Catholic Church in no position to disobey law
The Catholic Church has long had a pivotal role in education. Many of the the best educational institutions around the world were founded by religious groups upon religious instincts of faith seeking understanding and self-improvement. In Hong Kong, schools run by the Catholic diocese are rightly viewed favourably for their high academic standards and moral discipline. For those who wish to enter government-aided schools, those sponsored by the Catholic diocese are usually the most attractive options.
But while religious groups will continue to play a valuable role in Hong Kong's education system, they must acknowledge that modern institutions of governance have their own accountable procedures for setting education policies in the interests of the public.
In 2004, the legislature enacted a new ordinance to set up committees within government schools. Parents, alumni, teachers and independent candidates are to make up 40 per cent of the committees, while members of the sponsoring body, such as the religious diocese, are to make up 60 per cent. Those who supported this legislation are on public record and the debates were conducted through a transparent legislative process.
The Catholic diocese which leads the opposition to this reform has now successfully asked the Court of Final Appeal to consider the constitutionality of that ordinance. This is entirely within the church's rights and makes use of an independent judiciary to scrutinise the legislative process. It may well be that our top judges side with the Catholic diocese and rule that the legislative process failed to take into account a principle in the Basic Law regarding the preservation of religious autonomy. But this is a decision that will be made by our judges, some of whom are recognised as the top legal minds in the common law world. And if the ordinance has to be amended it will be done by lawmakers who are to varying degrees voted in by the public and accountable to their constituents.
It is therefore disappointing to hear Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who has been a keen advocate of democratic governance and the integrity of the judiciary, say that the church 'will not bow down' to a law it does not agree with. Zen and others may have valuable insight as to whether the new requirements of management committees will be beneficial to education or not, but the church is in no position to disobey a law that has been passed by legislators and may eventually pass the constitutional test of the court. The church should not have any privileged position from which to seek to overturn a lawfully enacted measure. Like the rest of us, it should advocate change through lobbying lawmakers and voting for those who support their interests.
At the moment, 375 schools, more than 200 of which are run by the Catholic diocese, are holding out against setting up the management committees. Given that the constitutionality of the requirement is under question, they are delaying forming the committees until the law has been clarified.
Should the schools defy the law even when the court rules against them, they would be sending an anachronistic message that the church, even in public affairs, is more powerful than the judiciary, the legislature and the executive. While the church is undoubtedly the spiritual leader for many in the population, it will still find itself with very little support trying to usurp the institutions of government.