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Letter from Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves to Bishop Jason Gordon

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Fri Sep 19, 2014

September 15, 2014

The Most Reverend Bishop Charles Jason Gordon

Roman Catholic Diocese of Kingstown

Bishop’s Office

Kingstown

My Dear Lord Bishop,

Fraternal greetings in Christ!

I write in relation to your Letter to the People of God in the Diocese of Kingstown dated September 07, 2014. I am one of God’s people to whom this letter is addressed. I am, too, a member of the Catholic Community of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. By virtue of my age — I am 68 years old — I am among the older members of this Community. I take this fact seriously.{{more}}

I am pleased that the Clergy of the Diocese, after your annual retreat, have chosen to share your “deep concerns on certain matters affecting our Church and our Society.” Your admission, in your moment of self-criticism, is stunning, that “for a long time we, as a Church, have failed to speak with a prophetic voice.” Since the all-embracing “we” includes all members of the Church, the admission, though it includes the leadership of the Church in our Community, skirts around or mutes any specific indictment of that leadership itself. It is an urgent matter on which a leadership, in retreat, ought to ponder.

It has always been my understanding that the Clergy (particularly priests and bishops) are especially placed as “Servants of God and called to be Apostles/Prophets”. Daily the Clergy are bound to have a “prophetic voice” in the Lord’s service, not only in occasional letters written to “the People of God”. So, what happens every Sunday at Mass, and every day in between? Has Mass become so routinised and sermons become so predictable, that “the prophetic voice” has been silenced? Or is there a profoundly mistaken view of the clergy that a “prophetic voice” is only one which addresses political and social issues after an annual retreat? In any event is it not “the soul” to which “the prophetic voice” must first speak, and not the socio-political mind?

What constitutes a “prophetic voice”, the rendering of the content of that voice, and the circumstances or context of that rendering, are questions which the teachings of Jesus Christ have addressed. Guidance on these fundamental, and allied matters, have been granted us over the ages by apostles/prophets such as Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and currently by His Holiness Pope Francis.

And I understand it, too, that “prophetic voice”, among other things, must combine a harmonious relationship between human intelligence and divine inspiration in quest for truth, the way, the life in accord with the light of Jesus Christ. In that harmonious combination of human intelligence and divine inspiration in this “Earthly City”, it is always required that we must get the facts right when “the voice” speaks on political and social issues. If the presumptive prophetic voice utters falsehoods on the facts, it becomes a false prophecy. In this way, the presumed prophet misleads. In such misleading, confusion and disunity are fuelled among God’s people, and God’s work is thereby hampered. When a prophet errs, how does he correct himself? A forgiving God always answers the prayers of a truly contrite sinner who adores God, who is in supplication to Him, and who thanks Him for His mercies and blessings!

This lengthy preamble necessarily leads me to a summary commentary on your said Letter.

First, I find your exhortation to our People of God entirely without any recognition of God’s bountiful blessings to His people in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Your recitation of misery in our blessed land is not in the true, as distinct from a contrived, tradition of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, or any of the New Testament apostles. Indeed, your one-sided recitation is not in accord with the Ministry of Jesus Christ himself. Always, the ancient prophets and apostles ground their lamentations in an acknowledgment of that which is good in us, our existing achievements as God’s blessings, and the redemptive grace of God which is always available to us even in our waywardness. A “prophetic voice” is severely undermined to the extent that it downplays or ignores the substantial, and in some cases, extraordinary, achievements of God’s people in St Vincent and the Grenadines over the years, including the recent years. I do not have to list them; they are there for all, except the politically jaundiced, and/or those who fail to link harmoniously human intelligence and divine inspiration. To be sure, there is much in our society and polity which requires correction or redemption, but a one-sided litany of woes does not, and cannot, represent the truth. A central social and political task is to undertake the correctives in the context of the available resources, including that of “time” in the human condition.

Secondly, it is baffling that your Letter highlights “those teachers who are still waiting to be reinstated” and “the unresolved ‘Bigger Biggs’ issue.” As I explained to Monsignor Michael Stewart in a long telephone conversation on the evening of Tuesday, September 10, 2014, your Letter is at variance with the facts which are already in the public domain. I invite you to speak with the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education about “the teachers’ issue” and with a good Catholic, Mr. Brent Bailey (Chief Engineer), on “the Bigger Biggs” matter. In that way you would get the facts.

The relevant facts, in a nutshell, on these two “concerns” of yours are:

(1) “The Teachers’ Issue”

The three teachers resigned their positions as public officers in order to contest the general elections of December 2010. This is a requirement, not of the ULP government, but of the Representation of the People Act and the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It is true that the “Collective Agreement” between the SVG Teachers’ Union and the Government posited an aspirational provision not to require resignation and, in any event, to secure reinstatement. But that aspirational provision contemplated a Constitutional and/or statutory change. You may not be aware of this, my Government advocated an appropriate Constitutional amendment on this matter in the proposed new Constitution in the referendum of 2009. These same three teachers, as part of the Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), led the campaign against the proposed reformed Constitution.

In any event, the “Collective Agreement” could not bind the Public Service Commission (PSC) which is the independent constitutional authority, not the Government, for the hiring, re-hiring, and promotion of teachers. Please note that the PSC was not and could not have been a party to that “Collective Agreement”.

Your Letter speaks glibly of “reinstatement”, so I ask the following practical questions:

(a) Are you aware that one of the teachers, Mr Ken Johnson, reached retirement age within a year of the general elections of December 2010? Please tell me how the PSC could reinstate him after the retirement age.

(b) Are you aware that another of the teachers, Mr. Addison Thomas, was given a job as Research Officer to the Leader of the Opposition, a post incidentally which is financed from the Consolidated Fund through the continued parliamentary initiative of the Government?

(c) Regarding the third teacher, Mr Elvis Daniel, you are personally aware that at your request, I, as Minister of Finance, agreed to have the State pay him as a teacher employed at the St. Martin’s Secondary School, a Catholic School. I have no authority to appoint or reinstate Mr Daniel to a teaching post in the Government service, but I have the authority to authorise payment from the Consolidated Fund to pay him at St Martin’s as part of the ULP government’s assistance programme to privately-owned secondary schools or those owned by religious denominations.

If you speak to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Mrs Nicole Bonadie-Baker, you may wish to ask of her the Ministry’s professional opinion of Mr Daniel’s performance as a teacher after the PSC reinstated him subsequent to the December 2005 general elections in which he was also a candidate.

In all this, I want you to know that, procedurally, it is the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education who makes recommendations to the PSC on the appointment,re-instatement, and promotion of teachers.

(d) I ask you to consider this as a further practical matter: Should the Ministry of Education or the Public Service Commission (PSC) accord preference to any teacher or public servant who resigns his/her office in order to contest general elections over another teacher who stayed faithfully within the teaching or public service? For example, upon a reapplication by Mr Ken Johnson to be Principal of the Georgetown Secondary School or any other teaching job, should the PSC have advantaged him over another qualified teacher who applied for the same post? In the absence of a specific law, constitutional or statutory, should the PSC accord any of the said three teachers an unfair preference or advantage?

My government did not direct any relevant authority not to reinstate the teachers who ran for electoral office and lost. Indeed, the PSC had reappointed such persons after the 2001 and 2005 general elections, not necessarily to their previous posts. Cases in point are Mrs Ruth Woods after 2001 and the said Mr Elvis Daniel after 2005. Both were failed candidates of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).

I point out, too, that a defeated ULP candidate in the 2010 general elections, Mr Elvis Charles, a teacher, was advised that there was no certainty that the PSC would reappoint him. Indeed, he was also not reappointed. He sought and obtained another non-teaching job.

I draw to your attention finally on this matter that the High Court is currently seized of it in a claim brought by the teachers who feel aggrieved.

(2) The “Bigger Biggs” Issue

I note that in your itemisation of woes in your Letter, you listed “disregard for the environment”. Yet, I find it strange that you would ignore Bigger Biggs’ utter disregard of the environment in his mining operations at Rabacca, in your not-so-veiled championing of his cause. It is precisely on account of his company’s unregulated degradation of the environment, as documented in professional advice to the Cabinet by officials at the Office of the Chief Engineer, the Department of Physical Planning, and the National Parks, Rivers and Beaches Authority, that the Cabinet, through the Minister of Lands and Physical Planning in accordance with the law of the land, issued a prohibition or discontinuance order in respect of the said mining at Rabacca.

Repeatedly I have stated publicly, in and out of Parliament, to “Bigger Biggs” himself and to others, that this is emphatically not a political matter, but a technical, professional matter relating to the environment. My government and I want “Bigger Biggs” to resume his mining and allied operations at Rabacca, but on specific remedial terms and specific conditions as prescribed by the Chief Engineer, Mr. Brent Bailey, and the Chief Technical Officer at the Department of Physical Planning, Mr. Anthony Bowman. I have repeatedly requested “Bigger Biggs” to meet with them to agree on the conditions for possible resumption of mining. He has failed and/or refused to do so. I have repeatedly, too, requested Mr. Bailey to engage “Bigger Biggs” accordingly. The jury is out as to whether “Bigger Biggs” genuinely wants to resume his operations; perhaps he prefers to don the mantle of presumed “political martyr”, without any merit whatsoever. I note that “Bigger Biggs” has not challenged the Cabinet decision in the High Court.

I am truly amazed that the Clergy in St Vincent and the Grenadines have misadvised you on these matters when so much information resides in the public domain.

I reject, too, your unsubstantiated and erroneous view that there exist, disturbingly, “a sense of hopelessness and fear amongst our people”. Where is your evidence? It is this type of polemical and inchoate observation that one expects from a partisan political source, not from a reflective clergy combining harmoniously human intelligence and divine inspiration. I posit unequivocally that there is in St Vincent and the Grenadines today an overwhelming sense of hopefulness and fearlessness. Evidence abounds to support this conclusion. I can supply you with ample evidence if you want.

To be sure, there is dissatisfaction in certain minority sections of our community. This dissatisfaction derives from some real economic challenges but also from a mindset, and insatiable material or social desires, of some persons for whom dissatisfaction is their permanent lot. This latter question is as much one for theology as it is for governance.

There are several important matters raised in your letter which I consider worthy of emphasis including the lamentations on the growing disrespect for the human person, the increasing lawlessness and violence, religious and political divisiveness. Your call for all people to unity, encounter and participation in Christ is certainly apt in all the circumstances. I would have added the pointed scriptural message of being a good neighbour as taught us, for example, in the Book of Luke.

I am disappointed though, that your Letter did not expressly address the following vital issues, among others, in one form or another:

1. The misuse and abuse of drugs, the scourge of drug-trafficking, and money-laundering which in fact fuel much of the serious violent crimes.

2. The disrespect of God and His people, who were solemnly gathered at a funeral service in Georgetown, by an unruly minority of NDP supporters on July 19, 2014, and the attempt by the NDP leadership afterwards to justify the unjustifiable. [I note that Father George, a holy man of our Church, had forcefully and courageously denounced the behaviour of the unruly mob at that funeral service.]

3. The recent declaration by the opposition NDP not to cooperate with the Government on any matter save and except the holding of elections urgently.

4. The harshness meted out to many workers in the private sector by some unconscionable employers which has caused needless pain, suffering, anguish, and antagonisms.

5. The socio-economic challenges to God’s people arising from the removal of the preferential market for our bananas, the fall-out from the global economic crisis, and the succession of natural disasters recently. Unfair trade liberalisation by global capitalism is an issue that His Holiness the Pope has addressed; so, too, the existential issue of climate change in relation to Small Island Developing States, like St Vincent and the Grenadines.

6. The still unacceptable level of poverty in St Vincent and the Grenadines, despite the successful poverty reduction efforts of the last thirteen years including the sharp decline in indigence (“dirt-poor” poverty). I find it sad that your pastoral Letter does not mention “the poor” even once. I take my cue on this always from Deuteronomy (Chapter 15) and Psalms 41. We are taught to put God at the centre of our lives and look after the poor.

7. The adverse effects on the poor especially caused by the several natural disasters since 2010.

The Honourable Girlyn Miguel, Deputy Prime Minister and good Catholic Christian, and I have received numerous complaints about your Letter from Roman Catholics across St Vincent and the Grenadines. We believe them to be representative of our Community.

I am hopeful that you would organise in the not-too-distant future a convocation of Roman Catholics to discuss your Letter. If you do, I intend to be there among the esteemed Catholic pilgrims to give my honest views on the matter. Remember always my Dear Lord Bishop, that the Roman Catholic Church belongs to all of us, not only to the Clergy and a few of the laity. It is not a sect but our Mother Church. This fact is pregnant with real meaning for our Clergy and laity.

You and our Clergy are in my prayers and those of my family. May Almighty God continue to bless you with human intelligence and divine inspiration to lead us wisely in holiness, truth, and Christ’s redemptive grace.

Sincerely yours,

Dr The Hon Ralph E Gonsalves

Prime Minister

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