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The Church and Civil Society in the Role of Building Social Conscience for Democratic Participation


The Church and Civil Society in the Role of Building Social Conscience for Democratic Participation

Hon. Justice January Msoffe

Court of Appeal of Tanzania




Method Kilaini

‘How can the church and civil society build social conscience for democratic participation?’
This was the question on the minds of more than 100 participants at the May 2009 African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching (AFCAST) workshop at the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The wide spectrum of guests included Catholic priests, religious sisters and protestant pastors; leaders of political parties, including past ministers and one presidential candidate; Christian professionals, including lawyers and judges of the High Court; university professors and students; heads of departments of the Catholic Secretariat; and leaders of the Catholic laity council, Catholic women organizations and Catholic youth organizations.

AFCAST envisions a more just, peaceful and humane African society that is guided by Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and where Gospel values are promoted and celebrated. We are a diverse group of Catholics who strive to popularize and contextualize this teaching by strengthening the capacity of those involved in developing and implementing it at all levels of the church and society. One way of doing this is by meeting twice annually for a public seminar on a current social problem relevant to the host country as well as other countries in Southern and Eastern Africa.

The topic, ‘The church and civil society in building social conscience for democratic participation’, is timely. This year, Tanzania will conduct local elections as well as by-elections to fill vacant parliamentary seats. Next year, Tanzania will hold general elections to elect the president, parliamentarians and representatives in the city, town and district councils. These will be charged elections as there are many concerns at hand, including issues of corruption.

The topic is also relevant to other East and Southern African countries which have just concluded elections. These include South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. At the time of the meeting, Malawi was preparing for elections, and Kenya and Zimbabwe were still struggling with the aftermath of violent election processes.

Justice January Msoffe of the Tanzania Court of Appeals begins the conversation by addressing the role of the church in building a social conscience for democratic participation in the following areas: ethical formation, leadership, policy-making, policy implementation and the supervisory function of state institutions. He calls the church to participate in ‘a serious examination of conscience’, concluding that ‘If we [as church] have a good and effective conscience, the nation will have a good conscience because we are the nation.’

Africa, and specifically Zimbabwe, has lessons to learn from the global ‘shift from the politics of confrontation to that of engagement’, according to Dr David Kaulemu. He stresses that in both CST and the new political paradigms ‘we are encouraged, more and more, to focus on people as active, responsible social agents and not merely as cogs in economic machines or pawns in power games’. He views the crisis in Zimbabwe as a product of the absence of ‘comprehensive solidarity, of universal love or of genuine respect’. While acknowledging Zimbabwe’s past and present reality as a divided nation, he sees the potential for religion as a ‘resource for moulding forms of political life that accommodate all beings’.

Turning to Zambia, Sr Kayula Lesa looks at democratic participation in national political and economic processes such as constitution-making, the African peer-review mechanism, the national development plan, and the Jubilee debt campaign. Using these processes as case studies, she cites a need for deeper research on social issues, emphasis on human values and popular education within reasonable time-frames as ways to enhance democratic participation in Zambia.

Tobias Jere notes a growing ethnic and religious polarization in Malawian civil society, particularly surrounding elections. At the same time, he finds hope in the multi-party system which confirmed seven presidential candidates and nearly one thousand aspiring parliamentarians. He expresses concern over issues leading up to the recent elections, such as the accusations of vote-rigging in the 2004 general elections, loss of confidence in the judiciary, and ethnic polarization and regionalism. He then shares the churches’ contributions to a peaceful election process. His addendum to the article reflects on the May 2009 elections which recorded a landslide victory for President Dr Bingu wa Mutharika that cut across ethno-religious lines.

The appendix gives an example of a ‘Code of Conduct for Peace-building among Ethnic Groups, Faith Communities and Political Parties in Mangochi District’ in Malawi as one way that civil society can enter the politics of engagement.


Clarifying Concepts

Before we begin to examine the role of the church and civil society in building social conscience for democratic participation, we must first clarify what we mean when we say “civil society,” “church,” “social conscience” and “democratic participation.”

In Tanzania we often view civil society as synonymous with non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Even the World Bank and IMF always insist that they consult the government, civil society and religious communities. However, civil society is broader than NGOs. It is the nation. Religious communities are a part of the nation and its people. The state is the institutionalisation of the nation’s governance. These institutions are the fruit of a society’s philosophical and religious views and ethics. They reflect the nation’s cultural values; general level of education and formation; and use of resources. Therefore, civil society, religious communities and the state are not different groups; they are the same society under its various aspects and aims.

Religious communities represent segments of civil society with specific religious views and convictions, as well as specific structures and styles of worship. The individual behavior of a faith community’s members reflects on the community as a whole. The collective community must take responsibility for the role it plays in society, whether positive or negative. It cannot avoid or deny that responsibility. We often refer to the church as the total of the baptised Christians. In the case of this presentation, I use church to refer in particular to the total of the baptised Catholics and catechumens.

The social conscience of a people is determined by its basic vision for society and the ethical values it chooses to live by and preserve. Such a vision is not an ideology, but the expression of actual priorities. The conscience guides people’s behaviour and influences their actions, reflecting their desires for themselves and for society as a whole. Like all consciences, a social conscience can be healthy and morally upright or erroneous and unenlightened, among other characteristics.

Rather than simply a narrow concept relating to the organisation of governance, democratic participation encompasses the life of society in its public and social dimension. Democratic participation implies that every human being is a social person and takes his or her place in that society. As social beings, humans are naturally inclined to participate in society and its organisation. But there are many degrees and ways of participation, as well as processes of institutionalising participation. In this regard, every society has a certain method from which each member’s views are given weight and importance. Before judging particular forms of participation as democratic, we must have a proper foundation in the social climate and the basic cultural values of a given society. We cannot define “true” forms and fruits of democratic participation, expecting these to be grafted onto a particular society without allowing that society the time to work out its own forms related to its social and cultural values.

While this discussion of terms is rather philosophical, it has many concrete applications for Africa today. For example, we have many cases of abuses of power and money in Africa because we do not have in place the culture and the institutions to control such abuses. This is true for the whole of society, be it at family, community, religious or political level. To define or adopt a principle is not enough; we are also responsible for implementing it in society.

What should the church do to build a social conscience for democratic participation? What should civil society do? Let us touch on five main areas:

- Ethical formation of society

- Leadership

- Policy-making

- Weaknesses in implementation of policies and administration

- Control structures and supervisory function of state institutions

Ethical Formation of Society

People tend to agree that the education of the private conscience is the responsibility of the family and the religious community, especially church leaders and teachers. But what about the education of the social conscience?

Pluralistic societies have the additional challenge of agreeing upon methodologies for ethical formation at educational institutions; ethical codes for professional conduct; and acceptable ways to address infringements to ethical behaviour (by court, by sanctions, by punishments like degradation).

The role of the church in society:

- Religious leaders should use their religious teaching opportunities to educate their followers on their social consciences. The pulpits should become places to underline social duties, social sins and social remedies.

- Professional Christians should come forward to take public stands in their professional areas and demand public adherence to ethical professional conduct. Silence is support for wrong professional behaviour.

- Teachers at schools and educational establishments must participate in building public moral behaviour and speak against wrong behaviour.

- Ethical formation is not a subject of instruction, but an attitude taught by good example, especially by the adult population. Hence, the church community should encourage public discernment and public examination of conscience and provide opportunities for such evaluation within its own ranks.

- Professionals should participate actively in writing ethical formation curricula for schools and law-enforcement institutions as well as evaluation criteria in public conduct.


In Tanzania, leadership is often defined as “having power over decisions, rules and procedures, finances or appointments.” While seeking advice is part of the role of a leader, subjecting oneself to the vote of others in decision-making is not always a natural inclination. Those in leadership positions frequently take advantage of their position for their own benefit or that of their families. Leaders often lack accountability. Election processes lack transparency with behind-the-scenes maneuvering through influence and money. Good leadership is difficult to find not only in the political arena, but in other social arenas like companies, institutions, academia, the church and other religious communities.

The role of the church in society:

- Church leaders should teach and practice the Christian message on leadership: to guide through moral public behaviour, to encourage others to fulfill their responsibilities, to serve the community, to give a good example of leadership.

- Christians should accept leadership roles in society as a commitment to the common good and an expression of the Christian commandment of love of neighbour.

- Christian communities should exemplify sharing and caring for one another. They should re-enkindle the spirit of volunteering and combat the growing materialism and unearned profit-seeking in the form of privileges.

- Christian leaders can only have moral authority in society if they lead by example and show in their lives the spirit of dedication and humility.

- Professionals should mobilise the population to demand the proper conduct from their leaders and to critique and evaluate public acts of leaders.


In any society, the available resources are rarely enough to fulfill all the demands of the population. Choices have to be made.

The values and the vision of a society require that it sets priorities and makes choices. The crucial questions here are: Who makes the choices? and How does a society agree on the choices?

Policy-making is not the property or prerogative of government or of leaders. Society as a whole must be given the chance not only to participate in but also to control the process of policy making. We hear about NGOs and civil society participating in advocacy and lobbying. This is an important task, but it is not enough and it does not provide the proper institutions for people to take part in policy-making. Local government reform is the beginning to providing better ways.

We observe that people themselves are reluctant and passive in the process of participation. They must be motivated to participate in decisions that affect their lives. We must find ways to involve people in deciding local priorities and uses of tax resources.

While church communities are close to the people, they are not as close to local government and its policy-making. Often local lay leaders do not see participation in local governance and policy-making as their responsibility. Local parish leaders also do not see the importance of rendering service in fields of social welfare and local government.

The role of the church in society:

- Professionals should commit to live their Christian vocation in a spirit of service to others. They can do this by studying the policies made by government, investigating the ways policies affect their local communities and helping people to understand the repercussions of policies.

- Mass media professionals who are Christians should gather and publicise people’s views, taking up this work as part of their Christian calling.

- Church leaders should set an example by encouraging participatory decision-making in the church community, especially when setting priorities and allocating resources.

Weakness in implementation of policies and administration

We have many good plans, policies and regulations on paper. Our problems are often at the level of implementation and execution. We need to examine our behaviour, learn to measure our efficiency and ask ourselves how disciplined we are in fulfilling our daily duties.

The role of the church in society:

- We must learn to be honest and stop blaming others while excusing ourselves. Only when we see the truth of our behaviour can we find and apply the remedies.

- We must practice a social examination of conscience. Critical analysis and evaluation is often seen as un-African because it lacks polite behaviour towards those in authority. But often this culture of silence is the opposite of respect for authority. To be respectful is to speak the truth openly and with humility, to share ideas and to highlight other ways of doing things. These actions will positively contribute to the quality of leadership.

- Church leaders should set an example by being open and transparent in their decision-making.

- Christians who work in administration offices or social services must see their daily work as the political expression of their Christian faith and love for God and for neighbour. To practice faith in daily life is essential to being a good Christian.

- Christians who see others suffer from administrative neglect and lack of service must be courageous and defend the rights of others. Apathy in these matters is a serious sin of omission or sin of neglect.

Control structures and supervisory function of state institutions

Political abuse of power often results when the structures of control and supervision (e.g., legal system, state institutions at various levels) lack real power, do not exist or are rejected by various pillars of power who refuse to share power.

The staggering examples of power abuses in modern Africa suggest a deeper root cause than simply a personal lack of morality in leaders. We must examine our culture and our understanding of authority so that we can understand the root causes for such abusive behaviour. We must look at our national temperament and our appreciation of organisation in the hopes of encouraging deeper values in new generations.

Unless we can create a culture of transparency and accountability of those in authority for the benefit of all of society, we will fail. Simply establishing control systems will not work; they must be supported by a culture of moral courage which demands human rights for all.

The role of the church in society:

· Religious communities, motivated and strengthened by their moral and spiritual views, must speak of God’s values, denouncing fearlessly lust and greed for power both within state institutions and within individuals in positions of authority.

- Religious communities must give testimony through their conduct. They must dare to say publicly what they stand for. The abuse of power in government and state institutions correlates with a lack of courage in people of faith to practice their convictions. Corruption is possible because many are involved and few are prepared to block it.

- Church leaders should show more moral authority and be independent of those who hold public office. Church leaders are too keen to befriend the powerful, believing that such informal contacts will benefit the people. This is mostly an illusion and only increases attitudes of compromise and silence on national and political problems.

- People of good will working in state institutions must learn to join together to oppose abusive tendencies.

- We need to agitate for effective control systems, actively monitoring them through official channels and through the public media. Legal and political tricks render ineffective many control systems which exist on paper. Very often, laws are used against the very spirit of these laws and we allow people to use them without resisting them. Often people are paralysed when they face such abusive usage of rules and regulations. People in power should not be allowed to use the means of power against their own people who entrust them with these means to govern for their benefit. Church communities should be the defenders of the right and moral spirit of governance.


The church community often fails to play its role in monitoring and encouraging just state institutions and practices. Our religious leaders often lack moral leadership and spiritual quality. Our professional people employed by institutions lack moral courage. Citizens lack the will to use the available control systems to exercise a proper supervisory role. That is why we have the saying, “you deserve the leaders you have.”

We need, first and foremost, a moral and spiritual attitude and conviction. Then we must build upon that the control structures. The latter will not work without moral and spiritual conviction. Religious communities should be experts and guarantors of the nation’s behaviour, customs and culture.

We, as a religious community, are in need of a serious examination of conscience. This is the most important contribution we can make to conscientising the nation for democratic participation. If we have a good and effective conscience, the nation will have a good conscience – because we are the nation.