Bishops, pastors, and priests of the Churches in Papua New Guinea were not officially informed of the consultation promoted by the government, through the Papua New Guinea Constitutional and Law Reform Commission to amend the 1975 Constitution and officially declare PNG a Christian State. They learned it from public announcements.
Either this was due to negligence or was done on purpose, one can only think of groups at work to manipulate the process for the Parliament to legislate on religious matters without a real involvement of relevant faith-based communities and their leaders.
The PNG mainline Churches are frequently praised for extensive services in education and health, especially in remote areas of the country, but successive governments and ministers hardly bother hearing from them when it comes to decision making.
Now what is being said behind the scenes is that the move to transform PNG into a Christian State hides the plan by some to be later accepted as the State Church and being rewarded a slash of the annual national budget.
The issue, therefore, is very complex. It is not only a matter of giving honor to God and acknowledging the unifying factor of Christianity for Papua New Guinea since the arrival of the colonizers and the missionaries. That is already in the Constitution.
The State Religion, and possibly the State Church would mean a huge constitutional shift. PNG would not only be a Christian Country, as it is now, but a Confessional State, with the clergy or the leadership of some of the current or future Christian denominations dictating at least part of the legislative agenda.
The so-called Western countries, traditionally Christian, went through the same experience in the past. In 313 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity the State religion when it became impossible to control and suppress it as most of his predecessors had tried to do to preserve the old pagan cults and beliefs, including the divinity of the emperor. Following that decision, the European peoples continued to practice all sort of violence, wars, sorcery, and other unChristian behaviors, but the continent developed for more than a thousand years as one cultural and religious Christian entity, until it split into Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, etc. by the sixteenth century (with the eastern part already Orthodox since the year 1054).
Those divisions gave rise to strong confessional States where religious affiliations strongly defined national identity, mainly Lutheran and Anglican in the north of Europe and Catholic in the south. Lengthy wars shaped the balance and determined national boundaries. Different communities or minorities forced to live under the same authority remained deeply divided. The reciprocal contempt, hatred and fight regularly displaced was the most unChristian thing one could imagine. But it was daily life. And the divisions were carried into the mission fields of colonial Europe over the past couple of centuries
These historical wounds are not completely healed, but consistent changes have taken place since the twentieth centuries. Two factors have been at play. First, the Churches made a serious attempt at reconciliation and cooperation through the “ecumenical
movement.” It is now common to see Christians of different denominations talk to each other, work and pray together. The differences in beliefs remain, but that unjustified and unChristian hatred is mostly gone. The States, on their part, largely departed from their religious connotation with their modern Constitutions recognizing the equality of all citizens regardless of their differences in thought and belief.
Faith continues to be a public matter. Religious affiliation is not to be hidden. Christian values and practices continue to be fully legitimate. But the State will not legislate from a religious point of view or based on religious interests and practices.
This is the perspective that the PNG Constitution adopted in 1975 fully in line with the times. State and Church, each on its order and orderly cooperating, work for the benefit of the same nation. The Church in its different denominational manifestations is the community of the believers in Jesus Christ (or in some elements of the Jewish and Christian tradition).
The State is home to all who legitimately reside within the national boundaries and peacefully cohabitate. The Churches inspire, promote, and ensure love of God and love of neighbors. The State makes sure that, regardless of each one’s stand and interest, everybody is given a fair go and a fair treatment. The Church inspires, the State coerces if needed.
Due to human frailty and limitations, both Church and State normally fall short of their call and their duties. And it is probably against that weakness that they should concentrate their efforts. Church and State have better interest in keeping each other in check than adding to each other’s shortcomings by means of a fatal embrace that would be demeaning to both.
The current PNG Constitution is what best works for the country in matters of faith and religion, freedom of conscience, thought and expression, and relations between the Church and the State. Changing it is unnecessary, unfair, and dangerous.
Father Giorgio Licini is a missionary in Papua New Guinea and is the general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.