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A Crisis of Conscience

A Crisis of Conscience
Pastoral message of the Catholic Bishops of Rhodesia
17 March 1970

Before the Referendum last June, we spoke to you in a brief Pastoral Message entitled, “A Call to Christians”, about possible dangers to the Church and her mission, contained in the proposal for a new Constitution for Rhodesia. Our worst fears seem now to have been realised; laws have been passed which have precipitated the most serious crisis for the Church in this country.[1] Further legislation of a similar character is contemplated. [2] It is our duty to inform you on this crisis, to tell you how you are or may be involved in it, and to ask you for your assistance in averting the dangers consequent on it.
The crisis we speak of is a matter of concern for all Christians. It is in a special sense the affair of the laity, “fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 8), who have the duty to penetrate and perfect with the spirit of the Gospel the world in which they live.[3]
What has happened it this: new legislation is bringing to a close the honourable and fruitful tradition of understanding and co-operation  which has hitherto existed between the Church and State in Rhodesia. Henceforth, the Church shall merely be tolerated and may be permitted to exercise her mission only within such limits as Government Ministers see fit to determine.[4] The liberty of the Church to move freely among the people has been set aside in principle, and the missionary who is sent to teach all nations may henceforth exercise his apostolic function on sufferance only, where and when and for as long as he issued by the State with a permit to do so.[5]
The right to freedom of association for the purpose of the worship of Almighty God according to one’s conscience has, as a principle, also been set aside, and people of one race or colour may be forbidden to frequent the churches of their faith outside their own prescribed racial areas.[6] It may well be that we shall also be denied, in violation of our conscience, the right to educate in our schools whomsoever we will. We may even be forced by regulation to refuse hospital beds to anyone not of the race approved in that area.[7] Priests and nuns and teaching brothers may have to be segregated in their communities according to their racial origins.[8] The whole future of the Church in Rhodesia is thus at stake.
This is your problem as well as ours; your conscience ought to be as much burdened as our own; your obligation to confess Christ before men as clear-cut as your bishops’. As Christians, none of us can be indifferent; we cannot accept all this and say or do nothing reply. When the first apostles were commanded by the civil authority to be silent and no longer to preach and teach in the name of Jesus, they had in conscience to answer: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We, your Bishops, cannot do other than they: for your part neither can you. Discriminatory laws have now been enacted which are contrary to Christian faith. This we cannot accept. They touch the very central teaching of our faith, the incarnation. Our Divine Lord in becoming man bound the whole human race to Himself as a family through a supernatural solidarity, and chose to identify Himself with men that He takes as done to Himself, in hurt or in love, whatever we do to our fellow men, even the least.
For this reason, “the ground is removed from the theory or practice which leads to a distinction between men and peoples in the matter of human dignity and the rights which flow from it. Consequently, the Church rejects as foreign to the mind of Christ any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, colour, condition of the life or religion.[9] This is the teaching of the Church, assembled in the Second Vatican Council. This is what conscience compels us to practise.
Let us make our position absolutely clear: When we speak of the Church’s mission to permeate and elevate society, there is no question of our entering into the field of politics. This is not our intention. What we are saying is that the community is to renewed through Christ’s command of love, “which is the basic law of human perfection and hence of the world’s transformation.[10]
The Church is committed to any particular form of government of political party. Her greatest desire is that in her mission of service and reconciliation, in pursuit of the welfare of all, she may be able to develop herself freely under any kind of government, which grants recognition to the basic rights of person and family, and to the demands of the common good. [11]
This fundamental freedom is now endangered. Our liberty to perform our mission of service to all sections of the community and to carry out our work of reconciliation has been grievously restricted . Like the first apostles, we are now compelled to declare: “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29). We cannot in conscience and will not in practice accept any limitation to our freedom to deal with all people, irrespective of race, as members of the one human family, as our brothers in Christ, and in the spirit demanded by Him who said: “B this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:35).
  • Francis W. Markall, SJ, Archbishop of Salisbury
  • Aloysius Haene, SMB, Bishop of Gwelo
  • Adolph G. Schmitt, SMM, Bishop of Bulawayo
  • Donal R. Lamont, O’Carm., Bishop of Umtali


[1] Constitution Act, No. 54 of 1969: Land Tenure Act, No. 55 of 1969.
[2]Property Owners’ Bill
[3] Second Vatican Council: Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, paragraph 5.
[4] Land Tenure Act No. 55 of 1969: sections 11, 24 and 72.
[5] Ibidem: sections 11, 15, 17, 19, 20, 22, 24, 29, 31, 33, 34 and 36.
[6] Ibidem: sections 3, 11, 34 and 38.
[7] Ibidem: sections 17, 19, 31 and 33.
[8] Ibidem: sections 11, 15, 17, 19, 20, 24, 29, 31, 33 and 34.
[9]Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, paragraph 5.
[10] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, paragraph 38.
[11]Ibidem: Paragraph 42.