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Choosing Our Future

Choosing Our Future
Pastoral Letter to the Catholic Faithful on the Occassion of the National Referendum from the Catholic Bishops of Malawi
2 February 1993

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
May God’s grace, love and peace be with you all.


“Today, I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of Yahweh your God, obeying his voice, holding fast to him, for in this your life consists, and on this depends the length of time that you stay in the country which Yahweh swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would give them.” (Deut. 30:19-20)

These words of the God of the covenant are an invitation to a life of total fidelity to God, a life which will set you free.

As we reminded you last year in our Pastoral Letter, “LIVING OUR FAITH,” our commitment of faith extends to the whole of our lives, including our social, economic and political obligations.

We are grateful to His Excellency the Life-President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda for recognizing the desire of the people of Malawi to choose their future by calling a National Referendum. The whole people will make an historic decision on the date set for the referendum. On that day the people of Malawi will chose the future of their nation. No person of goodwill can doubt the importance of that choice. Every fair-minded person will agree that all citizens need to be well-informed in order to make a free, fair, wise, educated and responsible choice.

What is at stake here is not a person or a group of persons, but our future, and what the future should be and should hold on for us, for our children and for posterity. We are not talking about the past. We want to be able to look to the future with ever-increasing confidence.

We, your bishops, therefore, wish to address you on the occasion of this historic event in order that we can assist you to make that responsible choice under God, guided only by the truth.


Proclaiming the Gospel

As bishops our first duty is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ whether the message is welcome or unwelcome.

“…I charge you, in the name of his appearing and of his kingdom: proclaim the message, welcome and unwelcome, insist on it. Refute false-hood, correct error, give encouragement – but do all with patience and with care to instruct. The time is sure to come when people will not accept sound teaching, but their ears will be itching for anything new and they will collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes, and then they will shut their ears to the truth and will turn to myths. But you must keep steady all the time; put up with suffering: do the work of preaching the Gospel; fulfill the service asked of you.” (2 Tim. 4:1b-5)

Co-operating with us in this task are our co-workers, the priests, the religious and the lay faithful. Without their assistance how could we form a people called to witness effectively to the Gospel?

In carrying out our mission we are bound to be misunderstood and called upon to pay heavily, as was witnessed last year following the publication of our Pastoral Letter: “LIVING OUR FAITH.” But, then, this is not surprising. Our Lord himself was misunderstood.

“He came to his own and his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:11-12)

We are grateful and proud of all those who stood firm in their faith and who gave us their courageous support during the past year. We trust that we can continue to count on that support in the historic days ahead.

It is precisely your loyalty that gives us courage to address you, good and peace-loving people of Malawi, on the important subject of the National Referendum. The choice which we shall make will shape the future and destiny of this country for ourselves and our children and their children, not only for the foreseeable future but for many years to come. As we prepare, we can stand together with our Lord Jesus Christ who declared in the synagogue:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord… These very words of the Scripture come true today as you hear them being read.” (Luke 4:18-21)

When we live the Christian life we render a service to the whole of society. Our Christian faith reveals the whole truth about the meaning and dignity of every human person. Our desire and our programme is to have that dignity known, respected and preserved.

As Bishops our hope is that the Catholic Church in Malawi should carry out her mission without fear or favour. However, we do not live in isolation. All believers and all members of society have their own personal and social responsibilities, and today the Holy Spirit is calling all Christians and all persons of goodwill tow work together in the same task.

“When the Church speaks about the promotion of justice in human societies, or when she urges the lay faithful to work in this sphere according to their vocation, she is not going beyond her mission”. (Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation:63)


The Search for Freedom

The search for new freedoms and new forms of independence is now worldwide. The whole story of what is taking place cannot be told here. You are all aware of the fall of communism and totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990. Peoples who lived in darkness saw a great light – freedom. Peacefully and without violence the different peoples demanded a new social order. As the present Pope, John Paul II, wrote in 1991: “An important, even decisive, contribution was made by the Church’s commitment to defend and promote human rights.” (John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Centesimus Annus, 22)

The new spirit is now sweeping through all of Africa. Some have even spoken of a new independence comparable to the liberation from colonial domination which brought political independence to most countries in Africa in the period 1955-1970. Citizens of one country after another have demanded that political power be restored to the people and that elected representatives become more accountable to the electorate. Almost everywhere there has been a call for greater democracy and for multi-party politics. We have watched this movement take shape in South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, Angola, Kenya, Zaire, Nigeria and many other countries. It was during 1992 that these winds of change began to blow through Malawi.

What people are seeking is genuine democracy in which the leaders are servants of the people who elected them and not their masters, in which leaders are answerable and accountable for their actions to those they lead, a true government of the people; not government by or for the privileged few. What is at stake in all of this is nothing less than the search for new forms of society and true forms of freedoms, justice and peace.


What is a Referendum?

A referendum is a decision by the people on a specific issue. Every community has a leader and every nation has a government. The function of the leader or the government is to organize and direct the daily life of the community or the nation. It is the duty and the responsibility of the leadership to make the necessary decisions.

Some decisions, however, are so important for the community that the choice is referred to the people. The people, not the government, decide. How the nation is to be governed is a decision which is rightly referred to the entire nation. It is right and just that such a decision should not be reserved to Parliament nor to the elected representatives of the people. It is right and just that the decision be made by the whole adult population. That is democracy.

In the coming referendum the people of Malawi will choose between systems of government: single-party or multi-party. How are you to decide? Let us discuss the nature of the two systems together with their advantages and disadvantages. Here we offer some points for such a discussion.

Single-Party and Multi-Party Systems

Single Party Political Systems

a. In a single party political system the Constitution allows the existence of one political party only.
b. Party membership is open only to citizens of the country.
c. Parliament consists of members of the party.
d. Government is by the party. The ministers and the members of the Cabinet are appointed by the Head of State.
e. Parliament operates without an opposition.

Advantages of the Single Party System:

The wisdom expressed in the English proverb, “The rolling stone gathers no moss”, may be applied to the single-party system.

a. The one-party system is often praised because it is thought to foster national unity. Where there is a threat to unity from tribalism or other divisions, a one-party system of government can contribute to national unity.

b. Where there are pressing national issues which call for urgent and united action, the party can act freely, quickly and effectively; single-mindedly, it can tackle urgent problems without delay.

c. It is sometimes said that this system of government is appropriate in Africa where there is a tradition of having only one chief in a given area.


a. In a single-party system there is no clear distinction between the party and the government.

b. Parliament, being composed of one party only, operates without an opposition. Opportunity for critical analysis and evaluation is severely limited. Any opposition may be interpreted as subversion. Fear of reprisal ensures that members do not voice legitimate concerns or criticisms.

c. General elections of members of Parliament bring little or no change. The same party remains in power and often the same individuals retain the same positions of influence whether the people want them or not.

d. A party which is unopposed tends to take power for granted. It easily beings to abuse its power. It can end by causing suffering to the very people it is meant to serve.

e. A party which is continually in power can become intolerant of views different from its own and gradually restrict various freedoms, for instance the freedom of the press, the freedom of expression, and the freedom of association.

f. It can happen that fewer and fewer people are allowed to participate in the exercise of political power which becomes concentrated in the hands of very few, sometimes even in the hands of just one person. If that happens, the single party no longer contributes to national unity; it may destroy it.

Multi-Party Political System

a. The Constitution allows for the existence of more than one political party.

b. Only elected members can sit in Parliament.

c. The government is formed by the political party which wins a majority of seats in Parliament in a general election.

d. Parliament consists of two groups-the government and the opposition. The opposition consists of elected members of political parties which lose the election.

e. The work of government is carried out in parliament by debating and voting. The opposition may challenge the government on any issue.

Advantages of the Multi-Party System

Another Chichewa proverb expresses the wisdom and value to be found in the multi-party system: “Pamodzimodzi padaoletsa dzungu”.

a. Citizens have the freedom to form and to join political parties of their choice and to decide on particular approaches to political, social and economic problems.

b. Diverse talents of different individuals and groups are encouraged.

c. Since there are several parties, elections are held at intervals so that people can decide which party should represent them. They can choose the party they think will govern well and refuse to elect a party which they consider less worthy to rule.

d. The need to seek election can be a powerful incentive to a party to be accountable, honest and creative in its approach.

e. Opposition and constructive criticism are allowed. They are needed for growth. The presence and participation of opposition in parliament make debates more mature. Deeper analysis and assessment are possible before decisions are taken.

f. Having to face opposition throughout its term of office makes the party of government more accountable to the people.

g. The opposition acts as the watch-dog of people’s rights. Abuses and injustices can be checked and corrected.


a. If there are too many political parties it can become difficult to govern a country.

b. If the political parties follow tribal boundaries, the result can be division and tribalism.

c. It does not always follow that a multi-party system of government ensures true democracy. It can happen that one party which is much stronger than others in terms of its following and its resources can remain in power for a long time. Its hold on power can make it unresponsive to true democratic values.

Code of Conduct

In the coming referendum we encourage all Malawians to refrain from scoring cheap political points and to concentrate on discussing and explaining the real issues in a mature way. We expect them to choose a system which will make the leaders accountable in the exercise of their public responsibilities; a system which will remove greed, prejudice and intolerance; a system which will guarantee you and your children basic freedom, justice and fundamental rights; in short, a system that will give you a fair deal and ensure justice for all under God.

Democracy in itself does not guarantee progress if the people are not convinced that their future depends on dedication, hard work, a sense of responsibility and the will do what is right. This does not always happen. People can abuse their freedom. One has only to think of the world-wide problem of drugs where the abuse of freedom leads to personal self-destruction and so much anguish for families and communities. We can see that a constitution guaranteeing the rights of citizens is not enough in itself; education in the exercise of all forms of freedom is an essential element in any true democratic system.

No society can dispense with fundamental human values. Lay Christians, through their involvement in political life, have an invaluable moral contribution to make.


The Role of the Church

“The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution.

Her contribution to the political order is precisely her vision of the dignity of the person revealed in all its fullness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word”. (Centesimus Annus, 47)

On this basis the Church does not advocate a particular system. It is common knowledge that no system is perfect, as any system can be manipulated in order to exploit the very people whose best interests it is meant to serve. Instead the Church draws attention to the values of the Gospel, to the need to promote the dignity of every human being and to respect the basic human rights of each person.

The Church stands for justice, liberty, true freedom: a just living wage; freedom from unjust laws and harassment; freedom of expression and association; freedom of the press and other mass media; and the provision of equitable social services, especially education and health services.

The Church does not and will not tell Christians how they are to vote. What it will do is to encourage everyone to use their vote in order to bring about what is genuinely good for Malawi. It is the serious responsibility of all Christians and all people of goodwill to cast their votes unless they are genuinely hindered from doing so.

Fundamental Values

In relation to politics and society the Church in Malawi wishes to be in harmony with the Church throughout the world. What is the mind of the universal Church in relation to different political systems? The Pope’s Encyclical Letter, Centesimus Annus, provides an answer:

“The Church values the democratic system in as much as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed, the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.

Thus she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends. Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person”. (Centesimus Annus, 46)

On the basis we can clearly enunciate the fundamental characteristics of a sound political system:

a. active and responsible participation of all citizens in civic affairs.

b. Respect for and protection of the human rights of each individual and of all groups, especially minority groups and those who are weak.

c. Respect for diversity and acceptance of pluralism. The views of all are respected. Those in power welcome genuine dialogue and allow debate on views contrary to their own.

d. Elected representatives are the servants of the people and not their masters. Consequently, they are expected to be disciplined, hard-working, sincere, honest and accountable.

e. Protection against any kind of violence be assured for each individual and any group of individuals.

The Right to Vote

Every adult citizen has the fundamental right and duty to vote. The exercise of this cannot be taken away from the citizen due to reasons connected with his or her own person convictions, tribe or religion. This is a very important exercise because it constitutes an indispensable contribution towards the life of the nation. Therefore all citizens have the right to take part in voting whether it be at the national, regional or local level.

The Catholic clergy following canon 285 n.3 and 287 are not allowed to take an active part in politics nor be given important tasks in the civil and political administration. It is only in very exceptional cases that a priest would be allowed to take up a political position. This has to be done with the consent of ecclesiastical authority.

However priests, religious men and women and those aspiring to these vocations have the duty and the right to vote. The clergy may have their own personal preferences but are not allowed to make open propaganda for a specific political party as this may not be conducive to the objectivity of their ministry which includes everybody regardless of their political affiliation.


We are living through a period of great change in our country. It is a time of mixed feelings – feelings of hope and excitement, but also of fear.

It is true that sensitive areas do exist. Efforts must continue to conquer divisions, tribalism and regionalism. These are challenges which do not need to lead to violence. What is needed is a generous and genuine patriotic effort to understand and accept those who are different from us.

“So always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the Law ad the Prophets.” (Matthew 7.12)

A real effort is required to understand that all people of this country, regardless of where they come from, have the same aspirations, the same needs for schooling and employment opportunities, for social services, and for the fruits of development.

Peace is a gift which God will give to those who ask for it and who work for it. It is the fruit of justice in all our dealings with our neighbour. Steps on the road to peace are willingness to listen carefully to the concerns of others; openness to understand them; generosity to ensure that their needs are met; and preferring the good of the community to narrow personal interests. Let us pray to Mary, Queen of Peace, that she win for us the precious gift of peace.

As we approach the day of the Referendum when we are invited to make a choice which is so critical for our future, we wish to ask all Christians to pray every day to God imploring him for the courage and the wisdom to choose what is right. Only God our Father can give us the light we need. As the Psalmist prays:

“If the Lord does not build the house,
in vain do its builders labour;
if the Lord does not watch over the city,
in vain does the watchman keep vigil.”
(Ps 127:1)


Today the nation of Malawi has reached a turning point in its history and there is no going back. Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear. We give thanks to God for all that the nation has achieved. Our prayer for the future is that all Malawians and all who live in our country may work together to create the future in harmony and peace. This will be possible only if there is a commitment to work hard and generously for the good of all. Putting aside all narrow self-interest, we are called to show respect and tolerance for all our brothers and sisters.

We are called to humility, love, and service of one another. Let us as a nation have confidence in ourselves under God in this historic hour.

It is the basic right of man and woman to make a choice, a free choice, and a wise choice at that; a choice that eliminates any form of greed, suppression, force, threats, fear, harassment and other forms of injustice; and a choice that ensures genuine freedom and true democracy, and guarantees you a bright future.

We, once again, urge every eligible citizen to register to vote, guided only by the words of the prophet Micah:
“The Lord has told us to do what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love and to walk humbly with our God.” (Mic 6:8)

May the peace of the Lord be with you always.

+James Chiona Archbishop of Blantyre
+Felix Mkhori Bishop of Chikwawa
+Mathias A. Chimole Bishop of Lilongwe
+Alessandro Assolari Bishop of Mangochi
+Allan Chamgwera Bishop of Zomba
+Gervasio Chisendera Bishop of Dedza
+Tarsizio Ziyaye Auxiliary Bishop of Dedza
Monsignor Joseph Zuza Vicar General of Mzuzu


God Our Father
You sent your beloved Son into this world
So that we, your children might have life, life in its fullness.

Father, now we come to you for assistance.
Jesus your Son teaches us that whatever we ask in his name will be granted to us.
With confidence we pray
That the forthcoming referendum
Be conducted in a respectful and peaceful manner.

Send us your Spirit to enlighten our minds
In the choice we have to make
Grant that its results may be good for all Malawians.

Give us the courage to vote without fear
And in accordance with your plan for us all.
Free our hearts from all hatred, vengeance or greed.

Accept our humble contribution
In the building of this beloved country.
May honesty, justice and true freedom
Flow like a river.

We offer our prayer through your Son Jesus Christ,
Our Lord who lives and reigns with you,
One God for ever and ever.

Mary, Queen of peace, intercede for us.