catholic Church through its Social Catholic Teachings has advocated that the rights of one group cannot be set aside for the convenience of the majority. It demands of the state a special concern for the protection of the rights of the poor. The voice of Archbishop Peter Loy Chong is only one in an unbroken chain of voices seeking justice and fairness since 1891.
Lest we forget, may the narratives that have brought us this far continue to shape our characters and form our minds to seek always the path of justice and truth!